Introductory Note:

I could only conceive of prayer as an activity of talking and asking. I was all monologue and no dialogue. This type of relationship was really not a relationship at all and led me to abandon prayer altogether. I didn’t want to be the guy who only comes around when he needs something. It felt shallow—I felt shallow. This is why I am so grateful that Richard Foster threw open the doors of prayer. He shattered my infant-like notions and introduced me to the myriad ways we can pray.

After years of experimenting with listening prayer, praying scripture, and breath prayer, I’ve actually come back to intercessory prayer—talking and asking for things—and the shallow feeling is gone. It turns out that intercessory prayer, nested within a deeper life of prayer, is the most natural thing in the world, once you’ve developed a dialogue with God.

Enjoy this article from Richard Foster on the Five Misconceptions of Prayer. I hope he shatters some of your prayer stereotypes as thoroughly as he did mine.

Jonathan Bailey

We yearn for prayer and hide from prayer. We believe we should do it — we even want to do it — but some­thing stands between us and actu­al­ly pray­ing. What keeps us from enjoy­ing prayer as a love rela­tion­ship with God?

Mis­con­cep­tion #1: Prayer means talking. 

This is per­haps the most basic mis­con­cep­tion peo­ple have about prayer — that it means telling God what we want. Prayer, in fact, is inter­ac­tion. You can find illus­tra­tions through­out the Bible, from Adam and Eve through the Book of Rev­e­la­tion, of the kind of inter­change that goes on in prayer. 

Amer­i­can Chris­tians have a deep need to under­stand and learn the lis­ten­ing dynam­ic of this inter­change. Kierkegaard said, A man prayed, and at first he thought the prayer was talk­ing. But he became more and more qui­et until in the end he real­ized that prayer was lis­ten­ing.” Fénelon wrote about the need to silence and still all crea­ture­ly activ­i­ty so that we can hear the Divine whis­per. Prayer is being able to respond to the voice of God. 

Evan­gel­i­cals are per­haps more accus­tomed to God speak­ing to us through the Scrip­tures. And that’s good — it’s the pri­ma­ry means by which God speaks to His chil­dren. Yet God speaks in many ways. We need to learn to lis­ten for His voice. Nor­mal­ly, His voice is not audi­ble… but I wouldn’t want to exclude that pos­si­bil­i­ty. Who am I to say how God will choose to speak? 

Prayer is main­ly lis­ten­ing. It is the inter­ac­tion, the dia­logue, the inter­change between two indi­vid­u­als. It’s talk­ing with God and hear­ing from God about what God and I are doing together. 

Mis­con­cep­tion #2: Prayer can­not be learned. 

Some peo­ple think that prayer is a gift — you either have it or you don’t. Look at the Chris­t­ian col­leges in our coun­try and see how many of them have cours­es in prayer. This is because we don’t believe prayer is some­thing to learn. 

We also show that we think prayer can­not be learned when we’re not will­ing to risk mak­ing mis­takes. Yet that’s the way you learn any­thing. That’s the way lit­tle chil­dren learn how to walk — they fall down. That’s the way Edi­son learned how to make the first light­bulb — through the many thou­sands of exper­i­ments that didn’t work. 

Prayer is some­thing to learn, Lord, teach us to pray.” And we can grow in skill at hear­ing from God and inter­act­ing with God and receiv­ing more faith. We can grow in prayer. 

Mis­con­cep­tion #3: Prayer is complicated. 

In one sense, prayer is com­pli­cat­ed. How can a finite human spir­it be in com­mu­nion with the infi­nite Spir­it of the uni­verse? It would burn out the cir­cuits of our minds to under­stand it. 

But in anoth­er sense, prayer is incred­i­bly sim­ple. God answers prayer because His chil­dren ask. 

As I men­tioned in my book Prayer, just as a lit­tle child can­not draw a bad pic­ture, a child of God can­not utter a bad prayer. God is pleased with our desire to come to Him. The accuser might say, That’s a ter­ri­ble prayer. The gram­mar is bad; it’s ego­cen­tric. It’s wrong­head­ed.” But I think God says, That’s My child. He’s cho­sen to come and be with Me. She’s cho­sen to be in My pres­ence. It’s a beau­ti­ful prayer.” God receives it. It’s not complicated.

I love Jean Pierre de Caussade’s descrip­tion of the sim­plic­i­ty of prayer: The soul, light as a feath­er, flu­id as water, inno­cent as a child, responds to every move­ment of grace like a float­ing bal­loon.” The abil­i­ty to move with every move­ment of grace as the Spir­it comes — that’s what prayer is about. 

Mis­con­cep­tion #4: Prayer is grim duty. 

Prayer can be hard work. But I also think that peo­ple need to see prayer as a delight, as joy­ful inter­ac­tion with a lov­ing God. 

I remem­ber one time when I was vaca­tion­ing near a beach in Ore­gon. I got up ear­ly and went out on the beach just as it was begin­ning to get light. 

I remem­ber just walk­ing along and say­ing real­ly loud, This is beau­ti­ful.” And I sensed a response, as if God were say­ing, I know; I made it.” I thought, Whoa! And then I said, Thank You, Lord.” I sensed God say­ing, You’re wel­come!” And I thought again, Whoa! God was there! 

This unusu­al­ly strong sense of a dia­logue last­ed about an hour and a half. I decid­ed to ask God some ques­tions I’d always had. I was very intense in those days, and I was real­ly wor­ried about what I wore as a sign of wit­ness to gospel truth. I won­dered whether a white-shirt-and-tie men­tal­i­ty con­tra­dict­ed the con­cept of Chris­t­ian sim­plic­i­ty. So I asked God what I should wear. And it was like God laughed and said, Oh, Fos­ter, would you quit try­ing to be so blast­ed reli­gious and wear what­ev­er you want?” That gave me great freedom. 

We have a her­itage that labels a per­son as deeply spir­i­tu­al if he says,“For the first hour I strug­gled, and the sec­ond hour noth­ing hap­pened, But the third hour I broke through to God.” We read books on prayer and get loaded down with guilt, think­ing some­thing is wrong with us if we don’t ago­nize over prayer. 

We need to rec­og­nize that there is also the need for light­ness in prayer. It’s an occu­pa­tion­al haz­ard of reli­gious peo­ple to get too serious. 

Mis­con­cep­tion #5: God is remote and inaccessible. 

On a prac­ti­cal lev­el, many peo­ple are deists. To them, God is far away. Yet, the gospel teach­es very clear­ly that God is near. 

When Jesus said, Repent, for the King­dom of Heav­en is at hand,” it was not a way of say­ing, Repent, for the King­dom of Heav­en has almost come, but it didn’t quite make it.” Instead, His mean­ing was the same as if I were to say to you as we’re walk­ing down the Street, Behold, the restau­rant is at hand. Let’s eat.” That’s the idea. It’s drawn near to you; it’s come nigh,” He said. It’s even in your midst. It’s right here.” 

God is near; the King­dom of the heav­en­lies has come. Jesus’ mir­a­cles demon­strat­ed the pres­ence of the King­dom; the near­ness of God. God is no longer remote; God is right among His peo­ple. What does Immanuel mean? God is with us. He is still present. And we can rejoice in the pres­ence of God.

First pub­lished in Dis­ci­ple­ship Jour­nal in March/​April 1994.

Text First Published February 1994

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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