—by Laurie A. Jungling

Several months ago, some members of my congregation gave me a T-shirt that read, “Prays well with others.” I love the T-shirt, but every time I read that phrase, I wonder: Do I pray well with others? Do I pray well alone? What does it mean to pray “well”? Should I even be worrying about this?

As a pastor, I’m expected to pray often and well…and aloud with others. In fact, as followers of Christ, all Christians are called to pray alone and with others. But many of us worry about praying well. We wonder: Am I doing it right? What if I don’t do it well enough?

So what does it mean to pray well? Often when we talk about praying well, we mean having a proper form, with the “right” words that fit together, or having a certain style that is beautiful, poignant or at least interesting to others’ ears…and God’s? Sometimes we’re so worried about what our prayers might sound like that we’re afraid to pray at all.

But another part of praying well can include an ethical component. Is what I’m praying for moral? Does it follow God’s law and guidance? For example, is it OK not to pray for those we are called to pray for, like our enemies? Or is it OK to pray for unethical things like getting away with cheating on our taxes or coveting a new car? Is it OK to pray for the other team to lose or for our enemies to be wiped out in battle?

Looking at the book of Psalms (often called the prayerbook of the Bible), it would seem such prayers might be okay. Psalm 139, for instance, begins as a beautiful prayer about God’s intimate relationship with us. Then we reach verses 19-22 which seemingly give permission to ask God to kill those we deem wicked or to hate those whom we think hate God: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God…Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?…I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.” Yet such prayers appear to contradict the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor, as well as Jesus’ command to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44).

So are there good ways to pray—either alone or with others, or does anything go when we’re conversing with God? How do we go about determining the healthiest ways to pray?

The first thing to remember is that prayer is about being in relationship with the one to whom we’re praying. It can’t be prayer if we’re only talking to ourselves. Communication with God involves more than just talking. When we communicate with others, only about 10 percent of it is verbal; communication also includes nonverbal cues like facial expressions, body language, and actions or non-actions as well as listening, being present and interacting with others in the community. Each of these also affect prayer. For instance, in the same way that checking our cellphones interrupts our conversations with friends, so, too, it gets in the way of our conversations with God.

Our ideas influence our prayers

Many things influence our conversations with God. Prayer can be influenced by how we understand the God we’re praying to. If we view God as judgmental, we are more likely to pray with fear and trembling and perhaps worry about doing it well. However, if we view God as benevolent and merciful, we may be more willing to lay all our stuff before God, no matter the words or feelings. If we view God as too mysterious, absent or beyond our influence, we may not bother to pray at all.

Prayer is also influenced by our sense of relationship with God. Prayers born out of deep trust in or devotion to God will probably happen more regularly and authentically than prayers of convenience. Some Christians worry if it is okay to express anger with God in our prayers. Yet when we are angry with God, we may pray more honestly than when we pray with disinterest. Many psalm writers do just that, and Jesus’ lament on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” seems to contain a touch of anger (Mark 15:34). So why not? God can handle it, and it’s better than giving God the silent treatment or praying without integrity.

The responses we expect from God also influence how we pray. For example, a kind of magic incantation prayer (which often emerges over lottery machines) is expecting to get what I pray for as long as I do it “the right way.” Then there’s the Santa Claus prayer, which expects that if I’m nice, God will give me what I pray for, but if I’m naughty, then God won’t. Along the same lines, the Frenemy prayer suggests that if I get what I pray for, then God loves me, but if I don’t get what I want, then God hates me. Or the Facebook prayer, which expects God to click “like” on my every prayer.

On the other hand, there is the loving parent prayer which expects to receive the responses I need from God to help and support me, rather than only what I want. Or the loving spouse/partner/friend prayer, in which God hears everything I pray without judgment and then offers advice and guidance, pointing me in the healthiest direction. Or the God-is-mystifying prayer, in which I pray with trust and awe but don’t expect God to respond the way I expect. As we think about prayer, it’s important to ask what we expect of God as we pray and how those expectations may be helping or hindering conversation and relationship with God.

Dimensions of prayer

Another thing to remember about prayer is that it has four interwoven dimensions: speaking, listening, contemplation and community. Understanding these dimensions can help us become more faith-filled pray-ers and guide us into healthy ways of praying.

Speaking to God is often what comes to mind when we think about prayer. Here the person praying is doing all the talking. Many types of speaking prayers are found in the Bible, including petitions, lamentations or confession (see sidebar,  p. xx).

Listening to and for God is the second dimension of prayer. Igor Stravinsky once said, “To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.” In our conversations with God, we are to be more than ducks. Listening is hard to do in our chaotic, noisy world—especially when we think we must do all the talking. But without listening, prayer is one-sided. Listening to God takes energy even though it is a receiving experience. In prayer, we strive to actively let go and let God talk. In these listening prayers, God chooses to speak to us through a variety of means including, but not limited to, Scripture, sermons, devotions, music, art, nature, other people’s voices or actions, knowledge, and events or experiences that happen in our lives. When we listen for what God may be saying to us in the moment, rather than listen merely for what we want to hear, we may hear some amazing things (see sidebar,  p. xx).

Contemplation or seeking God’s presence is the third dimension of prayer. No one is speaking, but communication comes through contemplation and awareness of God’s presence. While God is always aware of us, we aren’t always aware of God. This aspect of prayer is like being in the same room with a person or pet you love, without saying a word, yet being aware of their presence and being present with them (see sidebar,  p. xx).

Community is the fourth dimension of prayer. Whether we’re praying silently alone or aloud among others, the community is always present with us. We pray the Lord’s Prayer with fellow believers, but we pray for others as well, which brings the community into our midst even when we’re alone. Hearing others pray aloud nurtures our own faith in God. In fact, we usually learn to pray by listening to others. When no one prays out loud, how will we learn to do it? And if we always make the pastor our official prayer giver, how can we practice so that when the pastor isn’t present, communication with God doesn’t stop? Prayer is never just about me as a pastor. It always involves the community of which I am a part.

What does it mean to pray well? I believe it means simply to be in conversation with God, regardless of what is said or how. When we pray out of authentic faith and open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit’s working in us, we can never say a wrong or bad prayer. And regardless of what we say, God has promised to listen and respond, perhaps not in ways we expect or want, but certainly in ways that guide us towards God’s desires for our lives. So let us pray! God really does want to hear from us.

This article is from the July/August 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.

The Rev. Dr. Laurie A. Jungling serves as an interim pastor in the ELCA Montana Synod, focusing on transition ministry while also writing, researching and leading workshops.