Prayer: Personal development stages

By Barrie Baker (WA SCM)(First appeared in Jubille Grapevine)
I owe a great debt to those who taught me to pray. They did so, not by means of any form of structured teaching, but by praying around me and including me with them. In Sunday school, at home, in church services, I was swept along by and with others, and gradually moved to an autonomous experience by the time I was sixteen. 

What did they actually pass on to me? 

Most importantly, I caught an awareness that I was not alone in this existence: that if I were up against loneliness, death, bewilderment, or confusion, there was a harmony that I could relate to and communicate with, and that was always available. This harmony I came to know as God, but only after much instruction and life experience. Before that realisation I knew it as personal and holy love. 

So I was able to pray before I had faith, just as a baby knows a mother’s love before he or she has an awareness of the personality of the mother. 

I started to experiment with prayer, looking for attractive and meaningful arrangements of words that were able to catch hold of my attention. I found wonderful combinations of words that swept me along. I could remember them and use them as a focus. But these forms could gradually lose their magic; catch and hold my attention less and less. If I had strong emotions or concerns that did not relate to these words then the harmony was replaced by pain. I wanted to throw these words out: they hurt me. 

I next looked for all the principal concerns in my (and that of others) world and built them into a list. I would focus on the members of that list and seek to look through them to God behind, hoping that God, the objects of my concern, and I could be harmonised. But, like all lists, it needed maintaining and had a structure that was coming from me and not from God. 

Later, knowing that God can and does change people’s lives and behaviours, I sought to use prayer as a means of changing my behaviour to be closer to that of God’s desire (that is, to make my behaviour less sinful). However, I was never really sure exactly how my behaviours affected people, so I had problems praying about relationships whose natures I did not fully understand. It could have been prayer wide of the mark. 

Each of these developmental stages has left a useful residue for my prayer life. Words, lists and self-analysis are still part of my prayer. But behind these means is an awareness that my relationship with God is healthiest if God puts the structure in. I put in the time, reflect on where I am in God’s world, and wait. Sometimes God gives me an insight, renewed confidence, or a command. 

Sometimes, but not always, a miracle occurs whereby the God of my prayer changes me according to His dearest wish, and sometimes I know this. 

What a precious gift!