Praying Like You Mean It

Praying Like You Mean It

Has anyone ever watched you pray silently and concluded that you were drunk? I don’t know about you, but that’s never happened to me. However, it happened to Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:9-18. In the past I pictured Hannah’s prayer as coming from a prim and proper June Cleaver-ish young lady sitting up straight in a chair, hands folded and gently placed in her lap. With that picture in mind, I struggled to understand how Eli could watch a woman sit basically motionless (except for the slight movement of her lips) and presume that she was sloshed. A deeper consideration of the text (a novel idea, right?) caused me to rethink my mental picture.

Think about the terms used to describe Hannah and her prayer: “deeply distressed” (v. 10), “wept bitterly” (v. 10), “troubled in spirit” (v. 15), “pouring out my soul” (v. 15), and “great anxiety and vexation” (v. 16). Given that portrayal of this devout woman and the intensity of her emotions, I find it much easier to understand Eli’s response. While a silent, practically motionless woman would not automatically look like a drunk, she would if she were animated by the heaviest of burdens and looked like she was carrying on a tear-soaked, bitter conversation with an invisible listener.

That must have been one intense, deep, and passionate prayer.

Another example of this kind of prayer comes from Paul’s pen. In Colossians 4:12, he wrote, “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” Consider these lessons from the prayer-life of Ephaphras.

His prayers were constant (“always”). His prayers were personal (“on your behalf”). His prayers were purposeful (“that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God”). And his prayers were intense. The word translated “struggling” is from the Greek agonizomai, which means to fight or to compete in an athletic contest. Our English word “agonize” comes from this word. When an athlete competes to the best of his ability and exhausts himself in the contest, commentators have been known to say that said athlete “left it all out on the field.” The player held nothing back. When he left the field of play, he left knowing that he had nothing left to give. He gave it everything he had. One of the most iconic images in National Football League history is the picture of two San Diego Chargers players carrying Kellen Winslow, their teammate, off the field after a playoff game because Winslow couldn’t walk on his own. He was completely drained of strength. That’s the picture Paul painted of the praying Epaphras. He held nothing back. When he was through, he had nothing left in the tank.

When I think about these two examples (and the picture of Jesus in Gethsemane, Luke 22:44), I’m ashamed that so many of my prayers lack heart. How easy it can be for our prayers to turn into little more than the recitation of long-before memorized words and phrases. Most of us can probably “pray” on auto-pilot without engaging a serious thought. The words may be there, but the heart isn’t. Seems like I remember Jesus offering an assessment on that phenomenon (Matt. 15:8).

Spend some time in the presence of God today, but don’t merely recite old phrases. “Pour out your heart before him” (Psa. 62:8).