• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Yeah, I pray, but...

If prayer doesn't help, you're probably not doing it right.


By some studies, we know prayer can change our brain activity and brain chemistry. Prayer can put to rest our fear, flight, or flight center, and can increase our compassion and rational thought centers. Prayer can directly change the chemical levels in our brain, as much as eating chocolate. Some suggest these changes from prayer in our bodies can reduce stress and hypertension, and accelerate healing.


Power of Prayer: What Happens to Your Brain When You Pray? (nbcnews.com)


Still, sometimes, I might hear someone say something like, "Yeah, I prayed about it. I pray all the time about it, but it's not working."


This kind of feedback is normal, and I try to receive it with openness and curiosity. I might ask the person to tell me more about their prayer routines. What time of day? Where are you when you pray? How much time do you spend? Do you read anything before you pray, or during your prayer time? Do you write anything down? Do you pray about these things alone, or do you share them with others and pray together?


Maybe we've seen and heard others pray in worship. We might have seen someone pray around a table before a meal. We might have attended a meeting in a church or in public, and listened as someone prayed before a meeting. Those kind of prayers are great. They serve a purpose connecting those praying and listening to one another and to God.


Then, there's another kind of praying. It's one we don't often see. It's the from-the-heart prayers. It's the secrets and worries prayers. It's the fears and guilts prayers. It's tears and pains prayers. It's the foxhole prayers. We don't get to watch people pray these prayers. Then, when it's time for us to sit down into one of these prayers, we mimic the kind of prayers we've seen in worship or meetings or at the dinner table. But, those kinds of prayers will not work for these needs. This kind of prayer needs something different. If you are hungry for your private prayer life to help or work, I want to give you three suggestions.

  • Set aside 10 minutes of uninterrupted time. This kind of prayer is like a massage or an after-workout soak. It will take submission into the process and dedicated time to begin feeling the effects.

  • Prepare the space. You'll need a space for just you and God, one without phones, laundry, dishes, or pets. For me, I prefer smaller, darker spaces, a candle, and faint instrumental music. You might prefer the front porch swing or a tub.

  • Before it's prayer time, write down the topics. One one half, write down any thoughts or feelings about yourself. On the other half, write any thoughts or feelings for others.

  • When it's time, enter the space, close your eyes, get comfortable, and wait. This is often the hardest part of prayer for me. In these first moments, temptations and distractions sense my commitment to pray and attack. My goal is to let each fall away so I can give God my full attention. As they approach, I breathe in and try to imagine each one getting smaller and smaller. When they come close to me, I look at how small they really are, and exhale them away from me. When no more approach, I'm ready to talk and listen to God.

Note: Sometimes, we may give ALL our prayer time trying to watch these things come and go. We may get to the end of our prayer time and realize we didn't make it to quiet and focused yet. That's okay! The time wasn't wasted! We are working toward that place of focus and stillness and quiet with God, and this process is essential to ever get there. Instead of being frustrated we didn't arrive this time, let's look at all the things we were able to breathe away with God's help! Thing after thing that claimed to be so big, we (and God) shrunk them down to size and we breathed them away with a simple exhale. Isn't that amazing! None of those things are as big and scary as they pretended to be, or as we imagined them to be!


That's probably enough for today. Next time, we can imagine what to do if we make it to that quiet place with God in prayer.

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