Why do you brush your teeth? It’s not really something we rigorously think about while we are scrubbing our molars. Rather teeth brushing is something we are taught we need to do. We know it’s good for us. It’s healthy. It stops decay and bad breath. But is this the only reason we brush? If so, then we are slaves to our teeth. We dutifully serve them morning and evening brushing, rinsing and flossing. Surely there’s more?
When was the last time you smelt bacon frying for breakfast – just anticipating the smoky saltiness, the crispiness? The sharpness of freshly grilled toast cutting through the silkiness of runny egg yolk. Or imagine the crunch of corn chips in your month, the smoothness of macadamia nuts, or the squeak of grilled haloumi. I am feeling hungry as I write. But isn’t this the whole point? We look after our teeth because we know the experience of good food, and we long for more. Don’t we brush our teeth because we know in doing so we will be able to enjoy food for years to come?
It can be easy to fall into the habit of doing something. It’s when we do something without even giving it a second thought. We may have been taught to do it. Or maybe we do it because we know it’s a good thing to do. Sometimes even following Jesus is like this – habit. We fall into the trap of going through the motions.
I catch myself doing this all the time. Sometimes I notice my prayers are like shopping lists – God bless so-and-so, heal this person. I mean it, but it’s like my heart isn’t fully there. I’ve drifted off; praying because I know it’s a good thing to do. Can you relate?
Prayer is about relationship with God, not words. It is about living in the presence of Jesus. Richard Foster paints a beautiful picture of prayer as he writes:
‘He [God] invites us into the living-room of his heart where we can put on old slippers and share freely. He invites us into the kitchen of his friendship where chatter and batter mix in good fun. He invites us into the dining-room of his strength, where we can feast to our heart’s delight. He invites us into the study of his wisdom where we can learn and grow and stretch … and ask all the questions we want. He invites us into the workshop of his creativity, where we can be co-labourers with him, working together to determine the outcome of events. He invites us into the bedroom of his rest where new peace is found, and where we can be naked and vulnerable and free. It is also the place of deepest intimacy, where we know and are known to the fullest.’
There’s a big difference between what I sometimes experience and what Richard Foster describes. Both are describing prayer but they are poles apart. My experience is a bit like brushing my teeth without thinking about it – slavishly, dutifully. Richard Foster still brushes his teeth but does it with anticipation and longing of God’s goodness.
Spiritual practices have been criticised as ‘religious’ works. At the extreme, they have been viewed as salvation by works. I understand why people would think this but it makes me sad. When people think of prayer, or fasting, or celebrating, or worship this way, they fail to live in anticipation of the invitation God is offering them.
What you can do to bring anticipation into your spiritual life.
Earlier I shared how I sometimes find my prayer life mundane and lacking life. Are you the same? What can you, and I, do to ensure your prayer life is vibrant? Here’s 3 ideas:
1. Face the Facts.
We all go through times when it is harder to pray. We all have times when our prayers sound more like shopping lists than sitting in God’s living-room sharing freely in a pair of old slippers. So, you are not alone. But God is gracious. He meets us, invites us, ushers us into his presence even if we come with half-hearted prayers. He still listens. He’s good like that.
2. Don’t Stop.
Notice with the example of brushing your teeth, the answer wasn’t to stop but change perspective. It is the same with prayer. Not praying won’t change your perspective. Keep praying, but maybe ask for help. Is there someone who will pray alongside you?
3. Open your Eyes.
I’ve experienced dry times in prayer, but I’ve also experienced intimate times of prayer. In fact, the times when I’ve felt the most connected to God, the most vulnerable with him and known his presence have been during prayer. Ask God to open your eyes to see times when you’ve been most intimate with him. Remembering these help re-centre why we pray and enable us to long to do so again.
So, I’m going to brush my teeth morning and evening, not out of compulsion, but because I love eating good food. And I want to be able to continue to do so. And I’m going to pray regularly because I love God and he’s invites to be close to him. That’s where I want to be. Sure, sometimes I might end up going through the motions, but I trust he will remind me of who he is and what I’m missing when I do this.