A Failure at Prayer

Praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Tis the season…for new year’s resolutions.  Maybe I’m moving too quickly through the Christmas season, but I was in Target today and there were Valentine’s Day displays up, so I have no guilt.

Do you make new year’s resolutions?  I remember making them when I was younger.  They were always pretty vague:  lose weight, get in better shape, grow closer to God, etc.  How would I ever know if I actually achieved them or not?

I haven’t made any resolutions for several years, except some specific exercise goals.  I was short of every one of these goals this year, which I’m going to blame on too much work.  But they were stretch goals for me, so I don’t feel too bad about it – although it would have been nice to have met one of them.

Rejoice always.  Pray continually.  Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  Don’t suppress the Spirit.  Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages, but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-21 (CEB)

During one of my last semesters in seminary, a study group formed during Lent to discuss the lectionary readings each week.  As a long-distance commuter, I was rarely involved in the life of the seminary community.  Events rarely happened on the one night each week I was there.  My lack of involvement in the community was also impacted by my introverted nature.

The first weeks I was in seminary, I went to study break (which did actually meet the night I stayed over my first semester) and tried to meet other students.  But it was really difficult.  Everyone spent so much more time together and knew each other so well.  Being from the suburbs, married and the parent of two elementary-aged kids did not mesh well with the largely young group that lived on campus and attended study break.

I gave up before the semester was done.

That same semester, the student session tried to get some small groups together.  Mine met two or three times and then stopped meeting.  They all saw each other on a regular basis and didn’t need this group.

So I can’t describe my excitement when this Lenten group formed and was meeting at a time I was actually on campus.    There were only five us, and we decided to keep meeting after Lent.  Unfortunately, this was my last semester on campus.  The discussions were always good, but one in particular stays with me most clearly.

I don’t know what the passage we were discussing, but we got on the topic of prayer. One person said her Lenten discipline (or resolution) was to pray every day, but she was having a hard time doing it.  She just couldn’t get herself to sit for 10-20 minutes and pray.  She didn’t know how.  Her mind wandered.  She forgot.  She just didn’t want to.  Five seminarians sat in a group and admitted that we weren’t very good pray-ers.  The issue wasn’t praying out loud or leading others in prayer but private prayer.

During that time, Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night long. – Luke 6:12 (CEB)

This had been a struggle for me for awhile.  I go through seasons where I am a diligent pray-er.  I try to discipline myself to pray when I run:  Mondays, my immediate family; Tuesdays, parents and grandparents; Wednesday, siblings and nieces/nephews; etc.  This is often when I’m most “effective” (or “successful” – if you can be a “successful” pray-er).  But to just sit and pray is hard for me.  Even now, as I try to discern what God is calling me to next, I resist sitting in prayer.  It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that I cannot do it.


If you have faith, you will receive whatever you pray for.” – Matthew 21:22 (CEB)

Back to the discussion group…  We discussed what qualified as prayer.  Does it have to be sitting still for a specified period of time?  It counts when I’m running, right?  But what about when thoughts come to mind during the day, and I find myself talking to God?  What about the quick prayers I say under my breath?  What about when I’m thinking of someone and Scripture comes to mind?  Is there a hierarchy to prayer that makes it better when I am sitting silently in an appropriate posture than when I’m walking through the grocery store and someone comes to mind or I suddenly have a moment of clarity on some circumstance in my life?  Does God proscribe our prayer procedure or is this some additional law that we have burdened ourselves with?


Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. – Philippians 4:6 (CEB)

If prayer makes me anxious, then I don’t think I can be doing it “right.”  It seems like God offers to talk with us, but we make it complicated.  I’m glad Jesus went away to pray because I like to do that sometimes, too.  But I’m also glad that this isn’t what Jesus required when he taught his disciples how to pray.

As the five seminarians sat in their circle wondering if anyone heard our confessions, we made an important resolution.  We agreed that we would release ourselves from a single definition of what prayer should be.  We also agreed that we would be forthright with our future congregations that prayer comes in many forms.

Are you talking to God?  Are you open to the Spirit?

Then you’re doing it right. 

After all, prayer is an invitation not a burden.  As you are making your new year’s resolutions, you may choose to make one about praying more often or being a better pray-er.  And that’s OK.  After all, the world lays enough guilt and sense of failure on us already.  Maybe we could love one another a little better but not making prayer something God never intended it to be.  Regardless, my prayer is that whatever you resolve will give you freedom and bring you closer to God rather than being a burden to bear.

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.  Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves.  My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 (CEB)


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7 Thoughts to “A Failure at Prayer”

  1. […] you’ll pray for them. We say it, but do we really think we’re doing anything? (I’m often a Failure at Prayer, although I’m pretty good at praying for other […]

  2. […] something I was reading convicted me on my daily prayer habit (or lack thereof). As I reflected in A Failure at Prayer, praying is not my strongest spiritual discipline. As I was thinking of how to bring this […]

  3. I love your imagery Michael! I love Richard Foster’s book on prayer. It freed me up from a single definition of prayer.

    1. Michael Burkes

      Thanks, Michelle. I saw a short video of Richard Foster’s, and I stumbled onto Richard Bennett, who was in the youtube cluster. He is a former Dominican priest who left the Church. His testimony at BereanBeacon.org gave me a lot to think about, and I somewhat identify with it. Thanks again.

  4. Michael Burkes

    While driving to work, when thoughts come to mind during the day, in moments of clarity for sure. I don’t feel that God proscribes a prayer procedure. Catholics have many structured prayers, which I love, but I prefer the spontaneous. To me, those traditional prayers, or any thanksgiving and praise, are like our house key, which we use to get into our house where we can feel more comfortable and have a real conversation.

  5. Eddy Huffman

    Thank you for this reflection on prayer. I find praying with my Stephen care-receiver easier than when it’s just God and me. Recounting the comments from your seminary group encourages me to be generous in judging my efforts – and to keep at it.

    1. Eddy, it’s easier for me, too, to pray with and for others than when it’s just me and God. I’m always thankful when someone says they are praying for me – it’s part of being the Body of Christ.

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