We are a praying people. We can hardly help ourselves. In a pinch when we need help. Under our breath in a moment of frustration. For loved ones in need of hope. Over our troubled world. After a stunningly happy surprise. We pray.
Yet we can find prayer baffling. Our tongues grow heavy. Sometimes prayer is just plain scary—after all, what do we say to the God of the universe? At other times, prayer can be unsatisfying. We wonder, Is God listening? Why is he taking so long? Are we praying in the wrong way?
We look to the Lord’s Prayer for guidance. Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
We examine and interpret each phrase. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
We mouth our own prayers after its formula. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
We beg God to intervene according to its model. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
We memorize it.
A clear prayer formula, right? No doubt. After all, Jesus offered the model in response to the disciples’ plea, “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). In Matthew 6:9, Jesus says plainly, “This, then, is how you should pray.”
That should work, then, right? But sometimes it doesn’t seem to.
And in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus beckons us, saying, “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). So we do. Sometimes we receive. Sometimes we stand gapingly empty.
Then there is Luke 18:1 where Jesus “told his disciples a parable to show them they should always pray and never give up.” We ratchet up our efforts with consistency and sincerity. Sometimes we see results. Sometimes we don’t.
What can we expect—really expect—when we pray? How can prayer bring us closer to God? How can we come to trust prayer to deliver results?
One Sunday morning several years ago, as I was listening a bit robotically to the sermon, my pastor arrowed into my prayer thoughts. “If you always do what you’ve always done,” he said, “you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.”
Do something different in prayer, Elisa.
Okay . . . but what? I kept my eyes and ears open to what “different” might be, with very little result. Was this message from God?
Then help came from an unexpected source: The garden of Gethsemane.
In the deepest hours of Jesus’s life on this planet, a two-sided coin of prayer was forged. In the crucible of that garden, pressed between what he wanted and what the Father wanted, Jesus prayed, “Take this cup.” But then he said, “Not my will.” Two sides of Jesus. Two sides of us. Two sides of prayer.
The Prayer Coin.
The “pop” in my thinking was palpable. What might I discover about Jesus, God the Father, and myself if I teeter-totter my utterances between the two sides of the coin: what I want and what God wants?
I paused to let the concept sink in. What, really, is the state of Take This Cup? Perhaps a state of “honest”? An unapologetic verbalization of what is truly within? And what, really, is the condition of Not My Will? I mull over my personal language. Surrender. Yieldedness. Relinquishment. But another word has the stickiness needed to stay. A startling word at first (is it even the proper part of speech?), yet it sums up the surprise necessary to grab my heart: abandon. Not as in being abandoned by another. No, abandon as in giving oneself completely over to something. To Someone.
Take This Cup: honest.
Not My Will: abandon.
Two sides of prayer.
I muse over them, wondering which side I pray most often—and why. What might I be missing by not—at least once in a while—considering the other side, following where it leads?
I have vacillated in my prayer coin, depending on the season. In my earliest prayer postures, as an apprentice in prayer, I chose abandon. Zealously smitten with my new Love, I open-palmed my life before Jesus.
Later, likely experiencing burnout, I leaned honest. I cranked open my heart and poured out its contents in unbridled freedom. Honest caught me up into an intimacy that invited me closer to God with more of me.
Somehow, I pivot on the edge of honest, straight into abandon.
I see a progression. First, I get more honest with God about what I want. Next, I’m more able to embrace his acceptance of me in wanting what I want. At that point, living in abandon, I’m able to be more honest about more levels of what I want, and as a result I’m more able to live in abandon to what he wants. And on and on it goes.
What if I flip-pray this prayer coin, spinning myself between the two sides, one being my desire, the “honest” plea, and the other being the “abandon” of surrendering to his will—all while my relationship with God grows more and more real?
Surely, I’ll never drink the cup Jesus drank. But what if I kneel alongside Jesus in his garden prayer and consider how his ricocheted efforts—between what the human Son wanted and what the divine Father wanted—might become a model of what’s available to me in prayer? More honest. More abandon. More . . . intimacy with God.
Up it flies—the prayer coin—into the air of discovery. Down it comes. Time for you to make the call. What’s it going to be? Honest or abandon? Or . . . both?
Study: Read Matthew 6:5-15, 7:7-12 and Luke 11:1-13, 18:1-8. What does Jesus teach us about how to pray in these passages?
Reflect: How do you struggle in prayer? For example, do you wrestle with God’s answers, with his apparent silence, with bringing your needs to God, with consistency in prayer or in some other way? Why do you think this is your struggle?
Select a clean notebook or journal and label the left side of a page “Take This Cup” and the right side “Not My Will.” Select a topic of tug-of-war in your own prayer life, and begin the prayer coin journey.