Find the prayer method that suits you best.
As a child, my understanding of prayer was shaped largely by what I observed at church. Sure, my family prayed before meals. And yeah, my parents prayed with me when they tucked me in at night. I understood that prayer was, essentially, communication with God—and that prayer was possible anytime and anywhere. But prayer seemed extra important on Sunday mornings.
After all, church was where I was told to be “on my best behavior.” Church was “God’s house.” It’s not that I thought God didn’t listen to prayers offered from our house, but the prayers I heard in church seemed different—as if every word carried more weight, more significance.
At the first church I attended, we often recited the Lord’s Prayer. I learned pieces of it, but I didn’t understand it. After all, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …” isn’t the same language I heard in the kindergarten classroom or on Saturday morning cartoons. For all I knew, “hallowed” was a reference to Halloween—which sort of made sense, since our church also sang the Doxology frequently, and that concluded with a reference to a ghost. So maybe church was a place where Halloween was referenced year-round—but without any candy. (The adults at least got crackers and little cups of grape juice once a month.)
When my family started attending a different church, we rarely said the Lord’s Prayer. But what I witnessed in that service was even more daunting: the Pastoral Prayer. In the middle of the service, after we sang the three worship songs in our bulletin insert—but before the sermon began—we remained standing (with our heads bowed) as our pastor offered this behemoth of a prayer.
Unlike the Lord’s Prayer, the Pastoral Prayer was unscripted, and it was different every week. Also unlike the Lord’s Prayer, the Pastoral Prayer lasted anywhere from three to five minutes (I timed it more than once).
If the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer gave me the impression that prayer should follow a ritual—that it was something to be memorized and recited—then the Pastoral Prayer convinced me that the individual words were not nearly as important as the duration of the entire presentation.
And, more than that, the Pastoral Prayer convinced me that I would never be able to adequately talk to God.
Reverent or Real?
As I got older, I gained a better understanding of the Lord’s Prayer. I also started saying my own prayers before I went to bed at night (and even throughout the day … sometimes). But prayer was still difficult for me. I felt like I was just throwing words around—tossing them up at the sky, hoping they were sufficient. They weren’t necessarily my words as much as the words I thought should be said during a prayer.
More than anything, I felt uncomfortable with the tone of my prayers. They weren’t as reverent as the prayers I heard in church, even though I tried to incorporate some of that formal prayer language into my communication with God. But those formal phrases didn’t seem to match precisely what I was feeling or thinking. I’d heard people say they talked to God the same way they would talk to one of their friends, but that just felt disrespectful to me. Besides, I thought conversations with God were supposed to deal with important things, not the trivialities I discussed with my friends.
Put simply, I was struggling to ascertain and maintain the balance between prayers that felt real and prayers that felt reverent.
I went through a rebellious stretch in my late teens and early twenties when I pretty much avoided all communication with God. After rededicating my life to Christ when I was twenty-one, I fell back into the same prayer struggles. At that point in my life, I became more committed to praying for others—friends, family, and others in need. Those prayers felt genuine enough. But prayer still felt forced—like something I was expected to do—and I still couldn’t talk to God like a friend.
At the end of my junior year of college, I was in a small group where another student began a prayer like this: “God you are so good.” Then he paused before adding, “And finals are bad.”
Without meaning to, I laughed. Audibly. No one else in the group laughed or even cracked a smile (I know this because I looked around the room before sheepishly bowing my head again). Even though he kept praying, I don’t remember anything else he said. But that opening stuck with me as I struggled to reconcile the reality that he could incorporate humor (or at the very least, flippancy) into his communication with God, that he could speak genuinely and freely in prayer without being irreverent—that he could communicate with God the way one might talk to a friend.
From that moment forward, I tried to pray differently. I made an effort to talk to God in a tone that was both real and relevant.
But it was harder than I thought it would be.
Praying at the Punching Bag
That summer, I joined a boxing club at a local gym and hung a heavy bag in my parents’ barn. Still committed to offering prayers that were real and genuine, I decided that the best way for me to pray sincerely and authentically would be for me to talk to God while I was pounding away at the heavy bag. After all, with so much adrenaline coursing through me, how could I offer anything but raw and authentic prayers to God?
I was wrong. I’m not exactly sure why it didn’t work (maybe because I couldn’t actually focus on what I wanted to say when I was so focused on beating the bag in front of me), but it didn’t. Maybe it works for other people, but not me.
I tried praying during long-distance runs—after all, this provided long periods of uninterrupted time (and a less substantial adrenaline rush to distract me than I experienced during my boxing workouts). But I still struggled to stay focused.
I tried shutting myself in a closet, kneeling beneath the shirts that hung above me. But as usual, even though I was able to pray for friends and family members, I still struggled to just talk to God.
I tried writing prayers to God (by hand), but my writing hand didn’t move as quickly as my mind, and it felt cumbersome—and unnecessary, since I was laboring to create a hard copy of something God could comprehend without seeing.
I tried creating prayer lists and working through them item by item. I even tried allotting a certain amount of time for each thing on the list. This method wasn’t all bad. It certainly helped me stay focused. But it also made prayer feel like a duty, or a business meeting—not a conversation.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner, but eventually I started typing prayers from my laptop. As a writing and English major at the time (and a freelance writer now), crafting sentences was and is a regular occurrence for me. So I felt comfortable putting my thoughts together, occasionally tweaking my sentences as I went (not to get a better grade or improve the finished project, but just so I could better understand exactly what I wanted to communicate to God).
And those prayer sessions at my laptop instantly became some of my most authentic and genuine conversations with God. My mind didn’t wander because I stayed focused on the words on the screen in front of me—focused on exactly what I wanted to say to God. And instead of giving up quickly, frustrated that I couldn’t think of anything to say or couldn’t prevent my mind from wandering, these prayers started spanning multiple pages in Word (not God’s Word, Microsoft Word—which is a play on words I was going to use in the title, but I didn’t want to be sacrilegious … or owe Bill Gates any royalties).
Instead of struggling to start conversations with God, I was now reluctant to conclude these sessions. I’d never felt such a close connection with God, never been able to speak to him so freely—and when I was in the midst of one of these prayer sessions, nothing else seemed to matter as much as continuing that conversation, something I’d never experienced in my other attempts at prayer.
Others may connect best with God through liturgical prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, or even a five-minute Pastoral Prayer. I’m sure some people are capable of praying silently and staying focused (and awake). For others, it might be through music, which happens to be another one of my deficiencies.
Jesus went into the wilderness to be alone with his Father. Daniel knelt before his open window and prayed facing Jerusalem three times a day. David wrote songs and played a harp. I sit in front of my laptop and type. Praying genuinely doesn’t just involve speaking (or typing) from one’s heart, but also finding the prayer method that works best for you. My wife, for example, recoils at the idea of sitting and typing out prayers. For her it would feel too much like a homework assignment. But she can talk to God in the car as she commutes to work—a method that didn’t work for me.
But finding the prayer method that allows me to connect with God was just the first step. To be honest, I don’t type my prayers very often these days. And there’s no excuse for that. If typing my prayers is the method that allows me to connect with God in ways other methods have not, then why wouldn’t I make that a consistent and standard practice? I don’t have a good answer.
So finding the best prayer method for me was step number one. Step two is faithfulness. I’m still working on that.
Tyler Charles, formerly an editor at Christianity Today International, is a freelance writer who lives in Delaware, Ohio.
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