Even though I was a Bible major in college, it became clear that I did not have the slightest clue how to pray. But that wasn’t the main problem. My problem was that I wasn’t being honest about it. I pretended that prayer made sense to me, but it didn’t. Prayer was dry, boring, and, while I’m being really honest, it was something I avoided at all cost. Prayer at meals was fine. A quick prayer for others was great. But being with God in the deep realities of my life felt like wandering in a desert. But then I heard good news. “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit groans and prays for us always, with utterances too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). We don’t know how to pray. That is what God tells us about ourselves. But this is not something to despair, nor it is a reason not to pray. This is an invitation.
What I wasn’t able to see at the time, but what has become abundantly clear to me later in life, is that prayer is difficult because, in our flesh, we turn to common-sense solutions that we hope will “fix” prayer and make it better. Instead of being governed by the gospel, prayer becomes something we try to achieve on our own, which is why it is so tempting to try to find the right “technique” to make it “work.” Rather than leading us to Christ, our struggles in prayer tend to lead us to wrestle with ourselves and our inability to pray as we think we should. But as we have already noted from Romans 8:26, God knows that you don’t know how to pray as you ought. That is right where the good news about prayer begins.
When the gospel governs our understanding of prayer, we realize that prayer is something given by grace and not achieved through our goodness. We learn in Hebrews 4:14–16 that we have a great high priest in Jesus who understands our temptations — who has been tempted as we are but without sin — and who passed through the heavens. Our high priest has gone to the very right hand of God, “beyond the veil” as the “anchor of our soul” (Heb. 6:19). This is why we have confidence to “draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). Christ already prays for us. What makes prayer a distinctively Christian act is that in union with Christ we are called into the intercession of Christ, which is why we pray in his name and not our own. But we also have the Spirit of God who has descended into our soul and “groans with groanings too deep for words” to intercede for us (Rom. 8:26–27). When the gospel forms our praying, we come in Christ’s name, and we come as those who are already carried to the Father in the intercessions of the Son and the Spirit.
When we try to pray in our goodness we betray this reality, and our heart knows it. Our heart lets us know how bored it is by the cleaned-up fantasy we have come to project at God. In the words of Herbert McCabe, “People often complain of ‘distractions’ during prayer. Their mind goes wandering off to other things. This is nearly always due to praying for something you do not really much want; you just think it would be proper and respectable and ‘religious’ to want it” (Hebert McCabe, OP, God, Christ and Us). Most people I talk to about prayer assume that their mind-wandering is a sign of their failure to pray “well.” But McCabe touches on something much more profound, pointing us to where a deeper prayer life begins. Mind wandering should not be seen as a random act of an undisciplined intellect. Our minds wander because, in Jesus’s words, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).
If your mind wanders in prayer, it is because God’s presence is revealing the deep treasures of your heart, exposing the truth of what you really long for. When your mind wanders to finances, your job, or your need for a job, your spouse, or desire for a spouse, or any other worry you have — these are the “treasures” of your heart. These are the desires that float to the surface in God’s presence. The Lord knows the heart, and as we ask him to “search us,” our hearts reveal the deep desires we are to bring to him (Ps. 139:23–24). The gospel always unveils the deepest truths of our hearts so we can know God’s grace in those places. The same is true in gospel-shaped prayer.
So instead of seeing your mind’s wandering as a failure to pray as you ought, you should see this as an opportunity to pray about your deepest longings. Mind wandering is a gift; by it, the Lord shows us what we treasure. This is where your heart is, and this is what you need to bring to the Lord. It is here where prayer becomes real. Just as Jesus did consistently with the disciples, the Lord reveals the truth of our hearts and lifts that truth up before him. In prayer we are called to bring these truths to the Father, regardless of what they are, and to seek his mercy, grace, and forgiveness precisely where we need it. One of the great temptations in prayer is to pray the way you think a “good Christian” would pray, and then use this idealized vision of prayer to judge your mind wandering as faithless. Remember that Jesus and his Spirit have already ushered these longings into the presence of God. God see and knows. Pray in truth.
The Lies We Believe in Prayer
The lie we are tempted to believe and perpetuate in our prayers is that God is interested in only well-kept sorts of things rather than the truth. But in reality, God abides and loves us precisely in those sins and failures. It was in those sins that Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). God is not afraid of our sin and mess; we are. In our fear, we don’t talk about the deep pains and sins with God, and so our zeal for prayer slowly dies. Like the woman at the well who wanted to talk about social and religious customs while Jesus addressed her scandalous sex life (John 4:1–26), prayer is an invitation into truth because truth gets us to the real desires of our hearts. This is why Jesus tells us,
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:10–14)
The tax collector prayed in truth — opening his heart to the Lord and throwing himself on the mercy of God. This man used the deep worries and fears of his heart to come into God’s presence, whereas the Pharisee used his religious life to keep prayer tidy and detached from the messy truths of his heart. All of this raises questions about our own prayer lives. Are you praying about the real desires of your heart, or has prayer become a place to recite the “right” things to want? Where did you learn what you could and couldn’t pray about? Where did these notions come from?
The easiest lie to believe in prayer is that God doesn’t want the truth — or, maybe, that God can’t handle the truth — and that what God really wants from us is to affirm who he is and condemn our failures in his presence. In prayer, we often think that what God wants is a performance, so we pray the right way, using the right words, and showing the right amount of zeal. But what if that stems from bad expectations that lead us away from God rather than to him?
Why Our Expectations in Prayer Are Wrong
It is because we pray in the name of another that we have to attend to what our expectations reveal about our beliefs. Most of our expectations are unspoken, and so we don’t attend closely to them. But we know when they aren’t met. We leave prayer feeling frustrated and annoyed that it didn’t turn out like we wanted. Maybe we hoped that God would “show up” in a certain way, and we interpreted the silence as his absence. Maybe we genuinely believed we were excited to pray, only to wake up realizing we were sleeping more than praying. Maybe prayer has become a place to affirm the things we are convinced God wants, and are frustrated that he doesn’t seem to be doing anything about them.
In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul gives us a glimpse of his own wrestling with God in prayer. After walking the Corinthians through his struggles in ministry, he tells them about a “thorn” in his flesh, specifically a messenger of Satan who harasses him. After all of Paul’s struggles, he was now stuck dealing with this. What did Paul do? He prayed. He pleaded with the Lord to take this away from him three times, but the Lord refused (2 Cor. 12:8).
It appears that God refused to remove the thorn for two reasons. First, it was actually a gift for Paul to keep him from becoming conceited (2 Cor. 12:7). Second, as the risen and ascended Lord explained, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). What Paul asked to have taken away from him was actually a gift from God. God “gifted” Paul with struggles so he would abide and embrace humility. Paul needed this thorn, whatever it was, to help orient him to God and God’s power and away from himself and his own power. The Lord’s goal for Paul wasn’t to rid him of anything that bothered him. The Lord led Paul into the truth of his struggling because the goal was not merely to ease his burden, but to help him abide in humility.
What we must attend to, therefore, is how our prayers reveal our subconscious expectations, and how we need to submit to the Lord in the truth. Are your prayers given their shape by the gospel, or by what you assume God probably wants? How you pray reveals how you think God wants you to act, and, often, what it reveals is the same assumptions as the Pharisee in the temple. Rather, the gospel reveals that:
Prayer is not a place to be good, it is a place to be honest.
Prayer is not a place to perform, it is a place to be present.
Prayer is not a place to prove your worth,
it is a place to receive worth and offer yourself in truth.
The calling of prayer is to come to God in the truth — the truth of our sin, struggles, worries, and anxieties — so that we can know his grace and mercy right where we need it. This is where prayer becomes real, because only here do we bring the real treasures of our heart to God.
Adapted from When Prayer Becomes Real: How Honesty with God Transforms Your Soul by Kyle Strobel, Ph.D., (M.A. ’02, M.A. ’05, associate professor of spiritual theology at Talbot School of Theology) and John Coe, Ph.D., (M.A. ’83, professor of spiritual theology and director of the Institute of Spiritual Formation at Talbot School of Theology). Copyright 2021. Used with permission from Baker Publishing Group.