It’s that time of year again. The Christmas decorations are slowly coming down. Times Square is getting ready for the big celebration. Children are planning for another night of sleep deprivation before school starts. Everyone is asking the familiar questions: ‘What are you doing New Year’s eve?’ ‘Where are you going to watch the ball drop?’ and ‘Does anybody know what auld lang sine really means?’
Shortly after this we usually ask ourselves what our New Year’s resolutions will be.
Many Christians set New Year’s resolutions around time in prayer (myself included). Prayer is something that we all need and something that most Christians consider important. However, we often set our resolutions so high that we cannot possibly keep them (example: I will get up at 4:00 am everyday and pray for at least an two hours about everything I can think of). Or we set them so low that they do not really stretch us and we forget about them (example: I will say ‘thanks God’ before I get out of bed and go on with my busy day). I would like to help us all set a reasonable resolution concerning prayer that will stretch us enough to keep us going but not be so overwhelming that we give up at 12:01 am New Year’s Day.
Prayer is a great place to start the New Year, especially for people who are in recovery from various addictions. Eugene Peterson, author of numerous books and translator of The Message, says:
Getting started is easy enough. The impulse to pray is deep within us, at the very center of our created being, and so practically anything will do to get us started- ‘Help!’ and ‘Thanks!’ are our basic prayers. But honesty and thoroughness don’t come quite as spontaneously.
For our New Year’s resolution we want to ‘get started’ and yet move towards the honesty and thoroughness that Dr. Peterson talks about.
Setting our standards too high or too low is only part of the problem. For many people struggling with various addictions, we tend to think that we must clean up our act before we can pray effectively. We have a deep sense of shame that paralyzes us as we think about talking to God who is holy and perfect. You might say to yourself ‘There is no way that I can pray the flowery prayers that my pastors or elders pray.’ We assume that God only wants to hear about our ‘good’ feelings (happiness, joy and gratitude), and that ‘bad’ feelings (anger, frustration and sorrow) should be left alone when it comes to prayer. Therefore, we hold on to ‘bad’ feelings and say ‘I’ll just work on these ‘bad’ things myself and only try to bring the ‘good’ things to God.’
This is truly ‘addict’ thinking. The substances of addictions (drugs, alcohol, pornography, sex, etc.) are only the symptoms of a much greater issue’fear of intimacy, which requires openness and honesty even about the parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of. When we indulge in these things we spend an awful lot of time trying to cover our tracks so that no one will know what we have done. This leads to isolation, which causes pain. We then try to medicate this pain or ‘make it go away’ by indulging once more and thereby starting the cycle all over again.
When we can only bring our ‘good’ feelings to God then we are doing the same thing to God that we do to our families and friends by covering up. God invites us, through prayer, to take off the mask (that He can see through anyway) and stand before him just as we are and not as we should be. God longs for us to bring the totality of ourselves, both what we think is positive and what we think is negative, before Him in openness and honesty. Again Eugene Peterson writes, ‘Prayer is not ‘advanced’ language. It is the means by which our language becomes honest, true and personal in response to God. It is the means by which we get everything in our lives out in the open before God.’
So how do we do this if we don’t have experience in being open and honest before God? We go to the prayers God has given us in His word as a way of practicing how to pray. These are found in the Psalms. If you are having trouble believing what I have said about prayer so far, I invite you to explore the Psalms and see if I am wrong. You will find Psalms that are cries for help. There is utter sorrow. There is complete anger where people pray for the death of their enemies and even their enemy’s children. There are prayers of frustration even when their frustrations are with God. And, of course, prayers of hope, joy and thankfulness.
The Psalms teach us that openness and honesty about our feelings before God is what God desires. Our emotions and our honesty do not scare God. He will not run screaming from the room. He will run to us and listen to our deepest feelings. In fact Romans 8:28 tells us that when we bring ‘difficulties that are too great for words to express’ God’s Spirit prays in us and for us.
With all this in mind, we will now look at our New Year’s resolution again. Much like learning to run a marathon, we must enter into a training period. No one goes out and runs a marathon on their first day. They first run a few minutes and gradually build up to marathon distance. So with our ‘prayer training’ we will also start with small increments and with the proper tools to help us eventually get to wherever we think we want to go in prayer.
I think a great place to start is with five minutes of reading a particular Psalm and five minutes of practicing our own prayer per day. That’s right, ten minutes a day is all you need to begin. And, just like running, you set your own pace in growth from there. Psalm 51 and Psalm 139 are great places to start, but you can pray any of the Psalms. If the flowery language of the Bible has been off- putting for you, then pick up a translation in Modern English such as The Living Bible or The Message. Either one will help you remember that these prayers are from regular people opening themselves up before God.
Then spend five minutes using your own words before God.
If you can, try to be in a place where you can speak your prayer aloud without anyone hearing, that way you get in the habit of opening yourself up verbally before God. It will feel strange at first, but you will see a change in yourself very shortly if you continue. At first your prayers may only be ‘help’ and ‘thanks’ to God, but Psalms 139 and 51 will help you remember that prayer is about developing openness and honesty. Strive for thoroughness as you continue. You will find that God will meet you and continue to call you forward into greater joy, love, peace, hope and intimacy with yourself, with your struggles, with your loved ones and with God himself. Quoting Peterson once again: ‘[I am] convinced that only as we develop raw honest and detailed thoroughness in our praying do we become whole or truly human in Jesus Christ, who also prayed the Psalms.’
If the Psalms benefited Jesus in his prayer time, we can definitely rely on them this New Year to guide us into a deeper, more open and honest prayer time with the God who loves us. Happy New Year!