When Prayer Feels Like ‘Talking To Myself’

By Keith Miller | January 11, 2010

Sometimes when I’m praying my rational mind jumps in and says, “Do you suppose anybody is really listening?”  Or I simply wonder if I’m talking to myself.  That often makes me want to stop praying until I feel clear about God’s presence.  But then I feel bad because I’m not praying regularly.  It’s a vicious cycle that seems to engulf me at times.  Does this ever happen to you?  And if so, what do you do to get past it?

Grapeleaves

As I read your question, I thought of the dozens and dozens of times this has happened to me.  And when it does, I almost invariably feel as if I must be doing something wrong and need to “straighten out my life” so that I can get through to God better.

But I came to realize a long time ago that this experience of doubt in the midst of prayer is just part of the human condition.  Yet many people I’ve talked with have been taught that it means some hidden evil is in our lives—and of course that can be sometimes.  But when that occurs to me I just ask God to show me anything that is blocking my relationship with Him—or other people—and to help me face what ever comes up—and ask Him to help me deal with it.

I suppose Paul is right in implying that we all will see through a glass dimly as long as we are in our human bodies.  But it also makes me realize that there are a lot of notions about prayer that are simply not true and distract us and tempt us to withdraw or sit in judgment of the real rough and tumble struggles that are evidently parts of everyone’s experiences of trying to communicate with the living God.

This notion that if I am really in a good relationship to God I will always feel the warmth of His presence when I am praying to Him is, for me, a gross misconception and was certainly not Jesus’ experience (he “sweated blood” praying in Gethsemane).  I am always reminding new Christians that Jesus did not say to me, “I will give you goose bumps.”  Instead, he said, “I will be with you unto the end of the age.”  Goose bumps represent physiological feelings, not faith.  If we have the goose bumps, we don’t really need faith to believe God is with us.  Faith has to do with believing when there is no physical evidence that convinces the mind.  In other words, on those mornings when I get up and do not feel God’s presence, I now thank Him that He is with me even though I don’t have a lot of excited feelings.  I tell him I want to give Him back the only thing I really can give Him and that is the gift of faith for this day.  I tell Him that I am going to try to live as if I had enormous feelings of His presence.  This may sound like some sort of autosuggestion, but in fact it is simply behavior based on a belief in His word in the scriptures that He would be with us “day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28: 20 The Message)

Another closely related misconception I have to fight my way through is that if I committed my life to God and gave my whole future to Him, then I would be happy and contented and would avoid the usual pains and agonies of life.  The assumption behind this kind of thinking is that suffering and pain are punishments for misbehavior or lack of commitment.  I’ve come to believe deeply that much of what we call suffering and pain are parts of the fabric of all living and can be important blessings.  And that what Christianity does, instead of eliminating these things, is to give them meaning.  As I confront the universal problems, doubts and heartaches of life, I find that they can bless me by teaching me how to love God and people better and make me more sensitive to my own needs to grow as I face pain the way our Lord did.  “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”  Matthew 5:3 The Message

What’s happened to me in my prayer life is that instead of praying “Lord, take this anxiety and pain out of my life today,” I might pray (on my best days) something more like, “Lord, help me to understand why I’m anxious and to learn from this pain and agony I’m going through something about the meaning of life, and how to love people more nearly as you do.”  Then I am not so frightened about the anxiety that comes into my life.  It’s not that I don’t still have anxiety, but I don’t find so much fear about the experience of having it as I once did.  I realize now that difficulties, pain and frustration are always to be experienced somewhere in the life of people who are growing and developing, leaving old securities and trying to establish new ones.  I am more at home in the world and feel better when I come to God with these problems openly, rather than trying to get them all cleaned up before I come to Him in prayer.  And of course this means that I can come to Him anytime, since I know that He is not going to be disappointed in me for continuing to have problems that are a natural part of the fabric of living and particularly ‘growing’.

In my opinion God has not given us a “status” of perfection when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, but rather He has given us a process that allows spiritual growth and maturity to take place.  The process includes an awareness of sin or incompleteness, a struggle not to admit our own responsibility in the problem, a confession that in fact we have sinned, a turning to God and asking His forgiveness, and then a thanking Him that He builds His kingdom out of the broken pieces of our lives when we bring them to Him in prayer.  After this process there sometimes comes an understanding or a grasp of the sin in which we’ve been involved that can sometimes help me recognize sooner and avoid this sin.  As I see these kinds of insights age over the years in people’s lives, their ‘troubles’ may eventually be transmuted into what the Bible calls wisdom and understanding.  And as soon as one receives the forgiveness each time it is as if—in forgiving us—God has taken a damp cloth and wiped off the blackboard of our cortical slate so that our minds are clean and fresh.  Then He hands us a new piece of chalk to write the next chapter of our life on that day, that hour.  And the process repeats itself again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again . . . and again.

Lord, thank you that we can trust that you are with us whether we can “feel” your presence or not.  When experiences of doubt enter our minds, help us to remember your promise.  And Lord, as we encounter problems, pain, and struggles, help us to know that we can bring them to you so you can teach us what we need to know about our part in these problems.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

“I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”

Mt. 28:18b, The Message

“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”

Hebrews 11:1  The Message

“I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge… Is there no one who can do anything for me?…The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does… With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.”

Romans 7:22 – 8:2  The Message

“It does sometimes happen that my prayers degenerate into introspection.  I can soon sense the difference: I begin, in fact, to listen to myself more than to God, to concentrate on myself instead of Him.  It is then that the human dialogue can help to revitalize the dialogue with God.  Contact with other Christians, their witness, what they have to say about their own experience of the activity of the Holy Spirit, renews the quality of my own prayer life.”

Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons, 169

Topics: Christian Living, Weekly Devotional | Comments Off on When Prayer Feels Like ‘Talking To Myself’

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