“Sometimes”: Paul Miller on The Praying Life
4 weeks ago Triangle 0
Written by: Nathan Ecarma, Editor-in-Chief
Everyone has that dirty little secret.
No one flosses. When we’re on the chair and they ask if we’ve flossed, we respond with “Yes,” if we’re committed to the secret; or, we respond with “Sometimes,” if we have five or six times in the past six months; or, we respond with “No” with our head held low, sinking back into the chair.
Every Christian also has that dirty little secret. We don’t pray. Even with all of Paul’s commands and Jesus’ lessons, we don’t. If we do, it’s because we’re getting pulled over or our brother is in the hospital; we pray when we’re desperate, but only when we think we’re desperate. We sometimes pray our scattered prayers before bed or in bed in the morning when we really want to stay in bed longer and we can justify that by praying. But all of us, or maybe just me, should respond with “No, not really.”
That’s where Paul E. Miller’s book comes in. A Praying Life is a testimony of the difficulty of prayer, but with its difficulty, its fruitfulness.
Having read the word “fruitfulness,” you’ve probably already switched off because you don’t have the same experience: “What fruitfulness?” Or maybe you won’t admit that, but you believe it.
If you’re there, which I am, then Miller would say you have grown cynical. Cynicism grows from our weariness, so that even “If [we] get an answer to prayer, sometimes [we’ll] think, It would have happened anyway.” Or we pray with naïve optimism, thinking God will answer our request like a vending machine answers our dollars: here’s this for that.
Cynicism grows, and we become passive, not hoping so as to not be let down. We cocoon ourselves in what Flannery O’Connor calls “domesticated despair.” We accept the cards we’ve been dealt and move on to “just get through.” Miller writes, “In cynicism we can’t pray because everything is out of control, little is possible.” We question, whether knowingly or not, the goodness and intimacy of our Heavenly father: He doesn’t care about my grade or the lightness of my wallet.
Soon, everything is hopeless because cynicism can’t hope. But if we want to learn to pray, then we must be grown out of this cynicism. We must become like His little children; not naïve children but children who are “innocent as doves but wise as serpents.”
Becoming a child is what it takes to learn how to pray. What does a kid ask for?
When I was kid, I loved going to the grocery with my mom. I would drive my toy car on the plastic price tag bar on the shelf. As we walked through the store, I would see something, grab it, and look up to see my mom down the aisle, and I would run after her. “Mom! Mom! Can I get this?”
Most of the time, she would say no. But that was probably because I didn’t need it or because she was getting something similar to that already or because she loved me too much to buy me a 48-pack of fruit gushers.
I can see that now because I trust my mom. But then, I would be upset and if I was having a bad day, I would pout because my mom didn’t love me. I became cynical, not trusting my mom.
But the point is: I would ask my mom for everything and anything I wanted.
And I believe, that we, as God’s heavenly children, should ask for everything and anything, and then wait for his answer, and trust his answer. Miller tells a story of how he didn’t have pajamas when he was a kid. Pajamas were important to him. So, he went and asked his mom for some, but they were broke. His mom told him to pray for some, and he did.
When I started the semester, I looked at my syllabi and saw that a project important to me was due 6 weeks earlier than I anticipated. I panicked. Having been told by Miller to pray like a little child, I prayed.
Miller got his pajamas. So, did I. Someone dropped out of the class, and I took his place, getting an extension. “God is concerned about pajamas.”
Did God make that person drop the class? I don’t know. But I do know that he provided for me. I know He moved in my friend who was next in line for that extension spot so that he would give it to me . God is concerned about my project. Miller writes, “Tell God what you want. Before you can abide, the real you has to meet the real God. Ask anything.”
If we want to learn to pray, we have to become children who ask and hope.
Let’s go back to the store with my mom. Sometimes, when I really wanted something, I would hold onto it and walk through the store, asking at various junctures. I didn’t give up. I was persistent. I was a child.
Becoming a child is also about becoming dependent—even desperate. We pray when we’re desperate. But what if I told you we are always desperate?
Miller wrote this in his diary:
“Marcy 19, 1991. Amazing how when I don’t pray in the morning evil just floods into our home. I absolutely must pray! Oh, God, give me the grace to pray.”
We have to realize how desperate our situation really is. How if we don’t pray, then Satan will get a foothold, our flesh will prevail, and our relationships will suffer. We have to realize that we aren’t independent; we are desperately dependent.
When we live out of desperate dependence, we pray. This is where I realized how profound Miller is. At this juncture, many who write about prayer appeal to discipline. Discipline is how our prayer life will get its longevity and its consistency. But Miller writes, “We don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; we just need to be poor in spirit.”
When we are poor in spirit, we know our dependence on God. Miller tells a story of his daughter. He saw something in her he wanted to change. He tried but couldn’t. He eventually realized that “until you are convinced that you can’t change your child’s heart, you will not take prayer seriously.” When we pray to a personal God, we are surrendering our independence and our will.
We need to be children, little dependent, desperate children. Finally, we need to realize what prayer looks like.
I try to pray to myself when I’m lying in bed. I’ll pray and try to be transparent and authentic, not being like the Gentiles. But I’ll lose my train of thought and start worrying about something or wondering why that character in that TV show did that. I’ll get frustrated at myself: “How pathetic of a Christian are you? You can’t even pray.” Or, I’ll be praying and jump subjects and not follow ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication), and I’ll get frustrated. But Miller helped me realize what prayer should look like: “When it comes to prayer, we, too, just need to get the words out. It’s okay if your mind wanders or your prayers get interrupted.”
Prayer is talking to God. I learned that years ago. I was with a friend, telling him my worries and fears. And he told me, “Do you speak with God like that?” He encouraged me to tell God those same things in the same way. Not too long ago, I was with that same friend, and as we were talking, we jumped from subject to subject. We were talking.
I don’t mean for this to be a comprehensive summary of Miller’s book, only a snapshot of its power and profundity. And even though these thoughts have not turned me into a prayer warrior, I’m at least becoming a little kid again; I’m at least seeing God’s presence and His working in my life.
I hope this is like a special flossing technique or a flossing stick that helps you floss more frequently, so the next time someone asks–you can confidently say, “Sometimes.”