Nearly a dozen years ago, I made a serious mistake in my position as a youth pastor in a small Idaho church. In spite of my carelessness (and stupidity), I had not been fired; but I faced painful truths about my character, questions about my place in the community, confusion about my future calling. I took a week away from work and drove to Oregon for a spiritual retreat at a primitive cabin near a private lake in the Willamette Valley.
And I prayed.
Or at least I tried to pray. One morning, I read Psalm 119 over more than a dozen times. Then I waited in silence. I wrote out a question for God. And another. And another. But each time, as I waited in silence, I had no peace, no sense of God’s presence. I went for a walk. I climbed a tree. I ate. I slept. On the next morning, I tried again. And the next morning. And the next.
At the end of the week, I felt just as confused as at the start. But I was convinced that God had been present, that God was waiting for me to work through the problem I’d been given, that God trusted me to learn and grow from the struggle.
In Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster recounts a similar situation from his own life: his attempt to solve a long-standing problem at the university where he taught. And I recognize my experience in his claim that “we often pray in struggling, halting ways. . . . We do not know what to pray. We do not know how to pray.”
Roberta Bondi builds on this truth in To Pray and to Love with the story of a friend who discovered that “‘Success’ in prayer finally has nothing to do with how we feel, not even whether we feel the presence of God.”
That week I spent in prayer was the beginning of a journey that led me out of ministry (I resigned my position a year later) out of church (I stopped attending another year after resigning) and then back. And even though the journey was painful and lonely, it was a process that led to both perspective and maturity. It was a journey that brought me closer to God through hardship, heart-ache, and humility.
We do not know what to pray. We do not know how to pray.