Two kinds of prayer
The kind of praying I love to do most is deep, self-reflective, and cathartic. I set aside 2-3 hours to spend time with God. I begin by reading a bunch of different Scripture passages. I ask the Holy Spirit to use them to reveal Himself to me. Sometimes I am shown promises I need to trust God for. Often I discover sinful attitudes I need to repent of. I do lots of soul-searching. At the end, my circumstances haven’t changed but I feel washed inside and re-centered.
When I don’t have the luxury of living in my head (which is where I am most comfortable), I do another kind of praying. I keep up a sort of running conversation with God as I work my way through the day’s responsibilities. I ask him to guide and bless my work as I prepare for classes, lecture, grade homework, talk to students, and so on. I’m not very naturally organized, so I talk to myself (out loud, often!) as I sort through the day, and I include God in the conversation.
I’ve tended to think of petition as belonging to the second sort of prayer. When I pray for specific needs they are concrete needs. I bring them to God when I am in the mode of arranging my activities and goals for Him. If it’s my responsibility to teach a math class, then as part of my responsibility I should pray for the students and for my lecture.
This week I’m being reminded that there is another kind of petition, a soul-searching, psychologically cathartic kind.
When I spent extended time alone with God in the past, He often pushed me to reflect on and confront the state of my heart, including the things that make me afraid or resentful, the sins I cling to, my secret ambitions, the wrong ideas I have about Him. Recently, I’ve tried to be vulnerable before Him about what I want in practical life and what has been a disappointment to me.
The key discipline in this respect has been petition. It is as though God says, “What do you want me to do for you?” In pondering that question, I find myself becoming aware of the things I’m frustrated or defeated by. I realize that so far God hasn’t answered my prayers in those areas the way I wanted Him to. That leads to a lot of reflection on why I wanted what I did, and whether it’s the best thing to want, and why God hasn’t come through as I expected, and what I should be praying for from now on. I end up discovering where I have faith and where I don’t.
I just said that this kind of reflective petition leads to my asking what I should be praying for from now on. That’s very important. In a previous post, I protested against the view that we pray only because of how it changes us. We don’t just pray to change our attitudes, we pray in the expectation that God will respond to our prayers. That’s definitely true of what I am talking about here. It’s not a matter of learning to be content with life as it is. It’s learning how to realistically trust that life can become something much more than it is. Soul-searching petition begins and ends with real petitions, and the real hope that God will answer them.