Updated: Jul 3, 2019
In my previous career as a lifestyle magazine editor, I was occasionally sent on glorious things called press trips: free vacations where my only job was to be spoiled, and then come back and write about it.
Fifteen years ago, while pregnant, my boss sent me on a press trip to a spa in Arizona -- one to which Oprah has been. I spent three wonderful days taking mindfulness meditation classes and getting massages. Then one workshop I took kicked my pregnant butt. It was a horse therapy workshop, designed to teach me about my interpersonal skills through interacting with and grooming horses. I chose to work with a miniature horse named Merlin, thinking that if he kicked me in the belly, it would damage my unborn child less than the kick of regular horse. (He looked kind of like this.)
Merlin turned out to be adverse to grooming, and able to duck under the hitching post fence, which the full-sized horses weren't able to do. I lamely chased him back and forth for a while, and when he finally held still, instead of getting down to business (which was cleaning his hoof with a pick), I tried to make friends by petting him.
The horse guru came up and questioned me (this is how I remember the dialogue from 14 years ago):
Guru: What are you doing?
Me: Petting Merlin.
Me: Uh. I'm making friends with him. I want him to like me.
Me: Uh. I don't want him to think I just want something from him.
Guru: But you do want something from him. You want his hoof.
Guru: Do you always need people to like you before you can ask for something you need?
Me: Uh. Yes.
This interaction was the beginning of a spiritual recovery process in which I have learned to be more honest, less manipulative, better at asking for what I need, and better at appropriate self care. It's been a long, wayward journey and it's not over yet.
I brought up this story today while talking to a younger woman that I'm mentoring. We were talking about being honest with God in prayer. Prayer is a place to be honest, not a place to be good. However, so many of the ways I was taught to pray as a child, made it seem the opposite: That I had to get my heart and thoughts "right" and good before I could talk to God about what was really going on.
One such method is the tried and true ACTS acronym for prayer. It stands for A-adoration, C-confession, T-thanksgiving, and S- supplication (asking for things). Tell God how great He is. Then confess how bad you've been. Then thank God for your blessings. Then ask Him for what you need and want.
So in a way, I'm treating God like a miniature horse named Merlin. I come before him broken, tired, frustrated, and in desperate need of help, but I pad my prayers with pats on the back for God before I can tell him why I'm really there. Like God doesn't already know why I'm on my knees. Like I need to grease God, kind of butter him up before I can ask him for something.
The problem with this method, as I told my friend this morning, is that it makes us hesitant to approach God, when the New Testament teaches that because of Jesus, we can walk right up to God and start talking. The other problem is it's not really Biblical. Go further back in the Bible, and read some of the Psalms of David, and David is often praying the ACTS prayer in reverse. He starts with requests and gets to adoration later.
David's psalms of lament (Pslams 54, 55 and 59 are good examples) could possibly be lumped together and paraphrased this way:
Lament: God, I"m alone, pressed on all sides by powerful enemies, abandoned, despised, falsely accused, and possibly dying. Where are you God? What are you up to?
Request: Please avenge me, smote the guys who are after me, prove me innocent, show them to be guilty, preserve my life, preserve my throne, provide me with food, ease my pain, show me your face, let me live in your house.
Remembrance and Adoration: You God are my rock and my foundation, my shelter, the one who lifts my head. You have rescued me in the past and you can do it again. Your laws are good. Your ways are right.
Confession: I forget and trust in the things of this world. I'm in need of your mercy.
Praise: You are God Almighty and no one compares to you.
This makes the acronym LRRCP, and you can see why that never caught on in Sunday school.
God declared that He loved the heart of David, and I wonder if that's because David was so stinking honest in prayer. David trusts God enough to pour out his troubles, and then He experiences the character of God. He feels God draw near to him ( David is the one who wrote Psalm 34:18: "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit."). Then David is able to remember God's character and praise Him from a place of sincerity, not a place of religious ritual. He is comforted by who God is before God has done anything on his behalf.
I'm not suggesting that the only sincere prayers are the ones that start with complaints and requests. Nor am I devaluing the spiritual discipline of affirming God's character and thanking Him even when we don't feel like it. It's appropriate to treat God with reverence, and sometimes it helps to quiet our hearts before him. I love corporate prayer that works like this: As a community we remind ourselves of how big God is before we come to him with our relatively small problems.
But sometimes the praise-first model achieves the opposite. It makes God smaller. In our minds, He gets turned into a miniature God, a small-minded religious genie that we have to appease with praise and ego boosting before we can lay out what we really want. We think maybe we can make ourselves likeable, and then we will have a better shot with God. We forget that God already likes us, despite the fact that he knows all the pain, confusion, anger, doubts, and requests for help we are yearning to bring before Him. He loves us so enormously and intimately that we can forget the pleasantries and just jump into his lap, runny nose, balled up fists and all.
So if you're a little stuck in your prayer life, as I have been in the past, maybe flip your ACTS prayer upside down. Especially if what you really need help with is remaking your character. You might feel a little guilty because what you want to ask God is to avenge you and smote your enemies, and you're wondering if that means you're becoming a bitter, selfish, unforgiving person. May I encourage you: He's big enough to take our messy, mean spirits, calm us down, and make us gentler. He takes pleasure in comforting us, and in granting our requests. And you're safe asking, because He won't smote someone for you, unless He thinks it's right. He's not our horse, in need of petting: He is God almighty.