Foundations for a meaningful prayer life when tiredness and busyness limit opportunities for extended times of prayer
I wrote an article last month entitled Everyday Mystics. In it I explored whether busyness and tiredness automatically mean that having a thriving spiritual life is impossible.
Thankfully, I’m convinced it is possible. It’s not easy, but we can train ourselves to learn to see God and experience God in ways we haven’t before. We may not have opportunity for regular extended times of prayer, meditation, or studying of Scripture, but God is still always there, always reaching out to us, always inviting us to intimacy and communion.
Opening our eyes to the ways in which God is everywhere can make a huge difference to our experience of communion with him. We don’t have to spend an hour in a prayer closet to be able to notice God in someone or something around us if we can only train our eyes to see.
Having focussed on this more general idea of becoming everyday mystics last time, today I want to think about prayer. What does a meaningful prayer life look life for people who are overwhelmed with tiredness and have few opportunities for any great lengthy times of prayer?
The apostle Paul, writing in 1 Thessalonians, talks about praying ‘without ceasing’. I’m lucky to sometimes get two minutes in the shower, so what can he mean?
My intent here though isn’t to focus on the mechanics of prayer. How we pray or what we pray isn’t what I want to prioritise now. Instead I want to think about the posture of our hearts with regard to prayer. What mindset, attitude, or heart posture do we need to have that might stimulate a natural prayerfulness that is organically integrated with life—no matter how busy or tired we are?
And there are four words that I want to explore in connection to this: mystery, humility, gratitude, and honesty.
We would all love for life to be black and white. We are comfortable when things are familiar and predictable. We want A plus B to always equal C. Similarly, we want prayer to be formulaic. We want it to be like a transaction: we do our bit (ask God to do something) and then God does his bit (gives us what we asked for).
But prayer isn’t like that. God is not a heavenly shopkeeper, simply selling us the goods we want to buy when we want them, using prayer as the currency. Prayer is deeply mysterious. And our prayer lives will never be very rich if we have a view of God that sees him as little more than a divine need-meeter.
This isn’t to suggest that God isn’t a provider who loves to meet our needs; it’s simply saying that the manner in which this happens is not in the form of A+B=C.
Prayer is about communion with God. It’s about relationship. How would your partner or best friend feel if the only thing you ever did was ask them for things? No marriage would survive if the relationship was solely built on asking each other to do things for us.
Healthy relationships are built on intimacy, conversation, shared experiences, quality time, and more. Of course, there are times when we do ask of things from each other, but that is only one small aspect of the relationship.
If most of our praying is asking God for stuff, we have a dysfunctional relationship with God and are missing out on true communion.
A great marriage can never be fully explained by five steps. There is never just one thing that gives us the complete picture about why a relationship is thriving. The same goes for prayer. It is mysterious. It is dynamic. There are numerous different pieces to the puzzle. And the sooner we embrace the mysteriousness and unpredictability of prayer, the more our hearts will be ready to embrace prayer as it was meant to be: communion with God.
Having embraced the mysterious nature of prayer, our hearts will only ever be ready for a meaningful, rich prayer life if we come before God with humility. Prayer by it’s very nature is an act of humility. At the very least, when I pray I am immediately admitting that I am not God!
Take Adam and Eve. They began in a place of being ‘naked and unashamed’ before both God and each other. That humble, intimate relationship with God was shattered by pride though. They wanted to be masters of their own destiny’s. Instead of seeing themselves as deeply connected to God, the universe, and everything, they chose independence. Rather than embracing interdependence, they went it alone. And in doing so they shattered that perfect communion with God they had at the start. (See Genesis 3:1-13.)
Prayer can only begin when we acknowledge that we need God; that we are only whole in the context of our connection to both God and all humanity. We need God and we need each other. That is the context in which humanity was designed to flourish. It is that platform of humble self-awareness that is essential to us seeking to come before God in prayer. Arrogance and prayerfulness simply don’t mix.
The natural overflow of a humble heart is gratitude. Of course we each play a vital role in our own lives and achievements, but the truth is that without God we wouldn’t even exist and could not survive. Sure, it may be our hard work that got us through university that in turn got us the job that pays the bills and enables us to buy the food we need to live on, but still, if God hadn’t set in motion a world where humans could thrive, none of that would be possible.
When I teach my two young girls to give thanks before we eat, I encourage them to say thank you for two things. First, they say thank you to God for the person who prepared their food, and second, they say thank you to God for being the the ultimate provider of all food. We shouldn’t deny our own role but neither should we negate God’s.
Grateful people are healthy people. It overrides any sense of entitlement. The more we appreciate that all of life is a gift, the more we will enjoy that life. But we’ll also place our hearts into a posture that is suited to prayerfulness.
Listening to my six year-old and two year-old say their prayers at night makes me feel very proud. They are almost all expressions of thankfulness. If you were to ask them what they think prayer is, they would probably tell you that it is about saying thank you to God for all the good things in life. There’s much more for them to learn about prayer, but I don’t think that’s too bad a place to start from.
Embracing the mystery of prayer and starting from a place of humility and gratitude are essential to building a life of prayer. But there there is little point to prayer if it does not flow out of honesty: honesty about how we feel, what we’re thinking, and what’s happening in our life. And yes, honesty about our shortcomings too (what the Bible calls sin).
Prayer is not about saying religious sounding words; it’s about a conversation with our maker. If it’s not real, raw, and honest, there’s no point to it at all.
No relationship will survive or go very deep if the people involved are not open and honest about their lives. Authenticity is at the heart of healthy relationships and the same is true for prayer. If we feel angry, express that anger. If we’re disappointed, let God know—even if it’s him we’re disappointed in!
God know’s everything anyway, so there’s no point in hiding or pretending like Adam and Eve tried to do. God is not like some terrible father we need to be afraid of. He is loving, kind, forgiving, generous, and merciful. He is on our side and one hundred percent for us.
Honesty is the critical ingredient for any relationship to be real. It is the foundation of trust. The sooner we realise that there is nothing we cannot talk to God about, the more we open up the possibility of our whole lives being an expression of prayer. We must resist compartmentalising prayer. We need to open up our whole lives: every thought, every act, every experience, every moment, every feeling to God. Anything we try to hide is nothing more than an act of self-deception.
When we go through stages of life that make times of extended prayer a challenge, we have to appreciate the reality that our whole lives can be an expression of prayer. We may not be able to lock ourselves away in a prayer closet for an hour, but that doesn’t mean our access to God is closed off. By keeping our hearts and minds humble, grateful, and honest, we can maintain a simple relationship with God that is real and authentic in the midst of the busyness and tiredness.
And we don’t need to feel guilty about not being able to have a long ‘quiet time’ every single day. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek out opportunities for more extended reflection, mediation, prayer, worship, and study of Scripture—we should!—but when life limits those opportunities, guilt will do nothing but paralyse our prayer life.
So let’s not be people who beat ourselves up with guilt. But let’s simply keep our hearts and minds open to God and to seeing and connecting with God at any moment and in any way. Let’s stay humble, grateful, and honest, embrace the mystery of prayer, and keep our eyes and ears open to the God who longs to be in constant communion with us.