This is the third blog post in our series "Abide: Grace-Fueled Practices of Spiritual Discipline." Click the links below to read the previous posts.
The centerpiece of our backyard is a large pile of dirt—the leftovers from an unfinished gardening project. That pile exerts a magnetic pull on my daughters, who spend their afternoons excavating it, summiting it, and harvesting from it the makings of mud pies. There are days when I glance out the window at them and promptly go turn on the bathtub.
But when my husband walks in the back gate after work, my daughters do not run to the tub—they run to him. With dirt in their hair and on their hands, they hug him and chatter happily, less concerned with how they look than with who they’re talking to. When I think of prayer, that is what I see: my disheveled daughters and their dad, who sees the mud and the smudged cheeks, but delights in the daughters beneath them.
The topic of prayer is a fathomless one. Rather than attempting to survey it, I would like to nibble thoughtfully on this one sweet corner, because a small shift here altered forever the way I view every other aspect of prayer. I would like to talk about what it means to approach God the way a child approaches her father.
It is true that when we pray, we pray to our Heavenly Father. It is also true that when we pray, we pray to the Lord of the Universe, who made all things and who we are exhorted, in many places throughout Scripture, to fear (Prov. 19:23, Ps. 34:9). But I am taking my cues here from Jesus, who, when his disciples asked him how they ought to pray, opened simply (and shockingly) with, “Our Father” (Luke 11:2 KJV). He went on to revere God’s name and to emphasize his power and glory (9:13 KJV). But he opened with “Our Father,” and he invites us to open our prayers that way, too.
Paul Miller, in the best book on prayer I’ve read, writes, “God . . . cheers when we come to him with our wobbling, unsteady prayers. Jesus does not say, ‘Come to me, all you who have learned how to concentrate in prayer, whose minds no longer wander, and I will give you rest.’ No, Jesus opens his arms to his needy children and says, ‘Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:28 NASB). The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy” (A Praying Life).
When we come to God like a daughter to her dad, we come helpless. We do not put off praying until after we’ve washed up—we come to him messy, admitting the disorder of our hearts and the weight of our days. Our prayers sometimes bubble up in the glad chatter of a child, but sometimes we howl like a child overwhelmed by the world. Those prayers aren’t pretty, but there is no safer place to take them than to God.
Praying like this requires a certain amount of unlearning. We spend a large portion of our adult lives attempting to tuck away our unfinished ends and smoothing anything in us that might seem rumpled. Middle school and high school are training grounds for this; social media continually asks us what facet of ourselves is safe to share. But when we pray, we approach the One who sees past any varnish we might apply. He sees our heart, whether we offer it to him or not.
Many women have not known this kind of father, and it takes trust to imagine that our Heavenly Father might delight in those vulnerable, untucked prayers. But he does: Come to me, he says. Come to me weary and broken; come to me trembling and afraid. Bring me your fumbling words and busy mind and let me slowly, slowly, over the course of your whole life, teach you to walk with me.
This sort of prayer is not something we script, any more than we script our evening conversation with families or roommates. With them, we babble. We have not seen them all day and want to know: How was your day? What did you do? We tell them about our trip to the DMV, or about our encounter with the neighbor’s weird dog. We show up to the table interested—ready to listen and to reveal what’s percolating in our own hearts.
When I say “come to God like little children,” that is what I mean. Deep conversations are a crucial part of prayer, but they spring only from the healthy soil of many small exchanges. We cannot dress ourselves up for every prayer. We shouldn’t. Throwing a clean dress on over our muddy clothes doesn’t make us holy, just dishonest.
Share with him what you’re thinking, what worries you, what you wonder about, and wait. Your Father—the God of the Universe, the One who made our world with his words—is listening.
In addition to the other resources mentioned so far in this series, I heartily recommend:
A Praying Life by Paul Miller
Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller
Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by CS Lewis
“Our Needs Point Us to God,” by Christine Hoover (Desiring God)
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