Editor's 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.

Originally published February 1994

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