Some people find that praying comes naturally, but for me that was not true. I am not embarrassed about this; after all, I did not grow up naturally able to navigate a sailboat or cook an omelet. I had to be taught these things. But nobody taught me how to pray.
One thing I had been taught was that praying is not just another word for begging. When they say there are no atheists in fox holes the are not really talking of praying; they mean begging. And begging only corrodes the soul. Either the passerby carelessly drops a quarter into the outstretched hand or he ignores it and hurries on by. Either way, the beggar is demeaned. By contrast, true prayer is uplifting.
To discover how truly to pray I turned to the Hebrew language, his study of which the second governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford described this way:
Though I am growne aged, yet I have a longing desire to see, with my owne eyes, something of that most ancient language, and holy tongue, in which the law and Oracles of God were written; and in which God and angels spoke to the Holy Patriarcks of old time; and what names were given to things at the Creation. (History of the Plantation of Plymouth, 1651)
Saying, “I pray” in Hebrew is pronounced “ani mitpaleil.” Whereas Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses spoke with God, it wasn’t until later that people had to settle for praying to God. From Scriptural context the word for praying evidently really means reconciling or judging. Judging and reconciling are really the same idea. Take two apparently incompatible realities and blend them into a unified outcome.
Furthermore, this Hebrew verb “mitpaleil” is a reflexive verb, meaning it is something I do to myself. Thus, saying, “I dress myself” in Hebrew is pronounced “ani mitlabeish.” While it is obvious that I dress myself, it is far less obvious that praying involves something I do to myself. No, not that I pray to myself, of course, but that praying to God involves judging or reconciling something in myself.
Judging or reconciling something about me? Yes, reconciling two separate images of me; what I think of me and what God thinks of me. This can be a disconcerting exercise so we must ask what this has to do with praying. When the coastguard must tow to safety a boat drifting into peril, they need to get a good strong tow rope across to the stricken vessel. They first throw or shoot across a light line which the mariners use to haul over the heavy rope that will actually be used for the tow.
In other words, in order to initially make contact a light cord, unsuitable for the ultimate task, must nonetheless be used to launch the process. Similarly, our ultimate intent is to communicate with God, we nonetheless need some way to establish contact and launch the process.
The most effective way to start a conversation with our Father in heaven, is to acknowledge that He has expectations of us. If we start off with our hopes and expectations of God, we’re just begging. But by first focusing on Him, we open communication. There is no communication when that beggar holds out his hand to us. However, if that same beggar attracts our attention by sincerely asking what he could do for us, authentic communication can result. There is nothing more that God wants from us than for us each to achieve our potential. Happily, God doesn’t expect me to be Moses but He does expect me to be everything He created me to become. Seriously contemplating the gap between His view of me and the inadequate reality is the way to start authentic communication.
This is why both John Adams in March 1798 and Abraham Lincoln in March 1863 proclaimed, not merely a national day of prayer but a national day of prayer and humiliation. Humbling ourselves by openly acknowledging our failure to achieve God’s vision of our destiny is a necessary prerequisite for prayer. Only by acknowledging God’s expectations of us can we expect God to heed our expectations of Him.
Just like navigation and cooking, knowing the technique makes all the difference. Once I learned this portal to prayer the relief from existential loneliness I felt was palpable. I may have learned late but now knowing how truly to pray, I have made up for lost time. What is more, I embrace opportunities to teach others just how to pray.