For God alone my soul waits in silence (Psalm 62:5)
Prayer. To this day, simply hearing the word can evoke a wave of fear, guilt, and dread. Prayer hasn’t ever come easily to me, at least the definition of prayer I’m used to—prayer as our speech to God. It’s a word and a definition that has seemed to expose everything that I’ve suspected is wrong with my spiritual life.
The first time I realized I struggled with prayer was as a teenager. It was after hearing a sermon describing prayer as a sacred calling, the primary expression of our friendship with God. The message was sincere and well-intended, but I found that everything in me resisted. No. I don’t want to talk to God.
Afterwards, I mulled over what was bothering me. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in or love God. Although I had some unhealthy ideas about God at the time, I still revered him and treasured my faith. I lived for the wonder of hearing God’s voice speaking through the pages of Scripture, for the sudden rush of awe when I grasped a bit more of divine beauty.
But I didn’t want to talk to God. Not because my relationship with God was a low priority, but because I didn’t really want to talk to anyone on a regular basis. Talking is hard for me. When I speak, I’m painfully aware of the gap between my words and what I really mean, as well as a sense of not having anything in particular that’s worth saying. So the idea of communicating to an incomprehensible, infinite God has felt both terrifying and unappealing. Why would God insist that I speak to him when I had nothing to say? I loved learning from God’s Word and listening for his voice; why wasn’t that enough?
I wonder if one of the reasons practices like Christian meditation and mindfulness are resurfacing in popularity today as central spiritual disciplines is because, like me, others have struggled with a model of prayer that has emphasized the words we speak to God, more so than the peace found in quieting our hearts before God. Over the years, I’ve gradually discovered that within Christian tradition, spiritual practices that focus on stilling our hearts and looking deeply inward have long been considered fundamental components of a healthy prayer life.
In fact, one could even make a case that silence and mindful self-examination are more foundational to prayer than the words we say. If in prayer we connect with the infinite, eternal God, then genuine communication to God is only possible if we’re first rooted in a deeper connection to a God who is outside us, who we can never fully understand or capture with words. We encounter God, not through our words reaching him, but through the Spirit reaching out to us. Our role in prayer, then, is not primarily speaking to God but having the courage to, in trust, open ourselves up to a Presence we cannot control or ever fully grasp.
This still requires much from us in the way of our vulnerability and trust, yet this way of thinking about prayer is, for me, incredibly freeing. When we begin to understand that God accepts, welcomes, and embraces us just as fully when we have no words to offer, when life leaves us speechless, we have the space to breathe again. As we learn that we are unconditionally accepted into God’s presence, we can better understand that we really are loved as we are, not for our performance. And we can begin to encounter the kind of freedom and wholeness that comes from God holding all of us, even the parts of us that seem confused and contradictory. God welcomes us as we are and invites us to have the courage to be seen and known.
I’m reminded of something I’ve learned in both friendships and dating relationships; the deepest, strongest connections are always with those people with whom it’s safe and comfortable to be silent. It’s knowing that we don’t need to speak, that we are with someone who fully accepts us either way, that gives us the sense of safety and freedom to also enjoy talking and laughing together.
Maybe something similar happens in prayer. Once we realize we are truly safe in God’s presence, that we don’t need to perform or pretend to be someone or something else to impress him, we experience the freedom to discover who we truly are. We learn we are safe in his presence to let go of the masks that it feels like we need to survive just about everywhere else.
And as in that place of safety and acceptance, as we learn who we truly are, we can also gradually learn what it means to speak with a voice that’s our own. Not the voice of an imposter or a cowering child, but the voice of someone who knows who they are as a child of God (Romans 8:15), a unique image-bearer. The voice of one who is God’s beloved and whose voice he delights to hear.
These days my practice of prayer still involves more listening and waiting than speaking. But I’m okay with that. I’ve come to believe that the deepest cries of our hearts are always beyond words (Romans 8:26). In the silence we wait, and in the waiting we find God, who carries us ever deeper into a beauty, hope, and love for which there are no words.
To read more about learning to pray visit https://discoveryseries.org/courses/teach-us-to-pray/