I remember reading a book in college about prayer, hoping (in my naïveté) that it would solve all my difficulties in prayer. I found prayer frustrating, difficult, and humbling. The book was practical, but in my flesh, I saw it as a way to fix my prayer life.
I felt guilty for being a spiritual leader and not praying much, so I set out to be better. Instead of drawing me near to God, however, my prayers became ways to come close, but not too close, to God. I wanted intimacy, but at arm’s length. Like Adam, I was trying to give an impressive speech before God, hoping I could emerge unscathed. It turns out I wanted to sow prayer in the flesh, rather than in the Spirit, and so I was tempted to pray in fantasy rather than reality.
Only by praying in reality—praying in the truth—can one draw near to the God who is greater than our hearts and knows everything (1 John 3:19–20).
Why Praying Honestly Is Difficult
For some, this all seems counterproductive. They think, I just need to stop acting out in my anger, or stop worrying, or get over my pain. I just need to put my sins in the past. This is the common sense that Scripture calls the flesh or, sometimes, “self-made religion” (Col. 2:23). It depends on our power against our sin.
But consider who Jesus was drawn to in his ministry: people whose sins, pain, and brokenness were on the surface. It was the man who cried out to God in the temple—who “beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”—who left justified, not the Pharisee who sought to pray in his goodness (Luke 18:13). Jesus did not embrace the Pharisee who invited him for dinner but received the woman who awkwardly cleansed his feet with her tears and her hair (Luke 7:36–50). His words about her are important: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47).
This is why we needn’t be afraid of seeing the truth of our hearts. To love well, we need to know how much we have been forgiven. We need to see and know the truth, and bring that reality to the Lord, so that his love for us billows forth through our lives to love him, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Honesty is difficult in prayer because it is in prayer, above all else, that we discover how much of the gospel we have not accepted. In prayer we realize that our doctrine of the atonement has not yet shaped our lives in the presence of God.
Honesty is difficult in prayer because it is in prayer, above all else, that we discover how much of the gospel we have not accepted.
Likewise, it is in prayer that we realize whether we truly believe we’ve been justified by faith alone. It is in prayer that we come to realize, in our experience, what Christ died for, what he is calling us to, and what our words actually mean. It is here that we come to grasp him in the truth of ourselves, growing in love because we see the depths of his forgiveness for our depravity, sin, and rebellion.
Prayer Rooted in the Gospel
I see this play itself out for many of my seminary students. For many of them, experiencing a good deal of guilt and shame about their struggles in prayer, prayer prompts harsh self-criticism. Somewhere in the hidden recesses of their hearts, they think that if they are vicious toward themselves in God’s presence, then he will go easy on them.
Rather than telling God how angry they are with their spouse or how unsatisfied they are with life—being open to the truth—they try to hide it. Prayer that rests on the truth of salvation by faith alone, grace alone, in Christ alone—that trusts there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1)—should be grounded in truth. Too often, prayer has become a way to perform for God, hoping that we can say and do things that will tether him to us.
After students spend so much time in seminary making sure they have a deep and biblical account of the atonement, it all seems to disappear when they pray. In prayer, they are trying to atone for these deep feelings by telling God they are sorry and will never be bad again (and deriding themselves for being so bad). Prayer has become a performance to placate an angry God.
Notice how idolatrous this kind of praying is, yet how natural it seems. Instead of prayer being a way of coming to Christ, it becomes a way to deny the truth.
Instead of prayer being a way of coming to Christ, it becomes a way to deny the truth.
The opposite of speaking the truth is not somehow minimizing sin (although that is how it feels). The opposite of speaking the truth is simply dishonesty. Too many Christians refuse to tell God the truth because they think he will only receive them in their goodness, forgetting that it was in their sin that he died for them (Rom. 5:8).
When we fail to be honest in prayer, we see the ways we have struggled to accept the truth of the gospel. Prayer is not a place to be good. It’s a place to be honest. Prayer becomes real when it accepts the truth of the gospel, and prays according to the contours of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.