Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published in April 2013.
Christians struggle with prayer. So much so, says Paul Miller, author of A Praying Life, that only about 10 percent of believers claim to have an effective or meaningful prayer life.
That failure, Miller believes, is rooted in “a core unbelief,” and that unbelief shapes our entire lives. Such unbelief, Miller contends, causes us to be fearful, anxious, and joyless. If he’s right, we need to learn more about prayer, and how to do it better. “I never started out to write a book on prayer,” Miller says. “I simply discovered that I had learned how to pray.”
We spoke with him about a few of the key lessons.
Your book and seminars seem to have struck a responsive chord. Why do you suppose that is?
Several things have struck me. First, people are feeling a greater sense of need. Their relational worlds are collapsing. For example, many are experiencing the end of Christendom. By Christendom, I mean the period between the fourth and 20th centuries when the general culture was influenced by and even appreciated the influences of Christianity. In our own (Reformed) families, our adult children are walking away from the faith. Growing up in the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) community in the Philadelphia area, you would occasionally hear about a “black sheep.” My dad taught at Westminster Seminary, and I remember the concern we all felt in the late 1960s for another professor’s daughter who was not a believer. Now, 45 years later, that is commonplace, especially here in the Northeast. A typical Christian home with three grown children now has one child going to church, one not rejecting Christianity but not going to church, and a third openly rejecting Christianity. And it is not uncommon to see all the kids walking away from the faith.
Liberal secular culture is eating our families alive. It doesn’t take you long to realize that you are completely powerless to bring Christ into your kids’ hearts. So what are we left with? Praying. Asking. Talking to our heavenly Father. Then we discover that prayer is actually the most powerful thing that God has given us.
Another reason I believe God has blessed the book and the seminar is that the church, in general, has taught prayer as if it were a lofty spiritual mountain to climb. And then pastors, unwittingly, can berate Christians for not climbing that mountain. So not only does the task feel impossible, but you feel ashamed for not doing it.
When we do our seminars, we spend a lot of time drawing our audience out with how they feel about prayer. The dominant feelings are frustration and guilt. I’d say that in the PCA and beyond about 10 percent of the church has a regular, effective prayer life. When seminar participants realize that most everyone else is struggling, there is a collective sigh of relief.
Children are supremely confident of their parents’ love and power. Instinctively, they trust. They believe their parents want to do them good. If you know your parent loves and protects you, it fills your world with possibility. You just chatter away with what is on your heart.
It works the same way in the world of prayer. If you learn to pray, you learn to dream again.
A Praying Life
Once we establish the problem, then we bring the gospel to bear on their prayer life. In the gospel, because of Jesus’ death for us, we are accepted by grace. The only thing we bring to the table is our helplessness. In fact, if we try to bring our goodness, the gospel doesn’t work. Prayer works the same way. Jesus tells us to come helpless, “weary and heavy laden.” So prayer isn’t a discipline but learned desperation. It’s not so much a mountain to climb as a valley to fall into. That’s something I can do.
Applying the gospel to prayer is the first of several other paradigm shifts that we take people through. For example, the way most people are taught to pray is almost a “suppression of me.” That is, we try to be spiritual when we pray. Without realizing it, we can try to create a person that doesn’t exist, a kind of spiritual avatar. Of course, that doesn’t work. So instead of suppressing who I am, prayer is bringing who I am, warts and all, to God. Then I get to know God, His heart, and the “me” begins to change. So the dynamic that Calvin talks about in the opening of the Institutes, where a true knowledge of self leads to a true knowledge of God (and vice versa), begins to work.
When we begin to pray and ask, we enter a story with our Father and the person or matter we are praying about. Because of the story and the need to watch for it, we recommend using a tool called prayer cards. It is a simple way to pray through one’s entire life. So I have prayer cards for my wife, each of my children, and now our eight grandchildren. We write Scripture on each prayer card and pray that Scripture for that person or that need. It works so much better than a list because you are able to track the stories that God weaves. It makes praying richer because you are praying for a whole life in a thoughtful way. So you think and pray. You think about what you want God to do in another person’s life. For example, my daughter Kim (she is disabled) wanted a horse. So I wrote that on her card. Just the word “horse.” We had no money for a horse, but I prayed anyway. Several years ago, she started volunteering at a horseback-riding therapy place, and usually she herself gets to ride at least an hour. She loves it. She now has a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. She’s a hoot.
Throughout the book, you encourage people to come to God as little children—to be wholly dependent, to be filled with a sense of wonder, to be trusting and awestruck by the thought of what our Father can do. How do mature believers come to God as a child? Why does that make our prayer life more rewarding?
To become like a little child, over and over again, is one of the more difficult tasks of a believer. Our tendency, as we grow in Christ, is to become better at life. We get wiser, more loving, and more prudent; so naturally we then become less dependent. So the very work of Christ in us can make us more distant from the spirit of Christ.
It helps to know that maturity is the process of becoming increasingly dependent. Maybe what I thought was maturity really wasn’t. Maybe my insight into people and life was just making me crankier. So what do I do with my cranky old soul? I cry out for grace for God to save me from myself. The result? I’ve become like a little child again. I’ve entered into the heart of Jesus. I’m not being cheesy by saying “entering into the heart of Jesus.” Jesus is strikingly childlike when He talks about His heavenly Father.
In our seminars we tell people, “Imagine that in a restaurant you overhear a man at another table say, ‘I don’t do anything by myself. I just do what I see my dad doing.’ Analyze that person from just that snippet.” People jump in and talk about how immature he is, how poor his boundaries are, and how he needs to grow up. Then we turn to John 5:19 and read it. They realize they’ve been talking about Jesus. Jesus is the most dependent human being who ever lived. We know that because He says it repeatedly, particularly in the book of John. That is what made the cross so terrifying for Jesus. He’d never been separated from His Father. Our normal is His hell. So to grow in maturity is to grow in childlikeness.
Cynicism kills hope. The world of the cynic is fixed and immovable; the cynic believes we are swept along by forces greater than we are. Dreaming feels like so much foolishness. Risk becomes intolerable. Prayer feels pointless, as if we are talking to the wind. Why set ourselves and God up for failure?
A Praying Life
So what does this look like in daily life? Without the Spirit’s help, I can dominate in staff meetings. So now when I’m in a meeting, I’m quietly praying simple prayers such as “Jesus, help me” or just “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” I’m praying because I can feel my restless spirit kicking in tempting me to interrupt, and only the Spirit can master me. I need God to help me get through a meeting without running over someone. So like a child, I cry out for help. The result? Faith is working through love.
You make the point that prayer isn’t an isolated part of our lives; that when properly conceived, prayer isn’t a list but rather a practice that has to be seen in the context of our life story. Could you explain that?
Getting people to see that prayer is integrated with their whole life is a challenge, since we are so used to thinking about prayer almost like a “prayer box.” But learning to pray isn’t learned in isolation from learning to love. I honestly don’t know how to love someone if I’m not praying for them. How did I learn that? By trying to love people when I wasn’t praying for them. Mess after mess. Frustration on top of frustration. But when I started regularly asking God for help, I began to see things happen. I’d pray for someone for humility, and they’d come to me three months later and say, “I’m convicted about not being humble.” The more you see that, the more your confidence grows. Very quickly these prayers become stories, divine stories that God draws me into. The best stories are the hardest ones, like being married to a difficult spouse or job hassles or a friend who is resistant to the gospel. I love watching those stories over decades and watch what God does as I quietly keep praying. Then my faith grows as I begin to see Him work. He shapes the story. I’m just a participant in the bigger picture of what God is doing.
One of the interesting parts of the stories that God weaves is that when I begin praying for someone or something, God almost always pulls me into my prayers. For example, I was praying for someone that God would increase their gentleness. Not a fancy prayer, just a simple prayer driven because their lack of gentleness grated on me. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later that person came to me concerned about a lack of gentleness in my life! God involved me in my prayer in a way that I didn’t particularly want. I wanted God to change the person, and instead God wanted me to take the beam out of my own eye. Doesn’t that have the touch of God written all over it? I love the surprises that happen as I watch these divine stories unfold. So a good pray-er is a good watcher. Both Paul and Jesus say, “Watch and pray.”
Cynicism is a pervasive theme. According to the book, Christians become cynical because they question the active goodness of God on their behalf. As a result, they lose hope. How, if we’re the children of a good and all-powerful God, do we become cynical? How do we regain our hope?
Cynicism is pervasive in our culture. It is a low-level doubt that purports to see through things. It’s a toxic mixture of (1) insight into total depravity combined with (2) personal disappointment and (3) a superior stance. It creates a kind of seductive insider culture where you “know” what’s going on. So it’s not surprising that it invades our prayer lives. It’s mostly unspoken—we don’t want to face it squarely because it is embarrassing.
Cynicism is rooted in our culture’s secularization of Christian virtues and mind. For instance, secularized Christian hope becomes naive optimism. When naive optimism confronts the challenge of marriage or child rearing, it is caught by surprise and becomes completely powerless. It has no tools to deal with evil, so it collapses into cynicism. We go from thinking everything is good to thinking everything is evil. Unrealistic hope didn’t prepare us for evil. What makes cynicism so seductive is that there is a lot of evil out there. So it feels true. But the result is that you become paralyzed and without realizing it drift into the frozen world of paganism.
What’s the cure for cynicism? To become like a little child again and again and again. To begin asking your heavenly Father for what’s on your heart. In fact, you can even ask God to help you with your cynical heart, to remake it so that it is “completely humble, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). I don’t use the word “sweetness” to mean a syrupy Christianity, but that your life has become so tender, so much like Jesus, that people begin to notice it.
People so overthink prayer. It really is simple: Go to God with your needs. The Psalms are a wonderful teacher with that. In fact, sometimes in the seminar Bob Allums (our director of A Praying Life Ministries) and I will take people through a study of the Psalms looking at all the verbs for prayer: call, lift my voice, hear my plea, cry, etc. It despiritualizes prayer and makes it normal talking.
You talk about a connection between asking and abiding. “Abiding,” you say, “is a perfect way to describe a praying life.” What does it mean to abide? And how does that affect our asking?
The connection between asking and abiding is very close. Jesus links abiding and asking very strongly in his High Priestly Discourse in John 14-16. The lingering influence of pietism in the evangelical church has tended to separate the two. Abiding is seen as this almost mystical state that seems to hit really spiritual people. A good example of pietism is this quote from Augustine: “Ask nothing of God, but God Himself.”
What’s good about this? Augustine is putting God first. God Himself—His love, His presence—is His best gift to us.
The hardest part of being in the desert is that there is no way out. You don’t know when it will end. There is no end in sight.
A desert can be almost anything. It can be a child who has gone astray, a difficult boss, or even your own sin or foolishness. Maybe you married your desert.
God customizes deserts for each of us.
A Praying Life
What’s bad about this? Augustine is disconnected from how love, God, and life work. Let me explain. Imagine a marriage where the husband really loves his wife. He is his wife’s best earthly gift. I’m not being cynical. I really do see that in many strong marriages. Now imagine if the husband told his wife, “Honey, I don’t want you to ask me for anything, because I’m your best gift.” When I say this at our seminars, everyone laughs. They laugh because it is so disconnected from life. You can’t separate being (the husband is his wife’s best gift) from doing (what he does for her). That is, he shows his love to his wife by the many things he does for her—how he listens, how he follows through, how he leads her.
Augustine’s Neoplatonism (that is the philosophy behind that quote) tends to feed that separation from reality. In the Old Testament, God is not known abstractly; He is known through His mighty deeds, what He does—like a good husband. Part of what we are doing is helping the church shed the abstractions of the Greek mind, returning the church to its holistic, Jewish roots.
You say that God takes us all through deserts—through these prolonged periods “when God seems silent and our prayers go unanswered.” Please talk about why a powerful and giving God would put His people through that?
Deserts are God’s best gift to us. A desert is something painful that won’t go away and doesn’t have an exit. Deserts strip you of human pretension. They are God’s answer to the idol factory in every human heart. They are idol-destroyers because you have no life in the desert.
For instance, if you have a child who has walked away from the faith and embraced the spirit of the age, you quickly learn that nothing you say will change them. You begin to despair that they will ever become believers. Now you are ready to pray. You’ve become poor in spirit. You are completely confident that you can’t do anything. You aren’t even sure God can help. You’ve been praying so long, and nothing has happened. That state of despair you are in is the spirit that lies behind powerful praying. I’m not talking long-winded praying or even passionate praying—just desperate prayer. So you tell God your heart’s burden for your child. You just say it. Don’t even think “prayer”—just tell God what you want. Tell Him you aren’t even sure He can fix it. You might hesitate at being that honest with God because it seems to be unbelieving. But if you look at the Psalms of lament, they are filled with statements like, “Where are You God? Why aren’t You doing anything?” And yes, there is unbelief in that prayer.
If you had a more robust faith, then your prayer would have more faith, but that’s not where you are. For a relationship to work, the real you must meet the real God. Even telling God “I’m not sure you can fix this” is a form of faith because you are going to God—you aren’t stewing in your frustration. So many people don’t go to God because they feel the unbelief in their heart, so they shut down because they know it isn’t right. That’s like a toddler who never takes a step because he or she will fall. Ask like a little child.
Paul Miller is director of seeJesus.net, an organization that develops interactive Bible studies for small groups. He is the author of Love Walked Among Us (NavPress), A Praying Life Study Guide, The Person of Jesus, an interactive study of the wonder of Jesus and His love. Paul and his wife, Jill, have six children and live near Philadelphia.