Hey, Craig, do you believe God still does miracles?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Good — because your prayers are so lame.”
I tried to laugh with him, but my friend’s joke stung — mostly because he was right. We had just left a prayer service together, back when I started working in ministry. My buddy knew me well enough to tease me, but I suspect he was also making a point. Left speechless, I offered no defense as I processed the truth of his observation. I couldn’t deny that he voiced a secret I already knew but didn’t want to admit: my prayers were pathetic.
As a young pastor at the time, I should have had a handle on prayer. It’s one of those job responsibilities, like preaching and greeting people after the service, I should’ve mastered. But praying long, focused, eloquent, and powerful prayers to the God-I-couldn’t-see had always been challenging for me. I wasn’t comfortable praying in a King James dialect of thees and thous — like trying to perform Shakespeare. But I wasn’t satisfied just rambling in a shoot-the-breeze, best-buddy tone with the Creator and Sustainer of the universe either.
And even when I did pray, I had a difficult time focusing for long. Which meant I’d try even harder the next time. But no matter how hard I’d try, I always seemed to fall back into the same old prayer rut. I’d pray about the same things. In the same ways. Usually around the same time.
Looking back, I wonder if sometimes God got bored with my prayers. When I’d pray, “Lord, show us traveling mercies and keep us safe,” I could imagine Him saying, “What are you worried about? Just drive the speed limit and wear your seatbelt. You’ll be fine.” Or when I prayed, “God, bless our food,” I just knew He was probably thinking, “Really? You want me to bless boxed macaroni and cheese and some potato chips?”
As I studied the Bible more, I marveled at the variety of prayers spoken by God’s people. Not only did they pray about things that were incredibly personal — to conceive a child, for instance (1 Samuel 1:27) — but also their prayers were often so practical, for food and provision (Matthew 6:11) and escape from their enemies (Psalms 59:1-2). Sometimes they seemed to gently whisper to a loving God. Other times they yelled at Him in agony and frustration.
They often pleaded with God sincerely. Then later they’d cry out from the depths of their anguish and rail at God like a tired toddler thrashing in the arms of a parent. They prayed for boldness to share their faith. They prayed for walls, both internally and externally, to fall. Daniel prayed for the mouths of hungry lions to be shut, and Jonah prayed for the belly of a hungry whale to be opened. Gideon prayed for his fleece to be wet one day and dry another. God’s people prayed whether they were giddy with joy or crushed by sorrow.
Their prayers were honest. Desperate. Fiery. Gutsy. Real.
And there I was praying that God would keep me safe and bless my burger and fries.
My friend was right.
My prayers were lame.
Maybe you can relate. It’s not that you don’t believe in prayer. You do. But you’re stuck in a rut. You pray about the same struggles and the same requests. In the same way. At the same time. If you even try to pray at all. Like me, you probably know you should pray more. And with more passion. More faith. You want to talk to God and to listen to Him, to share an intimate conversation like you would with your spouse or best friend. You really want to but aren’t sure how. So your prayers remain safe.
Flat. Dull. Predictable. Stale.
My friend’s wake-up call convinced me that it was time for a change in my prayer life. For too long, I had tolerated lackluster, faithless, and mostly empty prayers. I knew God wanted more for me, and I wanted to know Him more intimately, despite my hesitation about what it would require of me.
To get there, I began by unpacking some of my spiritual baggage. For years, I’d felt deep shame about my half-hearted prayer life — me, a pastor. If you’ve ever felt insecure about your prayer life, think about what it’s like to be a pastor. I’m supposed be a prayer warrior — full of fierce, unrelenting faith and unbridled, Spirit-led power. And yet I found myself drifting while trying to pray.
In the middle of a prayer, whether praying silently or aloud, my mind would bounce from one thing to the next. Dear God in heaven, I pray that you heal my friend who has cancer. Work in her life now in the name of … I really need to go to the hospital to see her again. Oh wait, I haven’t changed the oil in the car. And we’re out of cereal. The kids are gonna kill me. And Amy has a doctor’s appointment today — did we pay that last insurance bill? I can’t believe how much it’s going up this year! Oh, yeah, this week’s sermon — still need to find a strong illustration … Oh, I’m sorry, Lord, what were we talking about?
To make matters even worse, I always dreaded prayer meetings. (Talk about feeling guilty.) They seem to last forever with people who not only know how to pray but also love to pray. Not to mention that whenever you have to hold hands with others in a prayer time, it seems to get weird really quick. On one side is always the Vise. The louder she prays, the harder she squeezes. “God, we bind up the work of the devil, IN JESUS’ NAME!” Squeeze. Squeeze. Squeeze. Your knuckles turn white as you lose feeling up to your elbow. But then on the other side, you often have the Fish, a cold, pulseless hand barely grasping yours. The Vise cuts off your circulation while the Fish makes you eager to shrug off that clammy appendage passing as a hand.
And there’s always the Power Pray-er, the person who loves to pray loud and proud. You know, the one who quotes tons of Bible verses and makes you feel even more inadequate. “God, you said in your Word in Deuteronomy 28 that we would be the head and not the tail. We know from John 3:16, Lord, that you so loved the world.” With so many numbers thrown around, by the end you feel like you’ve been listening to a lecture on accounting.
Then there’s always the Competitor. When I was a new Christian in college, I frequently experienced this kind of prayer one-upmanship with my roommate. He’d pray loud and long, sounding so sure of himself, and display his vast knowledge of God and the Bible. Feeling pressure not to be outdone, I’d up my game but usually found myself taking it too far. Since I didn’t know much about the Bible then, I’d just roll out things that sounded powerful and Bible-like. “God, you said in your Word that you are not only Jehovah Jireh but that you are also Jehovah, um, let’s see, um, Jehovah Ni … um, Nissan. Yes — you are Jehovah NISSAN! And, Lord, you are good. You are good to, um, to the … God, you are good to the last drop. And your Word is so sweet, like honey on our lips, and it tastes so good … it, um, it melts … in our mouths … and not in our hands. Oh, God, like a good neighbor … you’re always there!”
These weren’t my only prayer problems. Too often, praying just didn’t make any sense. It seemed like God would often respond quickly to my meaningless requests, like the time I
almost jokingly asked God to heal our broken air-conditioning unit, and He did. Then I’d fast for days and pray my guts out for months that God would heal a friend from a disease, and He didn’t. Sometimes I believed in the power of prayer, and other times I wondered whether it was all a big waste of time.
Since those early years, I’ve learned quite a bit about prayer. For one thing, God hates showy prayers, so there’s no pressure, no right way other than being open and honest with Him. Jesus repeatedly railed against the Pharisees for praying long, loud, and fancy prayers that lacked authenticity. Christ taught us, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5).
Instead of long, loud, and fancy, the prayers that move God are simple, authentic, and heartfelt. But simple is not the same as safe. And that’s the reason I’m compelled to write this book. The biggest mistake I made in my prayer life, the reason my prayers were so lame, is because I prayed too safely. I was in a comfort zone with God, built on lame, half-hearted communication. I wasn’t on fire and I wasn’t cold. My prayers were tepid. But safe, lukewarm prayers don’t draw us closer to God or help us reveal His love to this world.
Prayers are inherently dangerous.
This idea about prayer dawned on me while reading about Jesus talking to his Father in the garden of Gethsemane, just a short time before He gave His life on the cross. Knowing what was ahead, Jesus asked God if there was any other way. Then Jesus, not just a regular disciple or a person in the Bible, but J-E-S-U-S, the Son of God, prayed a vulnerable and dangerous prayer of submission: “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Luke 22:42 NLT).
Jesus never asks us to do something He wouldn’t do Himself. He calls us to a life of faith, not a life of comfort. Instead of coming to Him for a safer, easier, stress-free lifestyle, the Son of God challenges us to risk loving others more than ourselves. Instead of indulging our daily desires, He calls us to deny them for something eternal. Instead of living by what we want, He tells us to pick up our crosses daily and follow His example. In this book, we’ll dig more deeply into these ideas through three powerful prayers drawn from Scripture. These three prayers may be short. They may be simple. They may be straightforward. But they are not safe.
In the next three sections of this book, we’ll attempt to stretch our faith, expand our hearts, and open our lives to God praying these three dangerous prayers:
When we’re seeking to communicate with God in real, vulnerable, and intimate prayer, He’s not wrapping us in a bubble of spiritual safety. Instead He bursts our what’s-in-it-for-me bubble and invites us to trust Him when we don’t know what He will do next. Some days we feel blessed. Other days we face challenges, opposition, and persecution. But every moment of dangerous prayer will be filled with His presence.
Excerpted with permission from Dangerous Prayers: Because Following Jesus Was Never Meant to Be Safe by Craig Groeschel, copyright Craig Groeschel.
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Do your prayers feel safe, routine, or shallow? What would it mean for you to be vulnerable and dangerous in your prayer life? We’d love to hear from you!