1Praise the Lord, my soul.
Lord my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.
2 The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
3 and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.
4 He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.
Many years ago I was taught that to properly pray, I should remember the acronym ACTS:
In other words, all prayers should begin with an expression of love for God—our awareness of God’s greatness and our thankfulness for God’s being, ending with an expression of pure, unbridled love. After letting God know just how much we love Him, then we must confess that we aren’t what we are supposed to be, that we have failed and fallen short of what He calls us to be. After confessing our failures and sins, then we should ask God for forgiveness and for anything else we need (supplication). Finally, we should thank God for all that we already have, for His graciousness in forgiving us, for his patience in listening to our prayers, and for all that God supplies.
As a child my prayers were very simple and honestly did not follow this format at all. As I grew older and was more aware of my need for God, I did my best to pray this way—so that I could please God—and to be mindful that I failed God daily and how He continued to love me, to forgive me, and to listen to my prayers and answer them. I feared that God was perpetually displeased with me because I struggled with the same stupid sins day after day. I found myself groveling before God as if my inability to overcome my own personality was a fatal flaw that left God perpetually shaking His finger at me, shaking His head in frustration. This mental image of the finger-shaking God actually distanced me from God quite a bit. I began to dread praying because I didn’t want to have to grovel and beg for forgiveness. I didn’t want to have to confess to the same stupid sins done the same stupid way for the same stupid reason and admit that I just couldn’t get over myself one more time. I found myself resenting God and alternately hating my inability to overcome such simple challenges as cookies and cursing.
That kind of faith persisted in me well into my 20’s, past marriage and until after the birth of my first daughter. Having kids changes a lot of things in life, and for me it changed the way that I imagined God…and how I imagined God’s reaction to me when I prayed. It took a while for the change to develop, but around the time that Alex was 18 months old I had an epiphany. Alex was driving me absolutely crazy and I yelled at her, which caused her to burst into tears. As a parent you are simultaneously in charge of discipline and comfort, so once she started crying I bent down to pick her up and was amazed that somewhere between the floor and my shoulder, my anger dissipated entirely. By the time I had Alex cuddled into me with her head on my shoulder, all that mattered was that she understood that I still loved her even though she was being obnoxious. Epiphany: how could I be more loving than God? How could I be more patient than God? What made me think it was any different between me and my daughter than it was between me and God? Suddenly it became possible for me to imagine a God who could be frustrated with my bad behavior and determined to comfort me and reassert His love for me at the same time. In other words, no finger shaking God!!
This little change in my mind yielded huge changes in my relationship with God. It greatly reduced my sense that my sin separated me from God in some crucial way. It changed the way I understood God’s reaction to my sin. And it changed my conception of holiness, because holiness didn’t include finger-shaking condemnation and disgust. Let me tell you, it gets hard to be self-righteous when your God doesn’t do the self-righteous thing either. What a relief. Maybe we should share this realization with Donald Trump? But I digress…
Like I said, having kids changes a lot of things in life. Recently, I ran into this acronym again and thought WTH??!
The first thought I had was how sick and twisted praying like this would be. Remember, I understand God as my heavenly father, my loving parent…not the finger-shaking jerk that I thought He was when I was younger. So when I’m praying, I’m talking to my dad…or my brother if I’m feeling the need for a Jesus boost. I would never, ever, ever talk to my dad—earthly or heavenly—according to this twisted acronym and I would freak out if my kids talked to me like this. Can you imagine?
“Mom, I love you so much! You are the most amazing mom and you give me everything I need! I truly love and adore you. You are my everything and I am nothing without you; I can do nothing without you. I admit that I haven’t been the daughter you want me to be. I fail you every day, not always sharing the whole truth when you ask me a question. I don’t always keep my room clean and sometimes when I’m mad at you I call you bad words in my mind. Sometimes I mouth the bad words. When I’m with my friends I call you bad names out loud. I’m so sorry for that. Please help me not to call you bad names anymore. Please help me to clean my room more often. Please help me not to lie to you when you catch me playing on my phone instead of doing my homework. And please help my friend Anna, because she’s going out with a real jerk and is lying to her mom about it. Thank you for hearing my requests, and thank you for all that you do for me. Thank you for forgiving me for being a jerk sometimes. I am so thankful for all the stuff you’ve given me, and the great furniture in my bedroom, and all my clothes and my iPod and iPhone and iPad and all my other iStuff. Just…thank you! You are so amazing! Amen.”
Does that not creep you out? I cannot imagine letting my kid talk to me like that. The level of butt-kissing in that previous paragraph approaches critical mass! The word ‘sycophant’ comes to mind…along with a few other words that I’m only saying in my mind. Okay actually I’m mouthing them but not saying them out loud. I’ve gotten a little better in this regard since I was a kid. Anyway, I just find this whole thing creepy and gross because I don’t ever want my kids to talk to me like that. I feel like it would shut down our relationship since relationship is built on intimacy which is built on vulnerability and honesty…and those things do not thrive well in environments where communication is formal and must adhere to rigid guidelines. Then there’s the fact that butt-kissing is absolutely fatal to relationship because it is based in the belief that you must inflate the other person’s ego or they won’t respond nicely to your request. Do we really think that God’s ego that fragile? Is God having self-esteem issues? I’m thinking that God has this ego thing nailed and really doesn’t need us to tell Him how almighty He is. After all, He raised His kid from the dead. I’m pretty sure that somewhere in Heaven there is a plaque of macaroni art from Jesus that says “BEST DAD EVER.”
What I’ve learned about communication and love from my daughters is that it works best when there’s lots of informal moments of ‘chatting’ where a whole lot of unimportant details get shared…because somewhere in all those details is the important stuff. My kids never sat down and gave me a boiled down synopsis of their lives with bullet-points to highlight the important stuff. Nope…I found out about their lives, their needs and their loves from the moments spent washing dishes after dinner, or giving each other manicures, or grocery shopping…and that’s still how I find out about their lives now. I won’t lie: occasionally they do come over and request a serious ‘sit down’ discussion with me and their dad. They come over so that they can pour out their hearts and their tears while cuddling on the couch. But you don’t get to those precious moments without the million minutes that come before and after, filled with endless chatter and emotions that change so fast that I have to keep a scorecard.
What I’m trying to say is that prayer should look a lot more like what Paul prescribed: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess 5:16-18) Then you have to add what Peter said in 1 Peter 5:7 “Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” And then there is the Psalmist who said “I sought the Lord and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” (Psalm 34:4)
By the way, taking time to praise God isn’t a bad thing. Just don’t be weird and compulsive about it. Occasionally my daughters will text me a sweet message telling me how much they love me, or how they miss me now that they don’t live at home. Sometimes they’ll come up to me and hug me out of the blue and tell me how much they enjoy spending time with me. I love those moments! I’m betting that God loves those moments as well, so praise and adoration are encouraged, and they don’t have to be accompanied by confession, supplication, and thanksgiving. As a matter of fact, I’m betting that God would occasionally just like to know that you love Him.
When you put it all together, there should be an unceasing river of chatter that should flow from us to God…moments of praise, thanks, and joy mixed in with moments of frustration, anger, and confusion. Momentous requests and confessions mixed in with mundane details and even trivial crap. If God truly is a parent, then God is interested in the minutia of our lives. If God is truly a loving parent, then God wants to hear about it all even though He already watched it all happen (apparently God had live-streaming down way before the rest of us did.) God isn’t worried that you won’t praise Him or that you won’t approach Him correctly or that you’ll be less than perfectly respectful in your prayers. Like most other parents, what worries God is the possibility that you won’t talk to Him at all…that you’ll cut Him out of your life and won’t tell Him anything. Relationship stops when communication stops…so after a while no prayer becomes no relationship. So talk to the man for goodness sake! And skip the formula…the formatted “it has to be this way”-ness of praying. Just talk. Please talk. God is listening.