I think prayer is the most profound, daring, authentic, mysterious communication available to the human heart, but even though I know how important prayer is, I don’t feel particularly qualified to teach people how to do it.
Almost always my prayers tend to do one of three things: (1) tell God he’s great, (2) ask him for stuff, (3) tell him I’m sorry.
One day I realized that when I talk to my friends, I do a lot more than compliment them, ask for things, and apologize. In fact, if that’s all I did, it would be a pretty shallow friendship.
Instead, we talk about what’s on our minds, our dreams and problems, our hobbies and struggles. We argue, we fight, we celebrate. Sometimes we laugh or complain or remember good times together. And sometimes we don’t talk at all, we just hang out.
God offers me this kind of deep friendship, but I rarely take him up on his offer.
In contrast to my limited prayer vocabulary, the prayers of the people in Scripture contain everything from desperate cries for mercy to powerful stories of deliverance to outbursts of praise to incisive observations about the injustices of life.
The Psalms are full of complaints, moments of amazement, and whispered pleas that throb with grief and pain and raw, human need. In this ancient collection of prayers, we find imagery, theology, intimacy, fear, worry, love, and wonder, and also broken hearts, broken dreams, and broken lives --- and healed ones too.
And almost always, the prayers go deeper than “You’re awesome, God,” “Please help me, God,” or “I’m sorry, God.”
The prayers in the Bible strike me as being deep and real, lofty and glorious, painful and frolicking --- just like I want my prayers to be.
And just like I want my friendship with God to be too.
As I’ve worked on this book, I’ve found that often my most genuine, heartfelt prayers are a little messy, a little rough around the edges, and sometimes a little awkward, because that’s what my life is like and that’s what God asks me to bring him.
Polished, eloquent, impressive prayers have a tendency to become performances. Real prayer is more concerned with honesty, pain, and amazement than getting all the words just right.
So as we pray, I think we need to be willing to reveal our vulnerabilities and our passions, our sorrow and our joy, our shameful secrets and pet temptations, and our most intimate desires and dreams.
I’m hoping this book will help you do that.
I should mention that I believe written prayers have just as vital a place in our lives as extemporaneous, or spontaneous, prayers do. After all, if our ancestors hadn’t written down their prayers we wouldn’t have the greatest collection of prayers in the world --- the book of Psalms.
Also, most of our contemporary worship and praise songs are prayers that have been set to music. Each one is carefully written and crafted by songwriters and musicians to lead us into closer communion with God. While it’s true that some churches improvise their worship lyrics, I think it’s safe to say that most do not. So here’s my question to those who shy away from written prayers: why shouldn’t the prayers we speak be as carefully prepared as the ones we sing?
It might be helpful to know why I didn’t include section headings (such as Prayers of Thanks, Prayers of Confession, Prayers of Praise, etc.) or titles for the prayers. I left them out for four reasons:
1. Nearly all other prayer books I’ve looked at do that, so it seemed too formulaic to me.
2. When I experimented with including them and gave copies of the book to some friends to read, they told me that titling the prayers was distracting and sometimes confusing. After looking over the prayers, I agreed with them.
3. I never label the prayers I spontaneously offer to God, and it felt contrived to do so on the page.
4. Many of the prayers could have easily fit into more than one category, and placing them in one section rather than another limited their meaning. Categorizing them boxed them in, so to speak. But one of my reasons for writing this book was to help myself, and you, step out of our typical cookie-cutter conversations with God, instead of remaining locked in them.
I’m sure there’ll be some prayers in this book that you just don’t connect with, but I’m hoping that most of the time you’ll find the prayers expressing something real in your life.
As I write this, I’m saying a prayer of my own: first, that the words on these pages would not simply form a book but would open a space for you to encounter more of God’s presence.
And second, that the words wouldn’t get in the way of the silences between them --- that as you pray, you’ll be able to hear the God of the universe whispering peace to you as you offer him your
this moment is all that you ask of me.
i can either give it to you,
or turn it into a fist and
try to keep it to myself.
Jesus, your prayers were drenched
with sweat and blood,
and throbbed with glory and pain.
My prayers are so often soaked in perfume,
decorated with nothing more
than stock phrases and catchy clichés ---
carefully varnished pieces of furniture
for you to admire.
Unpeel my pretenses, masks, and façades,
and stare beneath my whitewashed life.
Shake off the rust,
and the dust,
and the tired repetition.
Here, now, Jesus,
I will break the trend,
I will speak prayers raw with the realities of life,
tender with the realization of grace;
with flesh and blood,
born of both marvel and pain.
Prayers like yours.
God’s word is living and active. It is sharper than any
and cuts as deep as the place where soul and spirit
meet, the place where joints and marrow meet.
God’s word judges a person’s thoughts and intentions.
O Ruthlessly Gracious One,
I’m slowly learning that
mercy is the most painful gift to receive.
Why does your grace have to glisten
on the edge
of an arrowhead?
It’d be so much more convenient if the cure came
in a pill or a bottle or a nice little self-affirmation
that I could repeat to myself every day.
you raise the bow and wink at me
as if you’re enjoying this.
I see the bowstring tremble and then,
as the string slips through your fingers,
I watch the arrow fly with swift precision
and feel it hit me, square in the gut.
through the womb of who I am
so that I can be reborn.
Lord of the broken oak branch,
Lord of the avenues,
Tweak and restartle me, guide my hand.
--from Negative Blue by Charles Wright
To the Nazarene.
I dance through life.
I have my favorite partners:
now delight, now regret, now relief,
But this time, as the music stirs,
I see your hand outstretched,
inviting me into the new song,
the glory song.
How long will you be willing to stand
on the dance floor
waiting for my answer?
i have seen it in others
and glimpsed it in myself ---
when i disappear, i finally
begin to glow.
as night fades,
as morning comes,
I take some time to prepare for today.
I know at times I’ll be tempted to lose my patience.
At times I’ll be tired,
at times people will push me to the edge,
at times I’ll forget about you.
Frame my day around obedience,
cover my moments with a little more peace,
guide my words toward a little more graciousness,
and keep my thoughts revolving
a little more around you.
This day is a gift, and it may be my last.
So, with that thought in mind,
I step into this moment
holding your hand
and entering my day.
i have a
with the carpenter today.
i wonder what he’s planning
and whose turn it
will be to hold the hammer.
O Creator of Beating Hearts,
and Healer of Broken Ones,
I’ve let my passion grow cold
since those days
when I first began my journey
You’ve become a part of my life
rather than the center of it,
a distraction rather than the direction.
And my prayers have grown stale,
stored so conveniently
in the cupboard of my heart.
So here’s what I ask:
give me the eyes of a newborn believer;
introduce yourself to me again.
Amaze me with your presence
and upset the comfortable balance
of my numb and stable life
with your strange brand
of fiery grace.
Crack open my courage and my awareness
so that I can finally speak to you
with all of my will and emotions,
with heartfelt needs and honest fumbling,
instead of holding myself back and
offering up such
hollow little prayers.
Excerpted from A HEART EXPOSED: Talking to God with Nothing to Hide © Copyright 2011 by Steven James. Reprinted with permission by Revell. All rights reserved.
A Heart Exposed: Talking to God with Nothing to Hide