Learning to Pray

My wife and I were speaking with a psychologist friend, whose colleague is an atheist.

She’s never studied theology in depth and so she found herself frustrated with his argument that the archetypal underpinnings of Christianity and its similarity of aspects of previous myths show that it isn’t true. This led to a brief discussion about prayer which led me to some thoughts about the meaning and experience of prayer and how to help Christians learn to pray:

  1. We tend to talk to ourselves, so when we pray and it feels like we’re talking to ourselves, that’s not as awkward a state as we think it is.
  2. We frequently talk with imagined versions of people we know, rehearsing arguments we want to make, things we wish we said, bouncing ideas off of idealized versions of parents, fictional characters, and so-on.
  3. We also reason to ourselves about our ideals and our relationship to various rules: am I speeding? was that the right thing to do?
  4. We, if we’re really self-conscious, have conversations with ourselves about an ideal version of ourselves: “will this make me who I want to be…do I care?”
  5. This can lead us to moral and practical introspection of the sort that is very helpful.
  6. We frequently wish, in an impersonal way, for things. “I wish I had less debt.”
  7. Psychologically, when we wish for something or make a goal, our perceptions tend to filter the world in terms of that goal. If you want a motorcycle and set yourself to getting, you see more motorcycles, more open opportunities to buy one, and so-on. And so, there is a psychological explanation for why prayers seem to be coincidentally answered. For a brief look into how this happens with goal based behavior, here’s the gorilla study.
  8. So, if all prayer does is change your perceptions it’s worth it.
  9. Prayer, defined as making requests of what we perceive to be the greatest possible being (God), forces us to compare ourselves not just to the ideal people around us, but to the greatest possible ideal. And so prayer, in the way previously mentioned, reconfigures us to look for opportunities to seek the highest possible ideal we could imagine for ourselves.

And again these aren’t theological reasons to pray, per se. They’re natural experiences most of us have. And they may be conversation pieces to have with somebody who struggles with prayer. The theological realities of prayer, that God hears our weakest requests and honors them are not negated by recognizing some of the more natural elements of prayer. If you believe that we are what God made us, then all these natural results of prayer are God ordained anyway.

Another brief thought, Christian devotion times don’t have to be all prayer in the sense of “asking God for things.” Christian devotion includes soliloquy, prayer, meditation (mulling over a subject), contemplation (focusing the mind on aiming at God), letting your mind wander in silence, introspection, study, family discussion, and so-on.

Our devotion time doesn’t have to be “15 minutes of prayer…followed by listening for God to tell us something specific.”

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