I’ve been commuting by bike a lot recently, riding from home to work at the cafe, to Upper Room, to the seminary, to meetings. And my legs are sore. This isn’t because I’m out of shape; it’s because I consistently forget to stretch before or after riding. When I go for a run, and know that my purpose is exercise, I can easily remember to stretch and save myself later pain. When commuting, I forget. There’s pressure to get somewhere quick, so I hop on and ride without adequate preparation. Then, as I start to slow down midway up Forbes Avenue, I think, ‘I really should have stretched.’ Rushing to get where I need to go, I end up moving less efficiently and feeling sore afterward.
I realized this week that the same pattern shows up in my prayer life. Just as exercise requires stretching and warming-up before a strenuous workout, prayer requires preparation. When I enter into a time of prayer after reading Scripture or other spiritual writing, prayer flows more smoothly, naturally. The same is true if I’ve been listening to worship music that sets my heart in a prayerful place. This is also another reason why I’ve found using liturgies for daily prayer immensely helpful. To continue the bike analogy, prescribed liturgies can function as training wheels, guiding us until we can balance on our own. I value extemporaneous prayer, but without these ways of “warming-up”, extemporaneous prayer can be clumsy and confused. Tools like liturgies do not guarantee prayer from the heart, but they can help us get our balance so we can move forward freely. Without these forms of preparation or support, my prayer life becomes disorderly, uncoordinated, awkward.
Today’s Old Testament reading in the Daily Lectionary, Ecclesiastes 5:1-7, suggests that the consequences of rushing into prayer are more than just clumsy words and confusion:
Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil. Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few. For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words. When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God. (NASB)
For the author of Ecclesiastes, what we say in prayer can actually cause us to sin in God’s presence. Our words matter more than we realized, especially when we are speaking with the Lord of the universe, because words are an expression of who we really are. In Matthew 15:18-20, Jesus says,
It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of a mouth, this defiles a person . . . What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander. These are what defile a person. (ESV)
If our words reveal the state of our heart, what does the way we pray reveal about the sin and brokenness in our hearts? The words we speak to God may not convey all the sins Jesus listed in Matthew 15, but they do reveal other strongholds in our hearts: impatience, distrust, selfishness, pride.
Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord, wills, we will live and also do this or that.’
How often do our prayers seek to tell God the way things will be, rather than submitting our plans and desires to God’s will? I find that when I rush into prayer, it’s because I want to set the agenda, rather than to say, “Not my will, but yours be done.”