Growing in prayer and how a desire to control it can hold you back

In the literature of the prayer masters of the Christian tradition, there is a consistent refrain that there are distinct stages of prayer. The beginner stages are characterized by intentional, verbal prayers that are done either because one wants to see something happen (a job, salvation of a loved one, a better marriage, etc.) or because one is committed to prayer as a discipline. One never grows out of this kind of prayer, but there is much more to it.

As prayer grows, there is a transition from prayer as a one-way street (you to God) to prayer as a two-way street (back and forth between you and God). The transition from one-way to two-way is a critical juncture in the deepening of prayer. I know that in my own prayer life, I am continually learning how to be carried along more by God's Spirit. I "generate" prayer mainly to get into a prayerful state, but then I try to let it flow.

The catch is, you can't make two-way prayer happen. God has to do that. Furthermore, if you don't let God do it, you will hold yourself back from growth. Unfortunately, we are formed by Western culture to do just that. Thomas Dubay writes,
We constantly presume that we know what ought to be happening in our prayer life. In our consumerist-productionist societies there is a tendency to take for granted that we are in control of making happen whatever we want to have happen and to determine how it will come about. This expectation results in resistance to the receptivity required for prayer. (Fire Within, p. 90)
If this all sounds too mystical, think about it this way. Receptivity is critically important, for it is a sign of humility. Humility is absolutely essential in the spiritual life. "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). Therefore, we must be receptive toward God if we are going to grow in God's grace, and our receptivity toward God must show up in our prayer lives.

How to do that? I'm not talking about emptying your mind in the style of Eastern meditation. Instead, try being quiet sometimes in prayer, letting your heart be lifted up to God with joy and worship. Whether you use words or not, the important thing is that you let your heart be filled with love for God. Dial in to your desire for God and really feel it. Thank God for any shred of desire you have for him, because all of your desire for God is given by God. In fact, thank God a lot. Thank him for something and then let that sense of thankfulness linger like the smell of good food being cooked in your kitchen. Rest in him, acknowledging that anything truly good has to come not from you but from God, who is the giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). Be grateful and childlike rather than greedy and presumptuous. Try doing that for a two-week period and see what happens.

Incidentally, two-way prayer eventually gives way to prayer punctuated by long periods where it is one-way from God to you. You can have a prayer life where you receive more than you offer. But that is a discussion for another time.


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