My high school and college years were a renaissance in my prayer life.
I’ve never been one of those go-to-bed-and-fall-asleep-immediately people – I don’t have that gene – and so during those years, after I crawled into bed, I’d direct my wandering mind to God. And we’d talk.
I certainly prayed keeping the fundamentals of prayer in mind at those times (praise/gratitude/intercession/intimacy), but everything else was pretty free-form. I’d get lost in thoughts about the awesomeness of who God was, and then I’d share with Him conspiratorially that I was still completely embarrassed by the stupid thing I said earlier that day. I made jokes. I asked for things unashamedly. I apologized profusely. I asked questions I didn’t understand. I expressed confusion and discontent and surrender and bewilderment. I asked Him questions about Himself. I never felt ill at ease.
After I got married, I kept that up. My husband and I would say our joint prayers, and then after he dozed off (because he does have the fall-asleep-immediately gene) I’d keep right on going. But somehow between then and now – sometime over the years of ordinary life – I started self-censoring my prayers.
It wasn’t a conscious thing. At some point I internalized a lot of teaching about “selfish believers” who are always asking God for things without ever offering anything to God, and so I slowly started curtailing my intercessory requests and even my personal requests. Sure, I wanted things, but I didn’t ask for them – what if God thought I was selfish, or only out for myself?
And then, at some point, I started ridding my prayers of the daily “silly stuff” – the trivial talk with God about what I’d done and what I was wondering about and my honest thoughts and feelings and my bad jokes and my stories. God knew it all, anyway, and shouldn’t I be focusing more on just…being present? And worship? Yeah, for sure. Yes. So I got rid of that.
After that, I started chiding myself during my own prayers. “God, I want to do your will, but–” If there’s a ‘but’, why even bother? Are you surrendered to God or not? “God, I’m having trouble with seeing what You want me to do, but–” Why express uncertainty? You know He’s God, right? So if you can’t see it everything should still be fine, right? Why even bring this up? “God, I’m scared, but–” Have you forgotten what the Bible says about fear?
Eventually my prayers evolved into very guarded affairs that consisted largely of praise, thinking about God and His attributes, and affirming His awesomeness. None of that is bad, but doing nothing BUT that also isn’t very honest, and it isn’t very free. It isn’t representative of the relationship I have with God where He knows me, and I know He knows me, and we start from there.
Moreover, it made my prayer life miserable. I’ve been trying to pinpoint lately why I find it so difficult to want to pray, and it’s because that sort of praying is absolutely joyless! It’s not very authentic, and it isn’t very sincere, either. I’ve been praying how I feel I ought to be praying instead of simply praying like myself, and the shift happened so subtly I didn’t even realize it. In my prayer time I’ve been dressing up for a spiritual job interview rather than spending time with someone I care about.
Yes, it’s good to be thoughtful about how and why we pray – and to recognize our tendencies to pray as a means to our own ends, to benefit ourselves, and to note those times when we’re really making it about ourselves rather than about our relationship to God. But prayer need not be full of self-censorship and it absolutely shouldn’t be an exercise in restraint.
Scripture tells us that God spoke to Moses face to face, as a man would with his friend (Exodus 33:11). James and John felt comfortable enough asking Jesus anything that they selfishly requested a place at His right hand in glory (Mark 10:37). Ephesians encourages us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions and with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:18). We pray in trouble and in happiness (James 5:13), we pray because God listens (Psalm 17:6), we pray because the Spirit knows what to say for us anyway, even if we can’t (Romans 8:26).
Last night I finally had the first no-holds-barred chat I’ve had with God in a while. I made some requests, and acknowledged they were selfish. I expressed some frustrations but also admitted that my frustrations are very much a sinful-heart problem. I shared my delight in some funny and cool things that happened. And I tried to do my share of listening and praising and interceding, too.
It was great. It was joyful. And it was very necessary. I’m still surprised by how simple the fix was, but I didn’t realize how much I’d been self-censoring my prayers. If you ever come to a place in your prayer life where you feel bogged down, make sure that you’re not holding yourself or your thoughts back from God. He knows anyway, and the sooner we can be ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the business of developing our relationship with Him.