For most of my life, the idea of prayer was confusing to me.
If God truly knows all things, why do I need to pray to him?
Doesn’t he already know what I want?
If I need to pray to him to tell him things, doesn’t that mean he’s not all-knowing?
These questions, among others, haunted me growing up and into early adulthood. They scared me, honestly, because I was afraid of the answers. I also felt ashamed in some way, like I was failing in my faith by simply asking the questions.
Have you ever felt that way? Have you had similar questions? If so, I want to comfort you. Those questions aren’t wrong. They’re good and right. And God is big enough to handle them.
To that end, then, I want to share with you what I’ve learned as I’ve explored the idea of prayer. And it’s important as we talk this month about what it means to embrace spiritual adulting. As I do that, I want to be up front about something: Much of my understanding of prayer comes from, or was cemented by, one single book. I believe this book is essential reading for anyone who follows Jesus, wants to follow Jesus, or is simply curious about Jesus.
That book is called, “A Praying Life: Connecting With God in a Distracting World” by Paul E. Miller. I briefly talked about it last year when I detailed my 2023 summer reading list. I said it then and I’ll say it again: if you read one book this year, make it that one.
#1 Prayer Is a Mystery
As I’ve studied prayer, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: Even though I understand it better today, I will never have it fully figured out. That’s not defeatist or a cop-out, it’s just the truth. In our pride, we tend to think that every single thing is knowable, and we live in the age of scientific “proof” that tells us so. But that doesn’t leave much room for mystery, and it especially doesn’t leave much room for faith.
Here’s the truth: Spiritual things will always be somewhat mysterious. They can’t fully make sense in the natural world because they are not of the natural world. In the end, spiritual things require faith. Belief. They are full of mystery in a world and age that desires to explain everything away.
Prayer, in the end, will always be wrapped in mystery. How exactly does it work? Well, I don’t really know exactly. But I know it works. I know it exists. I know what it does to me and for me. And in the end, that’s part of my faith.
Prayer requires faith. It requires talking to someone you can’t physically see or touch. The natural world can’t fully grasp that. You can, though, if you have faith.
#2 Prayer Isn’t for God
One of the things I’ve learned is that praying doesn’t do anything for God. What I mean is that I can’t approach it with the idea that he needs my prayers. No, the truth is I need my prayers. See, prayer does something to me. Inside of me. It changes me.
When I pray – which is simply talking to God – my relationship with him transforms. Think about that: you can’t have a relationship with someone you don’t talk to. It’s not really a relationship. When you talk to someone, it solidifies the relationship. And when you talk to God, you solidify a relationship with the creator of the universe. And when you do that it changes you, it transforms you.
#3 Praying Isn’t Just About What We Want
That leads nicely to this: Praying isn’t just about asking for what I want. For what you want. Take the relationship idea again. If you had a friend, and all you ever did was ask them for something — for what you wanted — that wouldn’t really be a relationship, would it? If every time you saw your “best friend” all you did was ask him or her to give you something, that would be strange, right?
And yet for a long time, that’s how I treated prayer. “God, I want X, Y, or Z. Please give it to me.”
Are we to “make our requests known to God”? Of course. But that’s not all we should be doing. We should be asking him what he wants us to do. We should be asking him for guidance and direction. He’s not a vending machine. He’s not a genie. We need to stop treating him that way.
#4 Become Like a Child
Here’s some irony for you: In order to grow in our faith – in order to become a spiritual adult – we actually need to become like children. Seems strange, right? But it’s the truth!
Earlier I talked about accepting the mystery of faith, of prayer. You know who does that best? Children. Children accept things to be true without needing to understand every single angle or every single “why.” In fact, it’s only when they become older that they start asking “why?” a lot.
Children are also filled with awe and wonder. They instinctively recognize they don’t have it all figured out. They trust. They believe.
“Children are supremely confident of their parents’ love and power,” Miller writes in his book. “They believe their parents want to do them good. If you know your parent loves and protects you, it fills your world with possibility. You just chatter away with what is on your heart.”
When’s the last time you approached God like that? With that awe, wonder, and trust? If we are ever to grow to understand prayer, it actually starts with stripping away many of our “adult” understandings and returning to child-like faith.
Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus tells us we must become like children? I don’t think so.
In the end, I don’t pretend to be a theologian. But I know that by exploring, by understanding, and by practicing prayer in my life I have changed. And in the end, that’s what happens: Prayer changes us. It grows us. When we treat it the proper way, it transforms our hearts.
So I encourage you to explore it more this month as well. To practice it. Test it. For me, it was like finding a missing piece that gave me greater purpose and meaning. Why? Because it ultimately brought me closer to God. It brings me closer to God. And in that sense, we absolutely need it.