Six years ago, my college pastor lent me a book to read. I read the first two chapters and was blown away by its message. Unfortunately, for reasons that I can no longer remember, I never finished it and ended up returning it to him, unread. Still, the short chapters I had read left an impact on me, as I always remembered the encouragement to pray like a child talks with their parents. Fast-forward to one month ago, after I had attempted to read a couple books that I just couldn’t get into. As I looked over my bookcase, I saw A Praying Life by Paul Miller sitting on the shelf. I had picked it up at our church’s end of the year book sale in December, and there it was, just waiting to be read. In desperate need to start a book that I could finish, I dove into its pages. The past four to five weeks have been such sweet days as I have read, meditated, and prayed through nearly every page. Trying to narrow down what parts to share in this review was very hard, and in all reality I will probably have many more of Paul’s words weaved into future blog posts as it continues to spill into my every day life. But for the saking of trying to summarize, here are just two of the areas where I was convicted, humbled, and impacted.
Early on, Paul talks about the pride of our self-reliance that blinds us to our desperate need for God. We do not pray because we think we can handle things on our own. He gives examples ranging from simple things, like praying for parking spaces, to more serious ones, like praying as we discipline and instruct our children. As long as we feel in control of our circumstances and confident in our ability to manage the hand we have been dealt, we are unlikely to pray. This is because prayer is an act of humility, an acknowledgement that we need God for any and all things. The part that struck me the most was when Paul gave multiple examples of how Jesus frequently referenced his total dependence on the Father. He said things like, “The Son can do nothing of His own accord,” (John 5:19), “I can do nothing on my own,” (John 5:30) and “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me,” (John 8:28). Jesus was literally the most dependent person to walk the planet, as He never did anything a part from the Father, and He calls His children to that same kind of helpless dependency on Him. In John 15:5 He said, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” Do I believe that? Do I live like I can’t accomplish a single thing apart from Jesus? Am I aware of my own insufficiency? The answers to those questions is often a pride-filled no. My biggest prayer right now is that God would humble my heart and open my eyes to my helpless state apart from Him in each and every moment of every day.
“Prayer is an expression of who we are… We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment.”
– Thomas Merton
The Problem with Cynicism
The second point that convicted me was Paul’s section on cynicism. He talked about how so many Christians “stand at the edge of cynicism” because we have been wounded and are weary. Often instead seeing a beautiful tapestry of God’s story being woven throughout our lives we see a tangled, ratted up mess of unanswered prayers or situations that didn’t go as we had hoped. How does one continue to have faith that prayer works when your grandfather died an unbeliever, despite the fact that you and so many others prayed for him, despite the fact that you sat on the couch as a little girl with tears rolling down your cheeks begging him to except that salvation that was available to him in Christ, but his heart remained hard until his last day? How does one continue to hope when so many people you have prayed for and love are choosing paths of destruction despite the fact that they have heard the gospel of grace more times than you can count? These are just some of the real questions that I have had to battle with deep in my soul. I am hardly so bold as to voice these fears on a regular basis, but when I look at the practical realities of my perspectives in the day-t0-day, the open wound cannot be denied. The reality is, I have allowed cynicism to creep into my heart and make me wonder if my prayers mean anything at all. I never doubt that God has a plan, I just doubt that I’m a necessary part of that plan. Needless to say, I needed Paul’s words to remind me of where I need to set my eyes. He said, “Both the child and the cynic walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The cynic focuses on the darkness; the child focuses on the Shephard.”
Cynicism gives a false sense of knowing what’s really going on. It masquerades as truth, as a heightened awareness that is too “realistic” to hope. It destroys intimacy, fuels bitterness, and quenches our spirits. It makes everything feel phony. But prayer, as an act of faith, is different. In fact, “it is just the opposite [of cynicism]. It engages evil. It doesn’t take no for an answer. The Psalmists were in God’s face, hoping, dreaming, asking. Prayer is feisty.” Beyond that, as we commune with God and bring our burdens and broken hearts to him, when prayers do go unanswered or answered in a way that brings us deep anguish, we can still trust and hope and believe. The more time we spend with God, the more we will walk aware of His goodness and faithfulness. We will know Him, and to know Him is to find perfect peace. God can handle all our struggles a whole lot better than we can. Every time we engage with the fallenness of this world, people, or ourselves we are reminded that Heaven is not here… yet. Grappling with the brokenness that sin causes leads us to ask with our mouths and in our souls, “Our Father who is in Heaven… may Your kingdom come.”
This book has affected me in the depths of my heart and mind, and I do not think that it is too much to say that it will leave a permanent impact on the rest of my life. Paul invites you into his world, shares transparently from his own times of prayer and wrestling with God, and speaks candidly with grace about what God’s Word has to say about walking and talking with Him. I can not speak highly enough of this book, and I encourage any of you who are wanting to grapple with the nitty gritty aspects of prayer and faith to read it.
“Now Jesus opens his arms to his needy children and says, ‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.”