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This Is How We Pray
Discovering a Life of Intimate Friendship with God
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This Is How We Pray offers a fresh invitation to examine how we pray. Theology and doctrine can feel overwhelming. And specific devotional practices can feel too limiting. Instead, this book offers a unique and needed perspective on prayer, inviting you into a more intimate friendship with God.
Through personal anecdotes, biblical stories, ancient wisdom, and modern insights from spiritual writers, philosophers, and even cooking documentaries, Adam Dressler walks through the realities we face in the midst of our everyday lives, and then shows how they can direct us towards a deeper friendship with God through our prayers.
God promises to meet with us. This Is How We Pray points to this timeless truth and reminds us that we can experience this promise right where we are.
The wish to pray is a prayer in itself.
I believe that everyone is interested in prayer, even if only marginally. Prayer is one of those things that continues to remain universal, throughout different times and places. We know that we aren’t alone. Whether it’s through religion or astronomy or a hike in the woods or a boat on the open water, we want to reach out to whatever else is out there in the universe, hoping to make contact with something that affirms what we already know—that there are parts of our insides that simply cannot accept that life is merely physical. So we stretch out our hearts, in whatever ways we know how, to try to connect with whatever exists outside of our physical lives.
Is this not the basis of every prayer ever prayed?
There are numerous books on prayer that men and women far more advanced in its art and mystery than I am have already written. So why another one?
Books about prayer tend to fall into a few categories. Some of these books are written from a place of theology, meaning that their authors set out to explore the many different beliefs that inform why we should pray, and what we should think about prayer. Other books are written from a place of practice—their authors focus more on the devotional aspect of prayer, exploring the specific techniques we can strive to master in order to experience a deeper, more fulfilling life of prayer.
I want to get this out there from the beginning: this book will probably fail at both of these. I am neither an expert theologian, equipped with the knowledge and intellect to wrestle prayer into a submission of the mind, nor a particularly pious man, armed with a quiver of rapturous prayer experiences that will move your heart.
The truth is, I am a fairly average person. I grew up in a typical Midwestern home. My mother raised us kids in our small-town Presbyterian church, faithfully taking us to worship services on most Sunday mornings, modeling for us the importance of things like singing hymns, giving some of your money to God, and spending an extra half-hour in the church lobby after everyone else has already left so you can talk with the elderly widow who is lonely and just wants someone to listen to her share about her flowers and her sons and how much she misses her husband.
My father is a generous man who worked hard and made sure that we never wanted for anything and, in his own way, modeled for us a different kind of faith. It wasn’t until much later in his life that he began a relationship with God, showing us that it’s never too late to start something new and that God answers our prayers. But sometimes he takes his time.
I say all of this to let you in a bit on who is actually writing these words—which is important. I want you to know that I didn’t grow up the son of a preacher. I didn’t spend my vacations in a monastery. I’ve never led a crusade and I am surprisingly ineffective in most of the evangelistic attempts I make. I have shockingly little of the Bible memorized. As you will see in this book, I often prefer sleeping in over getting up early to pray, and in many ways, I am still very much a beginner in the mystery of prayer.
But in some sense, aren’t we all?
If God is who he says he is, then we should never be surprised by our own sense of inadequacy when we are around him. This is the God who crafted the universe. This is the God who rules over it all. Nothing in our human lives can even remotely compare to his power, his responsibility, his grandeur.
What is amazing about this God is that he stoops to our level in something called “prayer.” He voluntarily sets aside his great other-ness and opens the door for us to come in. In short, he makes room for us.
If you’re like me, prayer is something you both long to experience in a deeper way and, at the same time, ironically avoid because most of the time it just seems so hard. Because it’s in prayer that we encounter not only this grand, all-powerful God, but also our frail, broken selves. Prayer often keeps with it a companion of discouragement. Prayer is hard.
So I’m writing to those of us (yes, I’m including myself here) who have struggled to find a life of prayer that satisfies us, difficulties and all. My hope is a simple one. I want to talk about what prayer feels like—its wide scope of pressure points that, although discomforting, are actually designed to bring us closer to the God we want to know, the God we want to love.
This is not a technical book, per se. Meaning that I’m not writing about how to simply pray better. Of course, I hope this book leads you to pray in more meaningful ways. Me, too. But any ground we can gain in our prayer lives will be a result of first exploring why prayer is often so discouraging, and how God uses these feelings of discouragement to shape us. Then, we end up finding that these very feelings of discouragement have another, hidden purpose. They shape us into creatures of hope. As we experience the difficult realities of prayer, and as we continue to pray (or try to pray) in the midst of those difficult realities, we also experience another, greater reality at the same time: God is there. And not only is he there. He is there with us as a friend.
It should probably also be said from the beginning that I tend to think any progress we make toward building something of value will usually follow after an intentional, maybe even painful, time of tearing some things down—of discovering how things really are, even if it’s a painful discovery. Or another way to say this is that before we build our dream home, we have to first tear down the old eyesore of a shed on the land, to make room.
This, then, is what this book is about. Making room. God making room for us. Us making room for God. And hopefully, through this process, we become more like the kinds of people that he designed us to become—people who know firsthand what it means to not only experience but enjoy an intimate relationship with the divine creator of our souls.
AT SOME POINT while I was in college, I either read or heard this famous line: “If you want to humble a man, ask him about his prayer life.” I later learned that it (most likely) came from Scottish minister Alexander Whyte. I do not know anything about Alexander Whyte, and I am not even Scottish. But I think he summarizes what most of us feel when we think about prayer. It is hard. It is humbling.
Prayer is an arena in which we must come to terms with who we really are. This is just one of the reasons why prayer is often so difficult for most of us mere mortals, and perhaps the most important one. In prayer, we hope to have our highest ideals and ambitions of spiritual growth and connection realized. Regardless of our age or spiritual maturity, we are all like six-year-olds. We want to somehow experience wonder. Specifically, we want to experience wonder with God. We want to put on our shoes, zip up our jackets, and hike to the highest ridge we can find. We then want to sit down on a bench, let out a slow sigh, and stare off into a big horizon.
We want to feel noble, but at the same time, we want to feel small. In our smallness, we want to feel like we are in the presence—the hands—of something bigger than ourselves. We want to know there is someone who will call us up into his lap and wrap us up in his arms and tell us that he loves us and cares for us and is making everything okay. In short, we want to be loved.
But this is not the complete picture of who we are. Yes—we have the innocence of a six-year-old. But we also have the weakness of a wounded soldier. The vengeance of a betrayed captain. The selfishness of an angry toddler. The despair of an imprisoned criminal. The distraction of a bee surrounded by hundreds of spring flowers. The surliness of a forgotten hospital patient.
And this is the hard part of prayer. We know that we are told to pray—and that we should pray. But which one of us is doing the praying here? Is it the innocent version of ourselves, asking for the Kingdom? Or is it the bored version of ourselves asking for God to show off? Or is it the angry version of ourselves asking for a bear to come and eat our enemies? Or is it the hurting version of ourselves asking for the Great Surgeon to stop the cutting and finally end his operation?
To all of these, yes.
Søren Kierkegaard once said that a purity of heart is to will one thing. This is one of those statements that grows larger the more you think about it. It at least means that our hearts are fractured things that scatter their thoughts and feelings in a thousand different directions, some good and some bad, and this fracturing process leaves us feeling fractured. Because of our fractured condition, we suffer from a near-constant crisis in identity. Or better said, identities. We don’t always know who we are. As Brennan Manning has said:
When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.1
The great poet Walt Whitman says the same thing in his famous poem “Song of Myself”:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes)2
If you have ever made any serious attempt at prayer, you know how true all of this is. Prayer is hard because it requires us to come to terms with our own fractured hearts. Our own paradoxes. Our own contradictions. We want to be “spiritual,” but we also want to sleep in. We want to be selfless, but we also want things to go our way. We want to love others, but we also want our sister to stop drinking and calling to tell us how unfair her life is seven times a day. We want to grow in our patience, but we also want that parking space next to the door because it’s raining and we wore our good shoes today and our toddler is having a breakdown in the back because he wants us to let him take his toy car into the store and we won’t let him, and now he’s screaming bloody murder at us, and people are starting to stare and we just need one thing to go right today because it’s been a really, really tough week.
So prayer is challenging. Because prayer requires something in us to settle down and admit who we are. Which can be exhausting at best, crushing at worst. Something that is meant to give us life and joy and satisfaction and fulfillment too often, quite honestly, exposes our weakness and takes too much from us. Who needs another thing to fail at? Who needs another reminder of how weak we are? Who needs another source of shame in our lives?
We can’t give it up. Every day millions of people across the world pause whatever they are doing and, as best as they can, lift up their fractured, weakened, shame-filled hearts to God. They ask him for the gift of feeling small. They ask to be held by his hands. They ask to be heard by his holy audience.
Why is that? Why can’t we just wash our hands and be done with all of this prayer business? Why do dying men utter words to a God they might not even know? Why do artists and athletes give quick credit to God when they achieve a marker of success? Why do addicts with fresh needle tracks in their arms keep asking this same God to help them get clean, even though they have asked for that help hundreds of times before without any clear progress being made?
There are lots of possible answers to these questions. But perhaps the one that matters most is the one that I, like the dying man and the young mom and the athlete and the addict, experience in the deepest, truest places of my heart: I want to know that I am not alone. I want to know that my life and all of its pains and struggles, all of its victories and celebrations, are not solitary endeavors. There is something in me that longs to know—desperately, even frantically at times—that my story is a shared one. That someone else sees me, hears me, knows me, and walks with me. I want an assurance that I am not left to my own resources as I try to figure out what I’m facing, what I’m feeling, and what I’m fearing.
I want a friend.
Ultimately, this is what I’m after in prayer. I think that’s what most people are after, too. We all want someone to see us, love us, accept us, and desire to be with us. Just as we are. Just as we really are.
Peter Kreeft gives me a lot of hope in my search for a better prayer life when he says very simply that prayer is friendship with God.3 Even as I write these five words, something inside me says, Yes. That’s exactly what I want it to be. I don’t want prayer to be a system that I can manipulate or, even worse, fail at. I don’t want prayer to be a duty or an obligation. I don’t want prayer to be a one-sided conversation. I want it to be a true friendship between myself and God. That’s it. I want prayer to be a living, breathing part of my life that travels with me throughout my days.
When I was seventeen, I flew from my childhood home in Ohio to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a college visit. As soon as my plane descended for landing, I looked out the window and saw the largely barren Midwestern landscape below me and said a simple “Nope.” When I arrived on campus, my intention to reject Tulsa and the college I was visiting only grew. There was no way I was going to spend “the best four years of my life” here.
But then I met my roommate for the week, Robbyn. The admissions office had assigned me to his room for my stay. We introduced ourselves, made light small talk, shared a bit of our stories—“You’re from Ohio? I’m from Mississippi.” “Cool.”—and then we went to grab dinner. Over the next two days we became friends. So much so that before I left, we decided to room together the following year, if I decided to enroll.
I ended up enrolling. And Robbyn and I lived together for a year, then lived next door to each other two years later. He is a year older than I am, so he graduated a year before me. Anxious to see the world, he spent several years overseas, working in Europe and the Middle East. Life went on, we both married, both went to graduate school, and now we both find ourselves as fathers raising young children and trying to cope with the fact that we are no longer young anymore.
We have stayed close—at times closer than others—throughout each of these seasons of our lives. We have known each other for almost twenty years. He has seen me at my worst. I have seen him at his worst. As one of my counselors once said, “You know you are really enjoying a true friendship when you have enough dirt [except he didn’t say “dirt”] on someone to completely ruin their lives, if you ever wanted to. And they could do the same to you.”
This is what I experience with a friend like Robbyn.
A true friendship.
And this is what I want with God. Not the ruining each other’s lives part. But the long, steady presence in my life that is not dependent on my being perfect, or even good enough to be considered trustworthy. Or even just worthy. I want to experience a long, steady walk with a God who knows me—all of me—and yet still sticks around.
This is why I pray.
I’m guessing this is why you pray, too. I’m guessing this is why you are reading this book. You want to become God’s friend. In all of your fractured identities and disordered loves and selfish desires and spiritual wanderings, the one thing that you want—or maybe even just want to want—is a friendship with God.
If we take Jesus on his own terms, we have to take seriously his startling assertion that he, in fact, calls us his friends.
Let that sink in for a minute.
The God of the universe calls you friend.
In many ways, prayer is our heart’s journey to find out what this means.
PHILIP YANCEY WROTE a book called Reaching for the Invisible God, which accurately describes how most people feel when they try to pray. First, there is the reaching part. We muster up some courage and dare to connect with a God we aren’t entirely sure we believe in, let alone trust. But we have heard about him. We have heard that he wants to hear from us. So we stretch out our souls through our words, whether spoken audibly or silently, and we ask this cosmic stranger to make himself known to us. We are aware of our own smallness. We are vaguely aware of this stranger’s bigness. And like a small child longing for the comfort of his parent’s hand, we unclasp our fingers, open up our palms, and reach.
We reach when it’s the end of the month and we open the day’s mail and find the unexpected bill—God, how am I going to pay this? We reach when we are in our beds at night next to a sleeping spouse and all we feel is angry and alone—God, how can I keep going like this? We reach when we’re running late for a meeting and the Ford Focus in front of us is going ten miles under the speed limit and there’s a truck next to us on the right and double yellow lines next to us on the left and then we hit the red light—God, fix this now!
Reaching out for help is one of the most common ways that we pray. We find ourselves living in a world that is frustrating at best, unbearable at worst, and we look for some way to find relief. Crying out for God to help us is the most native of all prayers, like a newborn baby crying out for her mother to hold her.
We also reach out when we see our prayers answered, like when we have time away at a beach—Thank you God for giving us a good vacation. We reach out when we experience something beautiful—God, this sunset is almost too much to take in. We reach out when we find ourselves in the middle of something good that we didn’t deserve—God, thank you for this friendship.
Gratitude is another basic emotion that causes us to reach out to God. When we experience good things in our lives, most of us will, at one time or another, ask this very innocent and honest question: Who gave these things to me? Even if we are unsure about the answer, we still see the good things in our lives as coming from somewhere outside ourselves. And we are grateful.
The last major way that we reach out to God is different than all of these, because it is motivated by guilt. In his classic address Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis opens his exploration into faith by giving his readers an example of two people arguing.1 Except he says “quarrelling” because he is British, and like most British people, he naturally makes his point in the most refined way possible. Lewis notes that in every quarrel (read: argument), the two sides involved make an appeal to right and wrong as a means of justifying their behaviors. While their arguments may contain appeals to personal preferences—“Why did you fold the towels like that?”—the real reason why someone argues at all is because he has it in his mind that the other person has wronged him in some way.
Lewis’s point is that we can’t help ourselves. Every single human being has imprinted on his or her heart the notion of right and wrong. Some people call this “morality.” Others call it “conscience.” Others call it the “fear of God.” Regardless of whatever we call it, we can’t escape it. Across all cultures, across all generations, the common experience of humanity is that there are things we should do and things we shouldn’t do. Everyone has the built-in capacity to feel an ought—as in, I ought to be less selfish, I ought to honor my marriage vows, I ought to say “Hello” and smile at my elderly neighbor even though she put up a wind chime right outside my bedroom window and I’m a light sleeper and now I wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a metal disc clanging against seventeen other, louder metal cylinders. We know that we should do these kinds of things. And more.
The other point that Lewis makes is that, in addition to this sense of right and wrong that everyone feels (and lives by), we also have another sense working within us at the same time. And it is the reason why so many of us wrestle with deep feelings of fear, anxiety, restlessness, loneliness, sadness, and unhappiness. Here it is: we cannot live the lives we know we ought to live. We are selfish. We want to ignore our marriage vows. Instead of saying “Hello” and smiling to our elderly neighbor, we want to stare her down with shame and then we want to sneak out to the side of our house one night and throw that wind chime far, far away.
Simply put, we cannot be good enough. Good enough for others. Good enough for ourselves. Good enough for God. And we know that. Very acutely. In many ways, some subtle and some not, we try to cover this knowledge up and live as if there weren’t a right and a wrong, live as if we don’t fail as much as we do. But that is a doomed project from the beginning, because we only hurt ourselves when we fail to deal with life without a firm commitment to seeing things as they really are. Lewis writes as much when he says:
These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.2
So this is another reason why we reach out to God. We feel guilty. We don’t behave the way we should, and we know it. We pray to God as a means of making atonement for our shortcomings. We ask God to forgive us for being so selfish. We ask him to pardon us for wanting to ignore our marriage vows and to give us strength to carry on. We ask him to bless our elderly neighbor with the wind chime and not to judge us too harshly for just wanting to get some good sleep.
In a very real sense, this is what it means to pray: to reach for God.
And then there’s the invisible part.
We take our desires for things to be different, our heartfelt expressions of gratitude, our deep need for forgiveness, and we package them up into something called “prayer” and send them off to… where?
Unlike a conversation with a friend, prayer is, by nature, an exercise in the absurd. Meaning, when we share a table and a cup of coffee with a flesh-and-blood friend, we might not be confident that we are being understood, we might not be confident that we are even being heard, and we might still feel lonely in their presence. But even in the most misunderstood, most unempathetic, loneliest conversations we have with another person, what we can be confident of is that we both experience the same reality. We both sit in chairs. We both drink coffee. We both hear each other’s voices. We both are present in the same place, together.
But prayer challenges all of this for us. We pour out our hearts, sometimes even with coffee in hand, but how can we be sure that we are speaking to someone real? How can we be sure that the God we are praying to is even in the room? How can we be sure that he even exists at all?
And that’s what I mean by absurd. If you were to have no prior knowledge of prayer or religion or anything spiritual at all—if you were what philosophers called a “materialist,” meaning that you only believed in a physical, observable universe—and you watched someone pray out loud in front of you, would you not be a little unsettled? Would you not say that the act of praying looked and sounded absurd? Crazy, even?
Who are you talking to?
Why do you think you are being heard right now?
There’s no one else in this room but me and you.
There’s no one in this room who can bring world peace, who can heal your brother of cancer, who can ensure that your choice of a career will lead you to fulfillment and happiness.
Who are you thanking right now? The ceiling tiles?
Why are you apologizing?
Your husband isn’t even here. Your neighbor isn’t here. Your father isn’t here. The woman with the four kids in the checkout line at the grocery who you say you silently judged isn’t here.
Countless times in my life, I have experienced the haunting absurdity of prayer like this. Sometimes it is all I can do to believe that I am not alone in the room, in the car, in the shower, on the trail in the woods. Because it feels like I am praying to an invisible God, if he is a God at all. I don’t see him. I don’t hear him. I don’t even sense his presence. I just sit there, spilling—sometimes hemorrhaging—out my heart to an empty room. Hoping that my greatest fear isn’t, in fact, true: that I am alone.
Sometimes I try to trick my heart into believing something different than my fears. I play the Billy Graham tape through my head—the one where he boldly asserts that he has never seen the wind, but he has seen the effects of the wind, so he knows the wind exists. I try to self-warm my heart with thoughts about how God was “clearly there” for me. I think about the car wreck when I was sixteen. And then the one when I was twenty. I think about the time I was flying to Chicago from Denver and the plane felt like it was falling from the sky like a dead bird. I think about my emergency appendectomy. I think about my six-year-old daughter and the almost two years of infertility before that.
God, that was you.
You were there.
Even though I couldn’t see you.
You were there.
Sometimes this kind of exercise works. And I somehow have enough faith to believe that my prayers are actually heard. That they do make it past the ceiling tiles.
But other times, no matter how hard I try, I can’t fake it. I can’t make my heart believe something that it doesn’t. I can’t be strong enough to overcome my weaknesses of doubt, unbelief, and loneliness.
God, why don’t you show yourself?
Why don’t you speak?
Why do you stay silent?
Why do you remain invisible?
No one knows the answers to these questions. Anyone who says they do is lying. And that’s actually a good thing that no one knows the answers, because if there is a God, he needs to be so infinitely smarter and so comprehensively better and so far above me that I can’t figure him out. Imagine what it was like to live on this earth before we had the famous earth-rise picture taken from the moon. Or imagine if you lived on this earth before you knew it was round. If someone asked you how big the world was, you would literally have no way to give an even semi-intelligent answer. It would be impossible to speak accurately about the world and its place within the universe because your size and perspective relative to it would be so cosmically outmatched. How does a human being comprehend the galaxies? Or to put it another way, how does a microbe on the skin of an elephant comprehend the Sahara desert?
- "This Is How We Pray is a beautifully written reminder of how prayer is first and foremost about friendship with God. Dressler doesn't try to prescribe certain prayers, or dive deep into the theology of prayer, instead he shares how prayer can become a vital and important part of our lives, every single day. Go read this book!"—Mark Batterson, New York Times best selling author of The Circle Maker, Lead Pastor of National Community Church
- "Adam goes under the spiritual hood straight to the engine and examines our connection to the true source of strength. The human heart's engagement with God is the most resisted because it has the most potential. This book on prayer aims at nothing less than paradise regained."—Jared Anderson, singer/songwriter/worship leader
- "Adam takes a mysterious and essential subject of the Christian faith, and makes it easy to apply in an honest and practical way. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to deepen & strengthen their prayer life."—Matt McCoy, founder of LoopCommunity.com
- "Prayer is this strange thing that few of us feel we know how to do, yet we all end up doing it anyway. We treat it like algebra, but it's more like breathing. Adam Dressler knows this truth in his bones, and he opens that truth into a million other truths in this wise but easygoing collection of reflections. Dressler won't teach you to pray, exactly, but he will help you see how you're already praying -- and how you're actually made for it, and have been all along."—Patton Dodd, co-author of The Prayer Wheel: A Daily Guide to Renewing Your Faith with a Rediscovered Spiritual Practice
- "Like an experienced trail guide, Dressler meets us where we are and leads us on the journey of prayer with a disarming style and piercing wisdom. He clears through the brush of formulas and rules, keeps us on well-worn paths of intimacy with God, and lifts our eyes to the breathtaking beauty of a deep life with God."—Glenn Packiam, author of Discover the Mystery and the forthcoming Blessed Broken Given
- On Sale
- Mar 3, 2020
- Page Count
- 240 pages