Prayer is another one of those Christian things that didn't mean a lot to me for the longest time. Weren't you just talking? To...no one? To....yourself? Prayer never really sounded like anything but words.
Every time I tried, I'd start to think to myself, If I was going to say something to God...you know, if He was actually here and He could actually hear me and I actually talked in all this formal English....then it might sound something like this because these sound like good words. And I spent all my prayer time (I say that with a bit of a laugh because when you don't "get" prayer, you don't really have prayer time) trying to figure out what kind of words God uses. I spent my time trying to figure out how prayer is supposed to sound. I spent my time disconnected from my heart so my head could take over, and I wonder today how many words I wasted, not even knowing what they meant myself. (This is one of the reasons, by the way, that I wrote Unfolded Hands.)
Anyway, I spent most of my young Christian years feeling like the prayer was a shift of method or target in the prayer service and nothing more. We went from singing about God and talking about God to talking sort of to God. It changed our language. It changed our posture. Everything was different about us as people when we started talking like God was supposed to hear. When we started being intentional about addressing Him.
I could never pull it off.
And then life happens. I mean, it happens to all of us. And you come to a place where you have a desperate need to pray. Not this contrived, contorted nonsense that you've come to associate prayer with in your head, but real words. From a real heart. To what you can only at this point hope is a real God. Life happens and you fall to your knees because you can't get up any more, and you cry out. You start talking to yourself, out loud, and slowly but surely you come to the place where you realize you aren't talking to yourself any more; you're talking to God. You're not using all this lofty language and you sort of wonder if you've offended Him but then you realize that you're offended. By your life. And you don't care any more what feels proper because nothing feels proper and you haven't got the time or the energy to make it that way.
Then the weirdest thing happens...God answers.
It doesn't much matter what He says at this point or what He does or what He gives you or what He withholds or how He comes. The point is that He comes. He bursts through the wall of wondering about prayer and shows up in some way, shape, or form. He responds to you. He comes to your voice. He touches your heart. He infiltrates your head. He's there. He's heard you and He's there and He's answering. And He's real.
It's here that you start to learn how to pray. Because all of a sudden, prayer does matter. It's not nothing any more; it's something. It's something very meaningful, even if you can't put your finger on it. Some days, it still feels silly. Some days, it's hard because you still pull back toward the formal when what you really want is the friendship. Some days, it's hard because you still don't know what to say but your heart cries out anyway and you can't help it.
Something else interesting happens in all of this, but you have to be paying attention to really notice it. It's easy, you say, to come to prayer when you need it. To learn to pray when times are hard and you're at the end of your rope and all that awaits you is darkness. It feels kind of cheap, I know, but we're humans. We're fallen humans. This is when most of us learn to pray.
But when we learn to pray in the hard times and when we recognize the presence of God showing up in our darkness, it's easier to see Him in the light. All of a sudden, you're not just praying because you need Him; you're praying also because you love Him. You're rejoicing with Him in your good days, thanking Him for His gifts. It's just natural. He's...your best friend. I know we say things like that as Christians and for a lot of people, it's hard to believe such a thing. But for those who have learned to pray...as a necessity...it's true. When you put your heart on the line and God shows up, in whatever big or small way, it's impossible not to give Him all of it. Not to give Him your whole heart.
Yesterday, I said that the Cross never meant anything to me...until I encountered Jesus there and realized He knew my deepest heart and that He understood and that He faced the same in Himself. Today's lesson is not much different. Prayer never meant anything to me either...until I encountered God there and realized He knows my deepest heart and that He cares and that He comes.
Why does any of this matter? Why bother to put such a thing out there? Because there are a lot of Christians among us for whom God is not real enough. They haven't encountered the Cross, so it doesn't mean much to them. They haven't encountered the Presence, so it's hard to pray. And I want to say that that's okay. It's hard to grasp some of these things until you have to go there. (Or if you're really holy, you choose to go there, but that's not the truth for most of us.)
I didn't love God any less when I didn't know the Cross. I didn't love Him any less when I didn't know how to pray. I don't think that not having the Cross or meaningful prayer in my life made me any less of a Christian. Because my heart was still in it. It was just that my heart didn't know everything it thought it knew, or everything it needed to know. Encountering the Cross, engaging in prayer...these things don't change how much I love God.
They only change how I love Him. More deeply. More fully. More raw-ly. More honestly. I say I don't think the absence of these things made me love God any less, but the presence of them makes me love more of Him. Do you see the difference?
So I offer these reflections as an encouragement to Christians who maybe aren't there yet, who are wondering if they love God enough when the Cross doesn't mean anything and prayer is so hard. To you, I say this: if you love God with all your heart, then you love Him enough. It doesn't matter whether that heart knows, today, a lot or a little.
But it is my prayer that one day, it knows more. That you come face-to-face with the Savior as He faces your biggest fears, your hardest questions. That you cry out and hear the Father answer. That you come to know more of Him. Not so that you grow in how much you love Him, but so that you grow in how you love Him at all.
Not so that you love Him more, but so that you love more of Him. Every day.