Learning to Pray like a Child


Why is praying so hard? No matter how useful and refreshing my experience of talking with God, the resistance to engaging in prayer is just as strong again the next time. Do I need to practise more? Or is good praying a gift that only some Christians possess? After countless failed resolutions and short lived prayer routines, it’s tempting to give up and accept that I’m just not very good at praying. I must simply settle for an erratic and minimal prayer life, because it’s never going to change.

I am often bewildered and frustrated by the resistance that I feel in my heart when I think about praying. The moment I consider sitting down to engage with God, my mind is immediately filled with all the far less important things I need to do. Or I become acutely aware of how exhausted I am and begin to justify my need for a rest in front of the TV. Why does praying involve such a mental battle when we know the deep enjoyment and satisfaction found in spending time with God?

In reality, when we consider the powerful and active enemy who is striving to undermine God’s work in us, the battle should be no surprise at all. Paul reminds us of this in his letter to the Ephesians: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but … against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) We must expect resistance to spiritual progress – the devil is alive and waging war against us, but he plays a subtle game, seeking any opportunity to coax us away from dependence upon God. And since prayer is the channel through which we express our dependence on him, it is a prime target for our enemy. However, quite brilliantly, God equips us to fight these schemes of the devil – with prayer! Paul, instructs us to “extinguish all the fiery darts of the evil one” by “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication“. We fight resistance to prayer by praying against it!

But sometimes I just can’t. I feel I have nothing to say and I’m weak. I can’t be like other Christians, I give up. What now? Well, my defeatist attitude is not unique to me. In fact, Paul tells us in Galatians that our natural desires work ‘against the Spirit… to keep you from doing the things you want to do’ – left to themselves every Christian is like this, so if we look to ourselves for strength to pray, we won’t find any. And there isn’t a prayer gene that some Christians possess, making them naturally better at praying than others. It is because Jesus knows we are all weak that he has sent us a powerful helper. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth.” (John 14:16) The Holy Spirit is God himself, working in us. He can work in us mightily, in our weakness, and he gives us the desire to pray, and the words. That’s why Paul instructs us to pray “in the Spirit”, and in Romans, explains that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us“. Yes, left to ourselves we’re hopeless at praying, but we have access to the very power of God to help us. I remember a time when I hadn’t sat down to pray for weeks, and in my despair I crawled before God and said, Lord, I’m so sorry for everything. I don’t know what to pray, please help me. As I sat in the presence of God my heart began to fill with all the things I wanted to tell and ask Him. I suddenly found people I’d not thought about for a while pressing on my heart, and the prayers began spilling out of my mouth. The burden of guilt fell away and I felt a joy and a strength working through me. Our loving God keeps no record of wrongs, and he longs for us to open our hearts to him and allow his spirit to work through us, no matter how long we’ve stayed away. There’s never a wrong time to re engage with God.

But whether or not I ‘feel’ it, I can be sure the Spirit is interceding for me every time I pray. And I suppose the real challenge is praying through times when it’s a slog and it feels all up hill. In those moments, particularly, I have to pray out loud to God, to stop my thoughts from taking over and spiralling into daydreams. At other times, I’ve found it helpful to write my prayers. When I feel distant from God, my prayers seem like vapour disappearing and unheard, but jotting them down makes them tangible. Praying with others helps with this too, and we can take great comfort from Jesus’ promise to be especially present when two or more are gathered together in his name.

In Paul Miller’s book, ‘A Praying Life’, he draws his readers’ attention to an important, but difficult command that occurs again and again in Jesus’ teaching – we are to approach God as little children. Jesus tells his listeners, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Miller argues that becoming a child before God is the foundation of an intimate relationship with Him. Coming as a child means coming to him just as I am, messy and telling him everything that is on my mind. And just as doting parents receive their children as they take wobbly steps towards them, ‘God also cheers when we come to him with our wobbling, unsteady prayers. Jesus does not say “Come to me, all you who have learned how to concentrate in prayer, whose minds no longer wander, and I will give you rest.’ (Miller) It doesn’t matter that I’m not very good at praying. God wants to hear my prayers.

But becoming a child before God also means being entirely dependent on him, and we find this very difficult. We are stubbornly independent and want to have control ourselves, preventing us from closer intimacy and regular prayer with our God. Miller explains that honest praying is admitting that we are helpless – we are unable to ‘do life’ without God. But the problem is, we don’t always feel very helpless so we don’t pray. That’s why I pray the most when I feel most out of control of the things in my life, but the truth is I’m no more in control when things are going well. Miller puts it so well:

‘We have an allergic reaction to dependency, but this is the state of the heart most necessary for a praying life. A needy heart is a praying heart. Dependency is the heart beat of prayer.’

Why do I find it difficult to be a helpless child, dependent on God? Why this allergic reaction? When I come before God, I am utterly exposed. I cannot hide anything from Him, so I see what a mess I really am. I can only be honest with Him, so all my selfish desires, regrets and resentments are laid bare. ‘Nothing exposes our selfishness and powerlessness like prayer’. (Miller) I suppose that’s why I often feel emotionally drained at the prospect of bringing everything to God. There is too much to thank him for, too much to confess, too much to ask for, so I don’t pray at all. But actually, coming before an all-seeing God should be liberating. With any other conversation in the world, I am always limited to some degree. Not even my husband knows the deepest darkest places in my heart, yet when I talk to Jesus, he knows every dark detail and loves me unconditionally. I am never more my true self than when I am in prayer, and that’s exactly who he wants – the real me. A helpless child, but infinitely loved.

It is not God’s intention for us to live at a distance from him. I think one of the most beautiful things Jesus says is that he wants us to be yoked with him. ‘Take my yoke upon you’. (Matthew 11:29) A yoke attaches two animals together as they plough a field. They must go everywhere together, all day long. Jesus wants me to be shoulder to shoulder with him, doing life with him. Surely prayer is what binds me to Christ in this yoke! And if Jesus wants to do life with me, all day long – is there anything I couldn’t bring to him in prayer? Whether it’s peace, forgiveness, safety, courage, holding the rain off, finding a parking space, thanking him that I found my shoe in a mad morning rush, I can ask and share it all with him! I think we can sometimes be tempted to separate the spiritual from the ordinary, and feel unable to share ‘mundane matters’ with him. But God is in everything. He is in relationships, workplaces, clouds and traffic, so I can bring it all to him. I must let him carry me every where I go. I must be his child.

There is so much more to be said on the matter, I’ve barely scratched the surface! And there are so many wonderful examples in scripture of raw and real prayers for us to read and relate to. But whether it’s Moses asking God to feed the Israelites, Hannah’s silent pleas for a child or the tax collector in the temple asking for mercy, all these men and women make themselves helpless before God. They are dependent children, asking for what they need. This is all God asks of me, to come as I am, a helpless child, and pour out my heart! To accept that I cannot do life without him, and through this continual surrender, allow the Spirit to do a glorious work in me.

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