whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. —Mark 11:24
It’s the most basic thing for people of faith, transcending religious boundaries—the power of prayer. Worship services open up with it; it’s our first reaction when someone is in need. But I’ve been thinking about prayer a lot recently, and I’ve come to understand that… I don’t understand it.
Growing up, I received mixed signals about prayer. Ask and ye shall receive, we were taught, but also be cautious about what you ask. I’d heard many prayers like, “Please give me this specific thing, unless it’s not Your will.” Which we don’t really mean, because we still desire it enough to ask. How do you know if it’s God’s will? Why, you pray on it, of course.
What a confusing and vicious cycle.
I’m reminded of a magical genie in a lamp. Use your wishes wisely, it says, and really think about what you’re asking. Those wishes always backfire—like, if you wish for money, you’ll receive an inheritance from a tragic death. Similarly, I was taught to never pray for patience, because God will test it so you may practice. (a la, “I’ll give you something to be patient about!”) But this never made much sense. God isn’t some trickster waiting for us to ask for the wrong thing.
Communing with Him is easy, comparatively. Whether it’s sitting in silence or offering praise, or praying for the well-being of others. But when it comes to me? I’m stuck on those old “rules,” so I’m never completely honest about the way I feel. I don’t know how to ask, so that I may receive.
Through a truth glimpsed fleetingly in a state of prayer he calls to us. No matter how halfhearted such insights may be, God rejoices whenever we learn what he is trying to teach us.
—St. Teresa of Avila
But what if… I was honest? What if I wasn’t afraid of being wrong? I already know that His ways aren’t mine. I know that His plans are greater than my own, and if He grants me something different than what I asked, it’s better than what I asked. But I continue to hold back. I’m subconsciously afraid of that imaginary trickster. More than that, there’s that nagging voice during prayer that says it’s useless. There’s a certain disbelief that He’ll answer. But He’s never shown me that any of this is true. It’s strange how I both depend on His guidance and also tune Him out. But part of me also fears the next step in our spiritual relationship. He’s been calling to me, but I’ve been too self-absorbed to answer. Growing up and being responsible is scary.
I’ve been dwelling on this so much lately that I haven’t prayed at all. Where do I begin, now that I’ve started to unlearn those old teachings? It’s like when you’ve wronged a friend and don’t know how to apologize. But apologizing to God should be easier: you never know if people will accept your apology, but God always lets you come home.
There’s a big difference between the imaginary, trickster genie and… well, God. The genie may give you what you want, though you won’t like the way you receive it. God doesn’t play that game. He’ll gently say “No,” and show you something better. So for my first wish, I ask for clarity. I desire to be open with God, and push past those self-doubts and inadequacies. I don’t know where to begin. But prayer isn’t about syntax. It’s about God, and maybe my first step is… to pray about it.