Learning to pray better prayers

ibex on the heights

The other day I came to a bothersome realization: For years, many of my personal prayers have been more shallow and off-focus than I like to admit.

I recognize that many of my personal prayers are variations on the themes, “God, make things turn out nicely for me,” or “God, get me out of the mess I am in.”

Reading through the prophet Habakkuk, I notice how differently he approaches prayer.  Things are going horribly in his nation, and the future looks more discouraging.  Near the end of his book he summarizes how bad things are and will be: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls….” (Habakkuk 3:17)

I would have expected that what would come next would be a prayer like my typical prayers: “God, make things turn out nicely for me,” or “God, get me out of the mess I am in.”

But those aren’t the prayers Habakkuk came up with.  Instead, he prayed, “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.  The Sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; He enables me to go on the heights.”

The focus of his prayer was greater than mine.  He did not ask merely for God to make things turn out well for him or to get him out of the mess he was in.  He focused on God’s presence with him through it all and God’s ability to equip Habakkuk with what he needed to get through the difficulties: the feet of a deer to maneuver through the rocky times ahead.

About those feet, Ray Vander Laan remarks, “Negotiating the rugged mountains, deep canyons, and rocky ground of the Judea Wilderness is hard, dangerous work.  The graceful ibex, however, are able to move with little effort on nearly impossibly steep trails at hazardous heights.  They can do this because God, their Creator, gave them a soft hoof that grips the rock without slipping.”

That’s what Habakkuk focused on: Not a request for easier circumstances but that God could give to him what he needed to be able to negotiate the troubles that surrounded him.

What a better person I might be if that would become the content of my prayers!

Phillips Brooks expresses it well: “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men and women.  Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers, but pray for powers equal to your tasks.  Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle.  Every day you shall wonder at yourself—at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”

Perhaps instead of asking God to make things turn out well for me or to get me out of the messes I fall into, I should pray the prayer of Thomas Aquinas: “Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downwards; give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.”  Or perhaps I should pray the prayer of an anonymous saint, “Dear God, enlighten what’s dark in me, strengthen what’s weak in me, mend what’s broken in me, bind what’s bruised in me, and, lastly, revive whatever peace and love has died in me.”

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