Praying: For whose ears?
Photo by Terry Bidgood
Palms sweaty, heart racing, mind on overdrive.
No, it’s not nervousness over an impending exam or presentation, but, well . . . praying with others.
Even though I grew up in a “culturally Christian” family, I had never really prayed with others before. The closest I had come to it was muttering a quick prayer before the occasional celebratory family meal to give thanks for the food.
But for the most part, I saw prayer as a one-on-one, personal conversation between me and my Father—my whispered words for His ears alone. So, after I truly accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior and joined a small family church where praying with those around us was a common practice, I was both intrigued and terrified.
I had never heard people talking to God out loud before, and doing so felt like I was spying on a secret conversation. While I was comfortable observing them, I would clam up whenever it was my turn.
I remember one occasion in particular: I was painfully stuttering through a prayer with two older people I’d just been acquainted with, my eyes scrunched up in concentration and cheeks warm. I felt stupid for not knowing how to pray, and mortified at how stilted my prayer was compared to theirs; my words sounded thick and clunky coming out of my mouth.
Over time, as I listened to the prayers of others, I couldn’t help but notice how they prayed. Some stammered, generously sprinkling filler words like “um” and “like” throughout their prayers; others were capable of reciting concise summaries of sermons we’d just heard in a perfectly packaged prayer. Some prayed like a bullet train, spurting out clipped words in a single breath, while others meandered wherever their thoughts took them. Some prayed with boredom tinging their voices, others prayed with emotion quivering at the back of their throats.
I marveled at my best friend’s eloquent prayers, richly adorned with descriptive language and generously furnished with Bible verses. I envied her easy confidence and poignant words, which felt like a much more pleasing prayer to the Lord’s ears than my own—or so I imagined.
As I listened to them, I began to pick up expressions and phrases to incorporate in my own articulated prayers, as if collecting shiny baubles to deck my petitions to God with. Without knowing it, I became overly conscious of what I sounded like in the ears of others—and even critical and condescending as I began to judge other people’s prayers against my own.
One Sunday, I had the opportunity to pray with a sister a couple of years younger than me. She was a small, unassuming, and quiet girl whom I hardly knew. Even though she came from a Mandarin-speaking background and wasn’t fluent in English, her prayer was beautiful. She prayed to the Lord earnestly and simply, with short sentences, in a tone of complete reverence and humility. And even though she spoke with few words, I could hear and feel her love for God.
Right then, I felt ashamed of my own prayer, which, though gracefully delivered, didn’t come from an intimate or authentic place. Instead, it was motivated by a subconscious desire to be found praying the “right” way, and to sound and appear holy and perfect, as I assumed Christians ought to be. As I learnt to participate in corporate prayer, I had unknowingly mistaken my primary audience to be my fellow brothers and sisters. I had forgotten that while praying with others can be one way to edify and encourage them, it shouldn’t be the main motivation behind praying with others. This sweet, young sister-in-Christ made me realize that no oratory prowess can compare to a humble prayer uttered from a genuine and contrite spirit.
Jesus made it clear that He isn’t impressed by eloquent prayers that exalt Him on the surface but indirectly exalt the person praying (Matthew 6:5-13; 23:5-12). Rather, He is pleased with and accepts the prayers of those who call upon His name in repentance (Luke 18:10-14).
Today, I have learned to pray slowly and thoughtfully, and to murmur simple, heartfelt words directed solely for the ears of my Father in Heaven while in the presence of others. After all, our prayers are ultimately for God’s ears, who alone hears and answers according to His perfect will and in His perfect time.
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