The concept of prayer conjures up all kind of images in our minds. For some it's all fancy language, an assortment of "thees" and "thous" woven neatly into overly ornate language to create some sort of melody of splendor.
For others, it is all yawns and distraction -- a boring conclusion to a stilted, antiquated church service. For still others it's like visiting Santa Clause, a time when we climb into the Almighty's lap to seek His comforting touch and deluge Him with a long list of "give mes" not so different from the spoiled child at Christmastime.
C.S. Lewis argues that if this is how we approach prayer, we've missed the point. "Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it;" he wrote. "Confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine."
Even in the "asking for things" part of prayer, I think we often miss the point. The Bible in 1John 5:14 points out: "This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us." And while we may quote this verse like child's play, we so rarely take time to discover what God's will is in a particular situation. We pray according to our will. If someone is sick, we pray for physical healing of the ailment. If someone is mourning, we pray for restoration. If someone is in need, we pray for abundance. If someone wants something we pray that they get it. It has become our formula for modern prayer.
George Mueller, the famous builder of orphanages, had a different perspective on it. "I seek at the beginning to get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in regard to a given matter," he wrote. "Nine-tenths of the difficulties are overcome when our hearts are ready to do the Lord's will, whatever it may be. When one is truly in this state, it is usually but a little way to the knowledge of what His will is."
It was his place of letting go of all his preconceptions -- laying his own wisdom on the altar, so that he could explore and discover God's will. When was the last time any of us approached prayer with this first step?
But prayer must be honest, not for God's sake but for ours. After all, God already knows what's in our innermost parts. We only delude ourselves when we pray,"Your will be done" and all the while work to manipulate our own will in a situation.
"We must lay before him what is in us, not what ought to be in us," CS Lewis exhorts. And that which is in us is often quite ugly. But to honestly lay before God where we are in a situation opens the door to a deeper prayer -- one in which we invite God to change us and align our will with His. Whether it's anger or grief, frustration or elation; whether the emotions are Godly or sinful, we need to be honest with God and in doing so, we are actually being honest with ourselves as God already knows exactly where we were in relation to the circumstance at hand.
And so I come to this meditation on prayer with much in my life to pray about: an adoption that seems to be moving NOWHERE fast, one daughter who cannot seem to recover from a fever/cough, the other daughter with a "suspicious" black mole that will have to be surgically removed just before Christmas, a precious dear friend diagnosed with terminal cancer, and an injured back leaving me incapacitated for the time being. Meanwhile the Christmas season rolls forward.
Can I just lay it all on the altar and truly, as George Mueller put it, "get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in regard to" these matters? It is an exercise in personal discipline not just up and tell God exactly what to do in all these matters, but rather to truly seek Him and in doing so allow him to work Himself in me and all these concerns.
After all, there is a bigger point to prayer than our long list of "give mes."
Oswald Chambers put it well when he wrote: "We look upon prayer as a means of getting things for ourselves; The Bible idea of prayer is that we may get to know God Himself."