Prayer When in the Wilderness

The wilderness imparted some new insights about the practice of prayer. As the preceding chapters make clear, I prayed virtually every day. Some days I felt circumstances closing in, and as a result, my prayers glowed with a white-hot intensity. Other days it was all I could do to try to drag my soul before God, and my prayers were predictably feeble and inarticulate. Still, however and whenever I prayed, the discipline disclosed some fresh understanding about myself and also the practice of prayer itself.

For example, I learned yet again that I am not a natural contemplative! By temperament, I crave activity, work, and stimulation. I do enjoy brief periods of silence and stillness, but not for long. When things get too quiet, my mind puts on its running shoes and heads off in all directions. Before I know it, I’m way off somewhere, and I’ve left God behind. In this regard, I found that I did my best praying while I was on the move. For example, whenever I drove, my car became my tabernacle. Driving somehow centered me, and my prayers flowed more easily. The same goes for walking. Walking calmed me and made it easier to open up my life to the Lord.

This experience brought home the oft-repeated truth that there is indeed no one way to pray. Although we can certainly try new ways of praying (and we should!), our best prayer practices emerge out of our uniqueness. The important thing is to find a practice best suited to who we are as individuals.

What about the content of our prayers? Although I prayed regularly and often, I caught myself recycling the same words and phrases and the same concerns over and over. This awareness surfaced memories of conversations with other people who droned on and on, repeating the same stuff every time we met. Conversations like that bored me to death! In that light, I figured my praying must have wearied God to no end. Bill Ireland again? Isn’t there something else this guy can talk about?

As a result, I tried several things to spice up my prayer life. First, I turned to the words and imagery of Scripture as a way of framing my prayers. Whenever a word or phrase in a particular passage caught my attention, I figured there was a reason. So I lingered there and gave the words time to germinate. I waited to see what, if anything, would come up out of my spirit. Many times, this practice allowed me to phrase my prayers in a way that was truer to what was in me. It turned my praying from dull repetition to more active engagement with God.

I also relied on the prayers of others for inspiration. The honesty, creativity, and insight offered by my fellow travelers put words to my inarticulate groaning. Time and again, their words nailed my experience at a particular moment and enabled me to bring it into God’s light. Their prayers gave me clarity regarding my spiritual struggle and the courage to speak it in my own way. Moreover, reading the words of someone praying exactly what I was thinking, feeling, and sensing assured me that I was not alone—a wonderful gift in itself!

I tried to let what I observed during my walks inform my prayers.52 Everyday stuff, from sparkling streams to traffic jams, can become grist for the prayer mill. News reports, conversations, and even the things that make us laugh until we cry prompt us to speak with God. Because God dwells fully in our midst in and through Jesus Christ, everything is a potential sanctuary.

To vary my prayers, I experimented by jettisoning many of the typical words in our prayer vocabulary: bless, strengthen, comfort, help, guide, and give. Praying without those words is hard! As a substitute, I played with visual imagery. For example, if one of my friends was undergoing treatment for cancer, instead of praying that he might be healed, I attempted to visualize the treatment invading the cancer cells and destroying them. Or if a colleague in ministry was enduring a hard season, I would imagine her laughing at something and see her face relax and her eyes brighten. Since I’m a talker by nature, I wasn’t always comfortable with this practice, but it did stretch me and gave me a new way to engage with God.

Finally, when it comes to content, although Jesus taught that we ought “to pray always and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1, NRSV), repetitive prayer is not always fervent prayer. Repetition may, in fact, signal the need for reappraisal of a particular matter. For example, when my prayers about something lost steam and degenerated into word salad, I realized I had likely exhausted the concern. It was time to let it go and move on. Such occurrences made me aware that something had shifted within me. Whatever the concern was, it was finally in God’s hands, and my verbal barrage in God’s direction was no longer needed. I was also surprised to discover that repetitive prayer is often counterproductive. Praying about a matter over and over may be necessary at the outset of a crisis or unexpected twist of fate. The intensity of the situation requires it. Over time, however, plowing the same ground over and over cultivates dissatisfaction rather than peace. For example, I prayed ad nauseum about my employment situation. I finally reached a point where I realized that praying about it was feeding my anxiety instead of relieving it. At that point, I resolved to let it go. My need was no less critical, but the repetitive nature of my prayers made things worse instead of better.

No matter the manner or the content of our prayers, the object of prayer is to bring our entire lives before God. Deciding not to voice certain things to the Almighty because they are too delicate or our emotions are too raw makes us the arbiter of what matters to God. When we attempt to hide our rough edges from God, we only succeed in shielding ourselves from God’s incalculable grace. If we can’t pray our lives as they are, then what’s the use?

This post originally appeared in Driven: A Field Guide to the Wilderness by Bill Ireland, now available from Smyth & Helwys.

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