I’m realizing that too much of my public prayer to God is “unreal.” I was recently asked to pray for someone at a small group gathering. Immediately the cogs of my mind went into “pastor-mode.” I thought about what I would pray for that person: how I could affirm them, what Scripture verses could I insert, how I should frame the prayer (praise to God, thanksgiving for the person, lift up the specific request, and end with a stirring doxology), and I even had time to “edit” the prayer in my head. It was kind of like choosing clothes to wear for a specific occasion.
And when the time came, I prayed a “good prayer.” I’m sure people liked it. I heard some grunts and “amens” on certain pithy points. I felt good about it. It was about an 8 on a scale from 1-10. Pastor Doug comes through again!
And then I felt so very empty.
What came to mind were Jesus’ comments on how the hypocrites prayed in Matthew 6, “to be seen by others.” Or his comments about the pagan prayers: “to be heard for their many words.”
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!
While I am sure God heard the prayer for the person being prayed for (because He is a loving God), I was very disappointed in myself. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a well-thought out prayer, per se. It was the nonchalant manner that I approached the prayer and the way I fashioned the prayer out of concern over what others might hear, rather than addressing God, that bothered me. It felt “fake,” even though I meant it sincerely.
I don’t think I’m the only one who feels like this. It’s a difficult situation that most in ministry constantly face: praying for the sake of those in earshot. It’s too easy to forget Who you are praying to. And it’s really easy to just go through the motions. Our “on-demand” culture doesn’t help, either. People expect ministry leaders to pray like this. They want to hear the flowery words, the profound theological implications, and the passionate intercessions.
Where I want to go with this musing is that there is a deep desire to be authentic in the spiritual act that really demands authenticity: prayer. Thomas Merton, writes, “God is far too real to be met anywhere other than in reality.” David Benner, in his book “Opening to God” expands on this necessity of honesty and authenticity with God in prayer:
When we attempt to meet God in our places of falsity and pretense, we should not be surprised that God is nowhere to be found. Where God will always be and where God waits to meet us in the midst of the realities of our life and our experience. Prayer is the encounter of the true self and the true God. (p. 34)
Of course, Benner and Merton are mainly addressing our personal prayers to God. And I’ve become more cognizant of being real before God in my prayers in solitude and privacy. But I think this honesty and authenticity needs to extend to my public prayers, as well.
I’m just not sure how to proceed. I don’t have solutions. But I do have a desire. And I have a God who has the same desires for me: to be real in prayer – always, in every situation.
Have you ever felt that way? What has helped you to be “real” before God in prayer?