May Boatright is one of the most delightful and endearing literary characters. Although not a main character in the movie, ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ (based on the novel of the same name by Sue Monk Kidd), May is pivotal to the flow and emotion of the story.
She is oversensitive and internalises any hurt, pain or injustice of other people she knows and loves.
She feels the pain of others intensely and treats the pain as her own. In the novel, Lily, the protagonist, describes May as ‘one of the sweetest and gentlest women you could ever meet and certainly one of the most empathetic.’
To help May process the pain and anguish she feels, her sisters, August and June, encouraged her to build a wall from river stones and to write down the events that caused the pain onto pieces of paper and stick them in the wall, thus releasing her pain.
She stacked all her sorrows in the wall.
Considering this is not a movie or book review, you might be wondering where I am going with this.
I tend to be a bit like May. When my kids hurt, I hurt. When they are in pain, I feel their pain intensely. When they are rejected, I feel that rejection. When those I love and care for are struggling, I so internalise their struggle that it sometimes paralyses me and the anxiety and worry overwhelm me. I want to fix their struggle and remove their pain and heartache. At night these shadows of depression and discouragement dance in my mind, chanting their dark mantra. I wake at 03h00 in the morning, anxiety robbing me of sleep.
I am not suggesting that the answer is a makeshift wall in which to insert my anxieties and worries on pieces of paper (although Pop Psychology might very well prescribe that). What I am suggesting is what Jesus prescribes in 1 Peter 5:7 where He commands us to ‘Cast all our anxieties on Him because He cares for us.’ This is not as simple as it sounds because we have to truly trust the one on whom we are casting our cares. We have to humbly surrender our control. We have to know Jesus.
This is what we can know and trust about Jesus: ‘Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. [Hebrews 4:14-16]
We also know that Jesus prayed for us specifically in John 17 and not only can Jesus sympathise with us in our weaknesses, but Hebrews 7:25 assures us that Jesus is interceding for us right now. He is praying for us.
And yet my prayer life is the one area of my Christian walk that really limps.
I hesitate to stack all my sorrows on Jesus.
Why do I struggle to do this? Why is praying so hard?
I sometimes wonder if my reluctance to pray is a symptom of the general climate of prayer in our churches.
On the one hand, there is eloquence.
Fancy, intellectual, wordy and lengthy prayers. Long spiritual phrases and clichés. The sophisticated and articulate verbosity becomes intimidating and you start to believe that is the standard for acceptable prayers. It is no wonder many don’t want to pray in corporate prayer meetings or small groups. We feel our prayers aren’t good enough, perhaps not quite doctrinally correct. We feel our prayers aren’t good enough as if our audience is the people. God is made out to be so lofty and transcendent, requiring unique spiritual jargon.
The world values and esteems eloquence. God doesn’t.
This trickles down into our personal prayer life. If only we could realise the truth that prayer is about talking to our Heavenly Father, rather than preparing a speech for an adjudicator.
Prayer is not about impressing others, but about expressing our hearts to God. Our audience for prayer is one –it is for God.
This lesson is not hard to understand.
Jesus simply outlined this in Matthew 6:5-7: ‘And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.
For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.’
Jesus illustrated this so clearly in the parable of the praying Pharisee and Publican in Luke 18:9-14.
On the other hand, there is superficiality.
God is approached as doctor, dispenser, recruitment agent, travel agent and dream catcher. The prayer chain is overworked with long typed list of personal ailments, issues and miserable circumstances. Our prayers seem to be futile and mercenary. Our view of God becomes so small, self-centred and limited. It is no wonder our prayer life is affected.
Paul’s NT prayers are so different to this display of eloquence or superficiality.
Our purpose for prayer is to commune with our Father,
to boldly enter His presence and talk to Him.
Prayer is privilege, not posturing.
C. S. Lewis says, ‘God can’t give us peace and happiness apart from Himself because there is no such thing.’
When I need my anxious heart calmed or joy amid my sadness, my posture needs to be kneeling – not with lofty words or a list, but with the comfort of being in the presence of my Heavenly Father where such peace and joy is to be found. ‘Oh LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear.’ [Psalm 10:17]
That, however, is not our default.
It is Mt Sinai all over again. But this time our golden calves have a ring tone.
While Moses was up the mountain in the presence of God, the Israelites looked to Aaron to build a golden calf to worship and to sort out their problems. Out of sight, out of mind.
Instead of us entering God’s presence, we turn to our friends for advice and to our smartphones as distractions. Perhaps there is an article or two or three on prayer to read, or perhaps I can find a 3-step programme to a better prayer life, or perhaps I will post a prayer request on Facebook and then check how many people have liked and commented, or perhaps I will post a personal written or video prayer on Instagram.
In 'The Screwtape Letters' by C. S Lewis, Screwtape, the senior devil, gives advice to his nephew and apprentice, Wormwood, a junior devil.
In letter IV, Screwtape argues that the goal of the devils should be to keep humans from serious prayer.
He tells Wormwood that one way to tamper with prayer is to encourage the praying person to think of himself rather than God. So when the ‘patient’ (Christian) prays for bravery from God, Wormwood should encourage the patient to try to be brave.
Wormwood can further tamper with the patient’s prayer by encouraging him to think of God in concrete, visual terms. Screwtape observes that many people are in the habit of praying to a specific place on their wall, or to an object like a cross. If they pray this way they will remain far from God.
He reminds Wormwood that humans don’t want to feel God’s presence as much as they think, and that is a huge advantage for devils. In other words, they can be easily distracted from praying.
I am realising that Wormwood was a good student and successful apprentice.
Prayer is not going to a place, it is entering God’s presence.
Jesus’ disciples obviously witnessed His personal prayer life. They must have also struggled with the concept of relational prayer, hence their request, ‘Teach us how to pray.’ Jesus then proceeded to give them a simple template for appropriate prayer.
The whole pattern of Christ’s teaching model of prayer is not eloquent spiritual jargon or big words, but rather worship, dependence, gratitude and confession. It starts with a personal relationship, ‘Our Father…’ Just a simple way to approach our heavenly Father and come into His presence.
Such prayer takes us into heaven and brings heaven into our hearts.
Screwtape continued, ‘All extremes – except extreme devotion to the Enemy (God), are to be encouraged.’ [Letter VII]
That is why prayer is so hard – because prayer is about my heart and not my words.
It is a battle.
Prayer is God’s way of humbling us, transforming us, encouraging us and conforming us to the image of Christ. Prayer is God’s way of changing and softening our hearts and attitudes. No wonder that is Satan’s front-line of attack. By keeping us from talking to God, he keeps us from God.
Tim Keller has a beautiful definition of prayer: ‘What is prayer, then, in the fullest sense? Prayer is continuing a conversation that God has started through His Word and His grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with Him…The power of our prayers, then, lies not primarily in our effort and striving, or in any technique, but rather in our knowledge of God.’
Prayer relies on us knowing God and knowing God comes from His Word. Without engaging in Scripture, our prayers are lacking and our communion with God will be lacking. The more we get to know someone, the deeper our interaction. The sweeter our time spent with them.
So when I am limping in my Christian walk, it is because my knowledge of my Father is weak and my time spent in His word is lacking.
It is as simple as that. I can blame it on Screwtape and Wormwood,
or I can search my stubborn heart.
Isaiah 29:13:‘And the Lord said: "This people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men…”’
‘Prayer, as the unconscious heart cry in times of distress, is the currency of all humanity; but prayer, as the deep and committed soul-bond in communion with almighty God, is an exceptionally rare and precious jewel.’ [George Grant]
Prayer is not about lists or formulas or acronyms or eloquent sounding spiritual jargon.
Prayer is about our hearts, delighting in and depending on God. That is when our hearts are kneeling.
And when our anguish is so great like May’s and we don’t have any words, the Holy Spirit gently takes our groanings and presents them perfectly in God’s presence on our behalf. Prayer, according to Philippians 4:6-7, is the key to the peace of God that surpasses understanding and to freedom from anxiety.
One of the most beautiful accounts of this is Hannah in 1 Samuel 1.
Her heartache, sadness and anguish were immense. She went into the temple, greatly distressed and weeping bitterly, and prayed to the Lord. As Eli watched her distressed posture and praying, he thought she was drunk. But she shared how oppressed her spirit was and how she was pouring out her soul before the Lord.
No fancy words. No eloquence. Just heartfelt words of sorrow and grief. Casting her cares on the Lord. The narrative continues with these wonderful words: ‘Then she went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.’
That is the reality of Philippians 4:6-7 in practice.
Unlike May in ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ we are not taking our sorrows to a wall
of stones or rocks, we are taking them to a Person.
‘The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.’ [Psalm 18:2]
The hymn writer, Joseph M. Scriven, certainly understood this when he wrote his famous hymn, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus,’ in 1855:
'What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer…
In His arms He’ll take and shield you, you will find a solace there.'
When my heart is overwhelmed and my distress is great, Jesus says, 'Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.'