Sometimes approaching God in prayer can feel like confronting a stern parent, or walking up to that potential prom date you’ve been nerving yourself to ask out, or talking to that kind teacher who likes you but doesn’t know you too well (and if she did, well, maybe she wouldn’t like you so much). All of these situations have the same result—we clamp a mask on our face and assume a false, usually one-dimensional personality that we hope will please the other person. We plead for forgiveness, we try to dazzle with our knowledge or maturity, we nod and smile.
When we deal with people, this act may work. We may get the leniency or the yes or the approval that we want, but always with a bitter, burning feeling of artificiality. But our false personas won’t work when we are praying to God. He knows and understands us at a level that even we cannot reach (Ps. 139:1-4 NKJV). It frustrates the work of God’s Spirit within us when we are false with him, and removes the condition under which actual growth occurs—a state of total openness in which we shed our pretensions and come to see the world (and ourselves) as he does.
Martin Luther, in his brilliant work “A Simple Way to Pray,” said that we must make prayer our “first business of the day.” Morning is an excellent time to be open with God. The day’s demanding work has yet to put its roots into our thoughts and drive our minds toward plain and unspiritual things, important as they may be. We are also fresh from sleep (those of you with little kids in the house should forgive me saying this), and we need the godly fortitude, not just the physical strength, to thrive in the new day.
The Book of Psalms instructs us on prayer in the best way—by example. David’s lyrics do include praise, but the Psalms are also laced with despair, anger, mourning, and complaint. In other words, they are honest. The writer hides nothing, and prays everything. He asks God why evil people are prosperous (Psalm 73) and why the wicked seem to be favored unjustly (Psalm 82). He accuses God of being distant from him (10:1). He begs for mercy (38:1). These are not the writings of a believer who dresses his feelings in a pretty packaging before giving them to God. They are hard, sometimes joyful, sometimes distraught, songs about wrestling with God’s will. Notice, however, that the Psalms are not mere outpourings. All of them, even the ones composed on days of dread, ask God to reveal himself. Praying men and women must be more than honest, must seek what God wants them to know or do even amidst grief and crippling emotions. Psalm 73 reads like a realization at its midpoint: “…I went into the sanctuary of God; Then I understood [the wicked’s] end. Surely you set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction” (v. 17-18).
Prayer must not be an exercise in self-therapy. The confidence that God is personal, that we can know him, must be the core motivation of our prayers. Even if we pray about ourselves or for others, we must redirect our focus to God, to his perfect knowledge, to his love, to his desire to give us everything good in his eyes and still have us want him the most. If we pray before the concerns of the day hit us, pray without any concealment of our thoughts or emotions, pray to God and not to ourselves, then we will find him overwhelming and refreshing us with a sense of his purpose at work in our everyday lives.
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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