teaching a perfectionist to pray.

Leave it to a perfectionist to mess something up like prayer.  I’m convinced that perfectionism isn’t just a personality characteristic, it’s a barrier to freedom.

In my eternal struggle to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’, I was recently reminded that prayer isn’t about that.  More about that reminder in a second…

Muslim prayer beads

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My theological definition of prayer:

The nature of prayer, it’s very essence, is communication with God.  It is the means by which we turn the attention of our mind, body and spirit toward heaven.  The purpose of prayer is to connect the created with the Creator.  Every time we pray, we submit ourselves to something greater, far above any one of us.  Prayer to an unseen God is itself an act of faith. 

It’s hard for perfectionists to pray.  Just like every other aspect of our lives that must be aligned perfectly with some unknown, unseen, impossible expectation, so too do our prayers need to line up.

What I needed to be reminded of:

Not having the exact words to pray will never negate the effectiveness or hope that is wrapped up in the words themselves as it is the heart of these words that pleases God.

Prayers don’t have to be formulaic either for informal/spontaneous or for formal/liturgical contexts.  Some of the prayers that I could cognitively articulate (or muster) from the depths of my grief were simply the words “Oh God, oh God, oh God…”  Some of the prayers that spilled from own my lips in a corporate setting even surprised me as I couldn’t seem to think what I was saying and yet it ministered to those listening.

Prescribing formulas in prayer (as well as in theology) tend to be more for us, the people praying, as opposed to God who transcends our formulas.  There are books, journals, sermons extending well into church history examining the nature and purpose of prayer but at the end of the day, I’m learning that God just wants to hear from us.

So how can a perfectionist like myself learn to pray? 

  1. First, in remembering that I can’t impress God with fancy words, I’m free to just be myself.  Even in my quiet moments where I have an audience of one, I have to quiet myself.  The noise of the day and the busyness of life often slowly and steadily creep into the corners of my mind.  The need to impress God, along with everyone else in my perfectionist life, will continue to be a hindrance to my sense of peace.
  2. Secondly, I have to resist the temptation of relying on my own mental lexicon of synonyms to explain the same idea over and over.  In fact, if I was to repeat anything over and over it would be His praises.
  3. Finally, I have to let the Spirit speak those inarticulate, unutterable words to, through and from me.  I believe the Spirit knows the difference when our prayers begin with “Our Father who art in Heaven…” and when our prayers are more or less vomited from the gut.  I believe the Spirit comforted the Jews of Auschwitz as they breathed their last prayers just as he comforts the parents of Trayvon Martin today.

Faithful prayer takes a variety of shapes and sounds.  It can be directed toward God in praise, for ourselves in petition, for others in intercession or for our enemies in imprecation.

Prayer is far more cathartic than I’ve realized.  This is why even secular counselors and therapists will recommend prayer as a means of healing.  Wiccans pray, Muslims pray, Hindu’s pray, and even atheists will pray when the situation warrants it.

A perfectionist like myself will pray best when I lay down my pretenses and self-expectations to simply dwell in the height, depth and love of the Creator’s attention toward me, His creation.

My reminder to pray:

So what was my reminder?  It was listening to the prayers of a child.  Simple, heartfelt and poignant, their prayer was this:

“God, thank you for my friends and my mommy and daddy and my bed and let Pastor Jonathan be nice.”

Yep.  That was the reminder I needed.

So what are your thoughts on prayer, perfectionism or both?  Continue the conversation in the comments below or find me on Twitter and Facebook and let me know there.

 

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7 thoughts on “teaching a perfectionist to pray.

  1. Just wondering how the Lord’s prayer fits in with these thoughts. When asked how to pray, Jesus simply said “pray like this.” What is your interpretation of that in relation to being overly formulaic?

    Also, I think there’s a real temptation to make prayer very self-centered. I believe it’s more a posturing ourselves to listen rather than to talk. Does that fit with your definition of prayer and, if so, does that help with the whole striving for perfection issue? What I mean is that if anything we should strive to be perfect listeners (intentionally removing all other distractions, figurin out how to discern the voice of God in its many forms, etc) rather than perfect talkers. Hopefully that removes some of the pressure to “perform,” so to speak, though listening can be quite frustrating in its own way. 🙂

    • Thanks Michelle for the great comments! According to Clark Pinnock, it’s the scriptures that inform the mind but it is prayer that informs the heart, which “dreams and listens”. The Spirit cannot be contained in concepts and is known in prayer as well as in study. Yielding in prayer will increase our receptivity to what the Spirit is saying and we can’t hear what the Spirit says without listening. Thank you for pointing that out.

      However, prayer is also “future-talk”. It’s an invitation by God to ask of Him, a request to make things happen for the shaping of the future, a protestation of the world as it is. Pinnock says it best: “Prayer is joining an already occurring conversation” not between God and people but between the members of the Godhead. Prayer is both privileged listening and privileged speaking to and between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

      I’m not opposed to formulaic prayer. I simply point out that those formulas are for us and not for God, so that, in a way it is self-centered. Perfect listening is probably as difficult as perfect speaking which makes me grateful for the discernment of the Spirit. I think Paul summarized it best for us, “For we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Thank you again!

  2. I, too, believe that prayer is a conversation with God. I have to admit that it took me a while to figure that out! But, once I did, prayer became so much easier! I know that I am far from perfect in any description of the word, especially in prayer! I also know that Jesus intercedes for me, so that when I struggle with the “proper” way to state something, He straightens it out for me! I think that is a pretty incredible example of the love He has for us!
    Very well said! Thank you!

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