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How to Have a More Meaningful Prayer Life

Published: Nov 09, 2021
How to Have a More Meaningful Prayer Life

How do I have a meaningful prayer life? Somehow, I think God doesn’t transform me through my shame and self-loathing. Somehow, I think prayer might be supposed to free me from this persistent unease.

Can I ask you something? How much prayer is enough? Or, perhaps, what kind of prayer counts towards my Jesus points for the day and moves me to the Gold Star Plus plan?


(But actually… I would really love to know what counts. DM me?)

I’ve been a Christian for 30 years, so I know there’s no Gold-Star Plus Jesus level, and that I can’t work my way towards salvation…

…and yet I still keep looking for the fine print that tells me how to qualify. Because honestly, no matter how much ‘saved by grace’ theology I swallow, I am, in the pit of my stomach, sure that my prayer life is Not Good Enough.

Because we want time spent with God to be meaningful, right? To flow from our deep desire for communion with Christ, the outworking of our desire to be transformed and renewed, the awareness and hunger for God’s holiness. We want it to matter.

But if you’re anything like me, half the time I walk away from prayer feeling… unsettled.

  • Did I remember enough prayer requests to love my neighbors well?
  • Did I whine too much?
  • Is once a day enough, or would two times be more serious? How many minutes counts?
  • Am I allowed to drink tea while I pray or is that distracting?
  • What would a Good Christian say when they’re praying? Could they send me a script?

I have asked these questions for years—but very quietly. So quietly that I hardly even noticed them. On the surface, I have been a Serious Christian Who Prays Regularly, but underneath, I often wonder if I’m screwing prayer up with my laziness or selfishness. 

How do I have a meaningful prayer life? Somehow, I think God doesn’t transform me through my shame and self-loathing. Somehow, I think prayer might be supposed to free me from this persistent unease.

So how do we know if our prayers are enough? How do we know it “works”? Let’s demystify our prayer anxiety.

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Jjneff

woman looking worried and sad sitting with a cup of coffee

A Meaningful Prayer Life Happens Despite Our Incompetence

So much of my anxiety about faith stems from my belief, deep down, that I am in charge of growing, maturing, praying, and faith-ing. I believe I am the author and perfecter of my faith when Hebrews actually insists that it’s Jesus.

When Jesus calls us to abide in him in John, the visual is of a branch on a vine, which does not plant itself, tend itself, or water itself. Every needful thing is given to that plant precisely because it is dependent on the vine.

If we feel weak, insufficient, or incapable, this is no surprise to Jesus. God is able to tend to us despite our incompetence, despite our failures, despite our bewilderment. Our insufficiency is part of the plan.

This is especially true for prayer. In Romans 8:26-27, Paul insists that the Holy Spirit powers our prayers: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”

We are all, from the greatest prayer warrior to the newest newbies, in the same boat. We don’t need to work for a meaningful prayer life because all our prayers are meaningful. All of them matter, because the Holy Spirit meets us there. Each prayer we offer up, no matter how hesitant, short, or incompetent, is met with the bountiful grace, creativity, and love of our Savior. All of it is heard with deep grace. 

Dear ones, we don’t need to try to pray meaningful prayers. God makes them meaningful as-is.

A Meaningful Prayer Life Comes in All Shapes, Sizes, and Experiences

During a terrible week a few years ago, I paused one night and remembered it was time to pray. 

Like Pharaoh in the Jesus Storybook Bible, I sulked. “Why should I?” I thought. “Don’t want to. WON’T”.

Then I thought of Anne Lamott’s book: Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. In it, Lamott argues that all our prayers stem from those three words, and that prayer can be as simple as saying them.

Okay Jesus, I thought grudgingly. I’ll pray ONE WORD and that’s IT. 

I bowed my head. HELP, I thought.

It was so weird: I began to cry. The anger and resentment I felt dissolved. Behind my crankiness was grief for all the ugliness I was going through.

So a simple, grudging prayer “works.” God can show up in that.

Of course, much of the time I pray, I don’t have an emotional breakthrough. Sometimes prayer feels mundane, or difficult, or as if I’m doing it wrong. 

I experienced this most viscerally as a child in an abusive family. For months, I’d pray the Lord’s Prayer at night, hoping against hope to feel God’s comfort, grace, and healing.

Honestly? I felt diddly squat, and finally gave up.

Yet looking back, I see how Jesus protected me from bitterness and hard-heartedness. I see how he made a way where there was no way, even though I could not feel it happening.

Prayer is mysterious. It is not a vending machine, where we get reliable candy deliveries when we insert our supplication coins.

We want it to be straightforward. We want to feel nice buzzy feelings from it, or hear God’s clear voice in response to our cries. We want to feel virtuous when we pray.

It is okay to grieve that it is complicated. It is okay to ask God questions about why we don’t experience reliable feelings or results. But we never, ever have to shame ourselves for doing it wrong.

Our prayer lives are meaningful even when it doesn’t feel that way, even when it doesn’t impress us. Prayer is a complicated yet simple gift, a chance to reach out with a hesitant word to the Creator of the universe—and have it count.

Meaningful Prayer Is Quiet and Humble

A lot of us know the story of Elijah, on the run and stuck in a cave, where God showing him his presence. The presence was not in the shattering wind, the awesome earthquake, or the blazing fire—instead, Elijah heard a gentle whisper.

Sure, this is great poetry, but in my less-holy moments, I think I’d rather experience the showy parts of God. It would feel more convincing. 

I was reminded of this talking to Jen Willhoite, an artist and contemplative pray-er, about her experience with the Ignatian Examen. Her first day, the instructions told her begin by offering a bit of gratitude. 

Immediately, she thought of something mundane. Then she felt dumb. She thought, “That wasn’t a very exciting thing to say. I was hoping to start this practice with a wowza.”

I laughed in recognition. How many times have I told myself that my prayers were boring, monotonous, lazy, self-centered, or petty? How many times have I wanted to give God a showy offering instead of the scraps I’m able to bring?

And yet we encounter a God who pointedly was not in showy power, but in a humble whisper. A God who sent his son to a Podunk people on the edge of a mighty empire. A God who deigned to appear as a helpless infant—and an illegitimate child. A God who was proud to hail from Nazareth, where supposedly nothing good came.

Apparently, God cares a lot less about being impressive than we do.

Our prayer is meaningful when it’s amateur, and short, and ill-phrased. It’s worthy of God’s attention when it’s boring. It is okay if it’s ordinary, it’s okay if it’s faltering, it’s okay if it’s absurdly, blessedly humble. God has specialized in showing up with the no-accounts since the beginning of time. We do not surprise Jesus at all with our lowliness.

Prayer Is HARD, and That’s Okay

In my case, prayer has both been a place of refuge and an annoying chore. It has produced grand transformation and boredom. It connects me with God and leaves me with a lot of questions about why Jesus allows children to suffer.

Prayer is complicated. It can be tough to show up for. It can feel like one more task in a long, demanding slog of adulthood.

And yet—and yet—

There are times when I realize that my moments of humble, ordinary prayer—the expressions of gratitude, the clear-eyed worship of a holy God—offer a respite of dignity and rest that nothing else on earth does. Prayer has kept my heart whole, it has reacquainted me with myself, it has helped me to remember Whose I am.

Ironically enough, I can bring every weird, discomfiting and even resentful thought about prayer to Jesus through prayer. I can be violently honest; I can show up bewildered; I can be unreasonable, whiny, and demanding (don’t believe me? Go read the Psalms). All of my experiences are legitimate fodder for prayer. And by “prayer” I mean the least-competent, least-holy, least-well said utterances of my frustration and pain.

It is all meaningful to God. It is all heard. And the door is wide open for me, exactly as I am, to enter in.

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/digitalskillet

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This article is part of our larger Prayer resource meant to inspire and encourage your prayer life when you face uncertain times. Remember, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and God knows your heart even if you can't find the words to pray. 

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