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Quotations I love: Eugene Peterson on anything goes in prayer

Lynne Baab • Friday February 12 2021

Quotations I love: Eugene Peterson on anything goes in prayer

A few weeks ago, after a blog post on prayer, a friend wrote to me: “I do intend to pray, and these days I cry out to the Lord many times during the course of each day, but I’m having a tough time being intentional about prayer, including making time for prayer and what I pray for.” She wrote about her desire to learn “habit stacking,” always a great idea. Habit stacking might involve praying for sick friends every time you hear an ambulance or praying a psalm right after you brush your teeth each night.

The most common thing I hear from people about prayer is a lot of guilt. “I don’t pray enough.” “I wish I prayed more.” “I wish I could be more intentional about prayer.” In fact, pretty much the exact same things I heard from my friend a couple of weeks ago. I usually ask questions and find that the person does pray – perhaps while singing along with Christian music or when frustrated or scared – but it doesn’t feel like enough.

I’ve been invited to guest preach next month on the topic of prayer. I wish that I could communicate two things about prayer: (#1) Most Christians already pray to some extent, so I encourage you to rejoice in the prayer you already do rather than beating yourself up. (#2) God longs for us to enjoy drawing near, to feel the comfort and peace of walking and talking with Jesus, to rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance and strength, so examining obstacles to prayer is a good idea. Without beating ourselves up!

A very real question for me as a writer and preacher on the topic of prayer is how to hold in tension #1 and #2 from the previous paragraph.

I’ll share with you some of my pondering about #2. One of my obstacles to prayer is thinking that I shouldn’t complain too much to God. I know cognitively that God welcomes us with all of our emotions. I’ve studied the psalms enough to know that every human emotion is represented multiple times in various psalms. I agree wholeheartedly with Eugene Peterson (from Eat This Book):

“The first thing that we realize from the Psalms is that in prayer anything goes. Virtually everything human is appropriate as material for prayer: reflections and observations, fear and anger, guilt and sin, questions and doubts, needs and desires, praise and gratitude, suffering and death. Nothing human is excluded. The Psalms are an extended refutation that prayer is being ‘nice’ before God. Not at all–it is an offering of ourselves, just as we are.”

I definitely bring all that Peterson has listed –reflections and observations, fear and anger, guilt and sin, questions and doubts, needs and desires, praise and gratitude, suffering and death – into my prayers and into God’s presence. But I still often feel there should be limits to my bringing “negative” thoughts and emotions to God, especially anger and hate. A little bit is okay, just not too much.

My obstacle to being completely honest before God about the emotions and thoughts I have considered to be “negative” – and being completely honest over and over and over – is rooted in my family of origin. I have heard a lifetime of speeches from my mother about the importance of having a positive attitude, and my father was definitely not a person who welcomed hearing about any sort of fear or anger.

You may have received those same messages in your family growing up, or you may have heard other messages that influence the way you approach God. After all, many people use the words Father, or even Mother, in their prayers. How could we not be influenced by our human fathers and mothers?

God, thank you for inviting us to draw near with all we are and all we have. I pray for myself and for my readers, that you would help us rejoice in the times we do pray. Help us enjoy your presence, and also identify influences from childhood that shape our patterns of prayer, for better and for worse. Help us bring those influences and patterns to you. Help us see the ways you are shaping us into your beloved disciples who take delight in being with you with all we are and all we have. Thank you for your enormous love that accepts human weakness in every form and longs to transform it. Amen.

Next week: Your true life as a Christian – become who you already are. Illustration by Dave Baab: sculpture of a cedar of Lebanon in the Dunedin Botanic Garden, placed there in 2011 by Lebanese immigrants to Dunedin. I love to get new subscribers. Sign up below to get an email when I post on this blog.

Some past blog posts and articles that encourage freedom in prayer:

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