by John Alan Turner
September – December, 2006

I don’t remember my first prayer. I’m a preacher’s kid, and I always have been. That means many different things, but one thing it means for sure is that if the church building was unlocked, I was there. Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, Saturday morning door-knocking, VBS, you name it, I was there. And one thing each of these environments always included was prayer.
I spent a good deal of time attending Christian schools, and we prayed a lot there. First thing in the morning, daily chapel services, lunch period, Bible classes – all included prayer.
We prayed at home, too. Before meals, before bed, prayer was a familiar part of the routine of our lives, embedded in the fabric of our day-to-day routine.
But I do not remember what I said the first time someone looked at me and said, “John Alan, why don’t you lead us?”
No one ever taught me how to pray. I never asked anyone to. I just sort of picked it up as I went along. I don’t remember praying any of those children’s prayers: “Now I lay me down to sleep” or any of that. I just heard other people do it often enough, and eventually people assumed I knew what I was doing.
I do remember that, by then, I was familiar with certain “authorized” phrases:
“Guide, guard and direct us.”
“Bring us back at the next appointed hour.”
“May we do this in a manner well-pleasing in Thy sight.”
“Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies.”
(The church of my youth did not believe God still did miracles, but we’d gather together for church potlucks, load our plates down with fatty, fried foods and ask God to somehow transform the contents into something that would nourish our bodies.)

When Prayer Doesn’t Work

As I look back now, I realize that prayer was mostly about asking for stuff. And it was mostly about me. “Bless me.” “Help me.” “Keep me.” “Give me.” I was even trained to think of prayer that way. After all, I frequently heard, “Ye have not, because ye ask not” (James 4:2b).
That kind of praying puts you in a tough spot, the spot where I know prayer works if I get what I want. But what if I don’t get what I want? Then what? Did I get the sequence wrong? I put the change in the slot and pressed the button, but nothing came out. Did God just eat my quarter?!
When that happens (and it happens more frequently than Christians like to talk about), some people actually quit praying. In a church where I served, there was a man who was battling cancer. The doctors said it didn’t look good, so someone in our church arranged a 24-hour prayer vigil. One woman actually told me, “Oh, you don’t think I’m going to participate in that, do you? We did that exact same thing for my husband, and he still died! That stuff doesn’t work.”
I could hear the sadness and the anger behind her words, and it frightened me. I knew what she meant, and I knew that she had a valid point. But I’m too religious (or maybe superstitious) to stop praying. I may not be altogether convinced that it works every time, but what if it works this time? Maybe it’s every other request or some other intricate pattern. God does work in mysterious ways, after all.
Trite answers fit on bumper stickers, but they’re often cold comfort to people who are honestly wrestling with God.
For lots of folks, prayer is a good luck charm. How it works or why it works – who knows? But it’s better to have it close by, just in case.
To make this all the more confounding, you’ve probably noticed how God will sometimes answer a small prayer and completely ignore a large one. I remember having a friend who went without a job for a long time. We prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed and nothing happened. But my wife will ask God to help her find her keys, and presto! It always works. Ask God to heal your mother, and she might get worse. Ask him to cure AIDS or end world hunger, and nothing happens. Ask him to help you get a parking spot near the front of the mall, and lo and behold!
What are we to make of all this? Is there some hidden secret? Some magic formula? I’ve actually heard people on television (you know who they are) say that people in wheelchairs are there because they just don’t have enough faith to stand up and walk. That can’t be right, can it? Do I have to muster up some kind of confidence or bravado before God will give me what I want?
Surely, it’s not just about saying the right words in the right way with the right feelings. So what is it about?
Here’s a thought: What if none of this is the point of prayer to begin with? What if it’s not about trying to get God to do stuff? Or what if that’s just one tiny part of prayer? How tragic would it be to spend your entire life thinking that one tiny part of prayer was all there was to it?

Go To Your Room

Jesus’ followers knew how to pray. They were Jewish, and Jewish boys learned early on how to pray. They prayed at meals and at the synagogue, at the Temple, on the Sabbath. They prayed every morning when they got up and every evening when they went to bed. They knew what they were doing. Or at least they thought they did.
But when they met Jesus, they realized that he knew something about prayer that they didn’t know. So, they asked him, “Will you teach us how to do that?”
And, interestingly enough, Jesus does not say what many of us would say: “You don’t need to learn how to pray. It’s just talking to God. Just talk to him. There’s no right way or wrong way.”
Jesus actually says, “Okay, when you pray, do it like this.”
Now, if someone asked you to teach them how to pray, what would you start with?
Jesus starts with…location. He says, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matthew 6:6a).
But, Jesus, can’t we pray anywhere? Location doesn’t really matter, does it?
Let me say this: I believe you can pray anywhere. You can pray in your car (“Please, don’t let that policeman pull me over!”). You can pray at school (“Please, don’t let there be a quiz in here today!”). You can pray in your house, at the park, at work, in a box, with a fox. But it’s no use trying to tell Jesus that location doesn’t matter. He’s smarter than we are. He knows something about prayer that we don’t know. And he says location matters, somehow. If you really want to know how to do this, here’s where you start: go to your room and close the door.

Behind Closed Doors

We can only guess at what Jesus had in mind, but here’s something I’ve learned from my own life. I’ve been married to a wonderful woman for thirteen years now, and we have three wonderful, energetic children, ages seven, five and three. It’s an odd year for us.
We have, all things considered, a great relationship. But, as with all relationships, there’s a business side and a personal side. The business side of our relationship frequently involves things like paying bills, dropping off the dry cleaning, getting an oil change for our minivan, taking the kids to school, picking the kids up, taking the dog for a walk, doing laundry, going to the grocery store and all the other things that are required to keep all the plates spinning.
Because of the busyness in our lives, it’s easy for us to go an entire week and have only a series of short conversations that last no longer than forty-five seconds. You can take care of a surprising amount of business with short conversations fired off on the run.
When we find ourselves, however, enduring a season of those kinds of conversations, there are times when it feels like there’s some kind of barrier between us. There may not be any unresolved anger or resentment. We may not be upset with each other. There may be nothing wrong, but there’s still distance between us.
The reason for the distance is this: You can take care of business in hurried and sporadic conversations, but you cannot build intimacy that way. To build intimacy, sometimes you just have to go to your room and close the door.
Why does Jesus start his lesson on how to pray by telling them to go to their rooms and close their doors? Because Jesus doesn’t think of prayer primarily as a way to get things done. He thinks of prayer primarily as a means to intimacy with the Father.
That sound some of you are hearing right now is the shifting of your own paradigm.
If you just think through the implications of that one idea – that prayer might be primarily about building intimacy with God rather than trying to get him to do something – you’ll find your prayer habits begin to change dramatically.

The God Who Hides

Jesus says that we should pray to our Father “who sees in secret.” But a more literal rendering of the phrase Jesus uses might be “pray to your Father who is in secret” (NRSV). The Father sees in secret, because he is in secret.
Again, the question of location surfaces: “Isn’t God everywhere?”
Yes, in one sense, God is everywhere. But Jesus says that God is in secret – in the secret places – often hidden or obscured from our view. Initially, we attempt to hide from God because of our sin. In those situations, God always takes the initiative and comes looking for us. But at some point in time, God turns the tables on us and hides himself. He wants to know if his children will miss him and are willing to come looking for him.
Isaiah says, “Truly you are a God who hides himself” (Isaiah 45:15). But the promise of God is, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). Neither of these verses was written about people who were outside of a relationship with God. These verses are not about how to establish a relationship with God. They were written to and about God’s covenant people. They are about how to live in your established relationship with God. First God comes to find us; then God hides to see if we will come to find him.

The God Who Rewards

For those who will do the hard work of seeking God in the secret place, there is a promise of reward. Jesus says, “Then, your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” The writer of Hebrews assures us, “Anyone who comes to [God] must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6b).
But notice it does not say, “Your Father will give you whatever you want.” It says he “will reward you.”
So, what’s the difference? What reward?
For the answer, ask the people you know who make a practice of going to their rooms and closing their doors to be with the Father who is in secret. Better yet, look at their lives for a while. It will become clear.
People who make a habit of spending time alone with their heavenly Father live with an inner sense of peace that comes from knowing that God is with them. We make requests, but whatever the answer is – “yes,” “no!” “maybe,” “wait,” “never” – it doesn’t matter if God is really with us.
Perhaps one reason why we wrestle so much with fear and anxiety, why we play it safe and fail to live the bold, brave, courageous lives God calls us to, is because we don’t have that inner sense of peace that comes from true intimacy with the Father. But we could if we would go into our rooms, close the door and spend time with him there in secret.

John Alan TurnerJohn Alan Turner lives in Alpharetta, Georgia, with his wife Jill, their three daughters and a dog named Coco. He is the co-author of The Gospel According to the Da Vinci Code and Hearts and Minds: Raising Your Child With a Christian View of the World. Having served churches in California, Maryland and Texas, John is now the President of Faith 2.0 — an organization committed to helping people live better lives by re-examining what they really believe — and is a popular speaker at conferences and churches all across the country.
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