Arm-wrestling Prayer


When we feel like life’s circumstances have us pinned down, attempting to pray can feel more like arm wrestling. It is because prayer is easier said than done. After more than ten years in ordained ministry, I have found that we do more talking about prayer than actually talking to God. To be sure, we know that we should pray. But, a 2014 Pew Research poll revealed that it is inching toward a coin toss as to whether we do or not. Fifty-five percent of Americans surveyed reported that they pray at least once a day. But, the number of those who seldom or never pray at all is on the rise.

While nearly all Christian denominations, along with Muslims and Hindus, reported a higher percentage than the national average, I wonder if those being polled were experiencing what some researchers have called “the halo effect.” This happens when persons tell pollsters during a telephone interview what sounds most socially desirable and, in effect, over-report. Now, I am not pointing fingers or keeping one eye open to see whose head is bowed, but I think it necessary to admit that sometimes we struggle to pray.

Whether too busy and self-absorbed, inexperienced or unsure if we want to open this can of words, angry, hurt, disinterested or bored, we all have our reasons for giving God the silent treatment. Despite the Christian’s claim to fame of our personal relationship with the Divine and God’s personal connection to us through Jesus Christ, keeping the conversation going can prove testy.

Besides, we know how to reach God and, in case of an emergency, we know what to say. Sunday mornings offer us prayer drills wherein we are reminded of particular passages of Scriptures for such occasions. Stop, drop, and turn to Psalm 23.

Further, we know what it is so there is no need to do it. We have an understanding of prayer; there is no need to prove it. Still, we collect books on prayer and stack them neatly in our homes because it just goes well with the Christian life. Hand in hand, some would say.

But, what happens when we cannot put our hands together, when we have pleaded and God does not repeat after us? When life creates an awkward silence between us?

This spiritual discipline is not for the weak and, while it does not require exercise apparel, prayer is proof that our faith is worked out. It is talked out daily because there is always opposition, another contender, another match. I know that it might not look like it but praying takes strength.

There are so many people, places, and things that would pull our clasped hands apart. It takes commitment to come back to the table and to face this life. To sit with our elbows down, gripping what has a hold of us and praying until we have forced what opposes us down.

smcneillReverend Starlette McNeill* is an associate pastor at Village Baptist Church in Bowie, Maryland and the Minister to Empower Congregations at the D.C. Baptist Convention. She writes on the social construct of race and the practice of faith at Her hobbies include reading, writing, and Starbucks.

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