Excerpted from "Call Him, He's Home: A Regular Person's Guide to Prayer" by Jim Donaher, 2021.
Despite the ease, simplicity, versatility, and power of prayer, many people don’t do it. Some reasons people struggle with, delay, or even refuse to pray include:
“Prayer Is a Waste of Time”
When someone says prayer is a waste of time, it signals two things:
First, it says they don’t know how to pray, nor do they realize how little time it can take. They may be constrained by some rules they were taught or some doctrine that obstructed their access to the God who created them.
And second, anyone who thinks prayer is a waste of time has never experienced the
benefits of prayer. Nor have they been convinced by anyone else’s description of these benefits.
You have heard believers claim they can hear His voice, or He’s speaking directly to them, and He understands their worries, and He’s going to help! They get a dreamy look in their eyes and stare off to the horizon.
So, you try it. You sit, somewhat awkwardly, or maybe you kneel, putting your hands together and looking tentatively upward. You feel a little funny about it, and you try to figure out something to say, but words won’t come. You feel like you’re by yourself. Finally, feeling foolish, you give up and go on about the rest of your day, unchanged, except you’re a little less likely to try praying again.
You might think people who talk about the comfort and happiness prayer brings are crazy. Or maybe you think they are making up stories on purpose to draw in the gullible. Or maybe they are lucid and mean well, but they are trying too hard and turning you off.
Anything you learn may feel awkward at first, but if you care enough, you try again and again until you get into a groove.
When you are passionate about something, you learn about it, think about it, plan events around it, read books about it, and seek out others with a similar passion. This includes those who know more than you do, even true acknowledged experts. To become skilled, you practice.
I have a passion for barbecue. I am not great at it, but I like to eat it, and I like to try to make good pulled pork, brisket, and spareribs for my family and friends. I’m not an expert, but because of my passion, I have learned a lot. As a result, I’m more knowledgeable about barbecue than the average person.
I have vegan friends who gag at the idea of a barbecue. I also know people who have traveled the country and the world to sample the best barbecue in all kinds of places. They have spent money on equipment, travel, books, restaurant meals, classes, competitions, and more because they love it. They have a passion that grows, the more they learn and experience.
In a similar fashion, the more you learn about God, the more you love Him. And the more you love Him, the more you want to learn, including learning more about prayer.
Maybe you start out joining a prayer meeting at church, or you watch one on television. You pick up an idea here and there, and you try them. Some work for you, some don’t, but over time you accumulate a body of knowledge so that if someone asks you about some aspect of prayer, you’re likely to have a solid answer. At that point, you no longer a novice. You are helping someone else grow their prayer life.
And the more you learn about prayer and experience its benefits, the more passionate about it you will become.
How We Learn to Pray
For most people, if they have ever learned to pray, it was as a child, maybe as a very young child. My wife and I taught our kids the Lord’s Prayer shortly after they started talking. They memorized it and can say it to this day.
I learned it and the Hail Mary when I was about the same age, around four years old. In religious education, to the extent we learned anything about how to pray, it was still memorization, this time the 23rd Psalm. That was junior high school!
More important than the low level of prayer training we received is the fact we had no idea what we were praying about. Our kids were the same way. We explained some things to them, but they still didn’t really understand. This was, in large part, because we didn’t really understand either. We thought we did, though, and we did the best we could.
It’s cute when you see a small child reciting those prayers. It wasn’t nearly as cute when pubescent eighth and ninth graders were doing, essentially, the same thing.
Unless you specifically sought out further information on prayer, or you found a really talented coach, you may still do the same thing before you go to sleep. You:
Say the Lord’s Prayer (if you only say one prayer, saying the prayer Jesus taught His disciples is the best possible one you could choose.)
If you’re Catholic, you say the “Hail Mary.” Probably.
Then, maybe say the “23rd Psalm.” But probably not.
Finally, finish with your “God Bless” list. God bless Mom and Dad, brothers and sisters, the dogs and/or cats, grandparents, maybe other family or friends. And off to sleep.
Why do we stop growing?
When kids go to school, they start in kindergarten. There, they learn things that five-year-olds need to learn, mostly about paying attention, following directions, and getting ready for increasingly serious education. Then they move to first grade, second grade, third grade, and so on.
At each level of education, more knowledge and expectation are layered onto the foundation built in earlier years. Those fundamentals—reading, writing, arithmetic, as well as things like being quiet when you’re supposed to—are assumed and expected as you advance and grow.
For many of us, our prayer education stopped before we started school. We don’t realize how God is someone you can depend on, who loves and cares so much for us, and who makes a very real difference in our day-to-day lives.
Embarrassed or ashamed by having 'dropped out' of prayer school before we lost our first tooth, we excuse and justify our lack of a prayer life or practice. Some excuses include:
“I Feel Self-conscious”
As with anything new, when we do it, we are aware of being beginners. We are not thinking about God; we are thinking about ourselves. And other people.
Self-consciousness, or the fear of looking silly, is a real concern for people. They fear judgment by others, but they also fear judgment from themselves. As prayer is a solitary act, it is more likely you will reproach yourself than be judged by another person.
That you could be silly for praying is a lie the great deceiver—also known as the accuser, the enemy, the father of lies, Satan or the devil—whispers in your ear.
To defeat this, remember you are a child of God, following the direction of your Savior, Jesus Christ. Let this be your confidence and your strength. Focus on the Lord. The enemy’s lies are no match for Him.
“I Have Doubts”
Those who are not fully comfortable with their faith doubt that something like prayer, which has the power that transcends what is visible, could be helpful to them.
It’s interesting to note that when you accept Jesus, Jesus has already accepted you. He doesn’t exclude or delay you because of your past. And He isn’t worried that you have doubts. He can work with them.
So, bring your doubts and questions. Bring your past experiences, your hurts, your disappointments, and your sins, no matter what they are. God knows all about them, and He will forgive you when you repent. For everything. (Yes, even that.)
Doubts may start or be encouraged by a lie from the devil, but they may also come at the early stage of your faith journey. Knowledge, together with faith, has the power to drive away doubts and misgivings.
Give yourself a chance to keep growing, keep learning, and find the information you need to feel comfortable. In the meantime, talk to the Lord and get to know what He’s like. The more you know, the less you will doubt Him, and you will love Him more.
“I’m Not Worthy”
This suggests God is too great to care about little, insignificant me. It says He has no interest in what I am doing, what my future might be, or what struggles I am having.
You may think you’re not important to God. But He went to the trouble of making you. He sacrificed His only Son to save you. He is fully engaged in you and has been since the beginning of time.
You may think what you do in your life is of no interest to Him. You may think praying to Him is annoying, trivial, or pestering to Him. These feelings are unpleasant and feel like good reasons to just leave Him be.
You cannot “leave God be.” He is always involved, on all levels, in your life and the lives and circumstances surrounding you. You choose whether to engage with Him, but He is there, nonetheless.
He wants to help you. Why not let Him?
“I’m A Sinner”
Perhaps you are struggling with some sin of which you are ashamed. Given this shame, you think, “Why would I humiliate myself by talking to God, since He despises sin?”
Yes, you are a sinner. You sin. You do it all the time. You do it so naturally that you may not even think of it as sin.
How can you talk to God when you do something He despises?
Well, God made you. He can distinguish between you—whom He created and loves with an incomprehensible power—and your sins, which He despises but is willing to forgive you for because He loves you so much.
Talking to God is most vitally important if you are a sinner. And since there are no perfect people, and we are all sinners, we should all be talking to God.
Don’t worry; you will never surprise Him. He knows everything. But He wants to hear from you. He wants you to learn and grow. Part of that growth is learning to own your mistakes and sins.
“I Feel Selfish”
Maybe you are asking God for something that doesn’t feel noble enough, the way praying for world peace or an end to famine and hunger across the globe might feel.
Maybe all you want is for the sun to come out tomorrow, so you can hold your cookout outdoors. Maybe you are asking for some material item you really want.
God cares about everything that affects you. He will answer your prayer—no matter how big or small—in His perfect timing. Make your request with confidence, trust, expectation, and thankfulness. He will not think you are selfish. He will know you have faith.
“I Don’t Know What to Say”
You have heard all the old language words used in some Bible versions. “You” becomes “Thee” or “Thou” and so forth, and all the other words you don’t understand. How can you talk to God in a language you don’t understand?
This trips some people. They think there is some special ‘lingo’ they must use, or God won’t listen to them. They think of God as an algorithm searching for keywords—leave them out, and you won’t get what you need.
That’s ridiculous, and it’s limiting to God, who is unlimited in every way. God understands any language, thought, notion, idea, or dialect sent through any medium there is and can respond back to you in a way you will understand.
Further, He knows what is in your heart, your mind, and your true intentions. This is what we mean when we say, “He knows me better than I know myself.”
Another reassurance is you cannot pray “wrong.” When your heart is right, and your mind is on God, you don’t even need to use words. Even if other people wouldn’t understand, God understands. He knows your heart and mind better than even you do.
“I Don’t Know God”
As you start in faith, God may seem like a stranger to you. Or worse, He might be a caricature of an impression, an assumption, a guess, a rumor, and bearing no resemblance to the true, living, Almighty God of the Bible.
As with talking to any new person, you wonder about the ground rules. Can I get mad? Can I cry? Can I laugh? Is He mean? Will He laugh? Will He punish me for being a sinner? Will He yell at me or embarrass me if I don’t pray “right”? WILL HE TOSS ME AWAY?
While it is difficult to truly comprehend who God is and know Him, it’s still possible to have a relationship with Him that grows and deepens over time. You already know His power and glory are evident in the wonder, beauty, complexity, and longevity of the earth and stars.
But did you know He is your best friend? The one who “gets” you? Who knows where you’re coming from? Who cares about the tiniest detail of your life and wants to help you solve all your problems? He is all this and more. He knows you. He made you. He loves you. The more you realize this, the better you will know Him, and the better you know Him, the more you will love and trust Him.
“What If I’m Wrong? What If I Let God Down?”
What if you make a promise to God while praying and then cannot or don’t want to fulfill it?
Should you hold off praying when there are obvious solutions you don’t want to pursue in a situation? Maybe the hard way is the only way, and you don’t want to pray to God to do it because it is hard, and you know He will push you toward that hard path. Your worry that your risk will be high.
God wants you to do what is right. And He will direct your steps toward the right thing.
But He understands you and your intentions. He knows what you’re contemplating and has already decided whether it’s right or not. He knows what is right, and He will make it easier if possible. Even if it’s hard, He will be with you and lead you through it.
But it’s still your decision. Realize that God knows a bit more than you do. Realize He wants you to grow and trust Him. Realize also that He already knows how it turns out!
The long and the short of it is this: If you fail, God loves you still. If you succeed, God loves you still. If you disobey, God loves you still. If you follow God’s direction, God loves you still. No matter what happens, God loves you still.
“I Prefer to Take Care of Myself”
Modern culture, particularly in the United States, celebrates the independent spirit. We consider people who would “go it alone” to be heroes. People who trust only themselves are cool and self-assured. We aspire to be cool and self-assured too!
In real life, none of us is consistently successful when we go it alone. We need other people. Most importantly, we need God. We need to depend on Him for things we cannot control or influence ourselves.
If you don’t depend on other human beings—a rough way to go through life, but some do it—you still need to depend on God. Because even when you shut yourself off from everyone else and become a solitary figure, God is still there, working on you and with you.
“Overthinking: What-Ifs, Yeah-Buts, and But-I’s”
What if… I fall in love with someone whose beliefs are different from mine?
Yeah, but… that’s easy for you to say, you already have a job…
But I’ll… never have any friends…
When many of us overthink a situation, we predict a future that is equal parts embarrassing, depressing, unsatisfying, pointless, and sad. In so doing, we effectively convince ourselves that prayer, in whatever form, will hurt, on some level, and therefore, you avoid it.
The last thing we want is to give the reader fodder for overthinking. Instead, enough knowledge to keep moving forward and grow in faith and confidence is all we need.
That said, if you know all you need to know to start praying, close this book, and go talk to the Lord. No matter what, there is nothing more worthwhile than talking to Him.