At Sixteen, It Is Very Hard To Pray

Oct 8, 2018

The following lecture was given to students at Veritas Christian School in Richmond, VA at the annual Fall Retreat. 

When I was your age, I did not pray much.

In my fourteen years as a high school teacher, I have noticed that Christian teenagers do not like to pray. If I ask a class of twenty students, “Who would like to pray?” it does not matter whether the issue at hand is some national tragedy, or some sick classmate, no one wants to pray.

Actually, one student wants to pray. There is always one. This student always prays. And whenever the teacher asks, “Who wants to pray?” everyone waits for the one student who always prays to put up his hand and say, “I’ll pray.” There is an uncomfortable moment after the teacher says, “Who wants to pray?” Everyone looks nervous. There is a terrible silence, a terrible pause. Everyone waits for the one kid who prays to say, “I will.” It always takes him longer than anyone would like. Finally, he says, “I’ll pray,” and everyone says, “Thank God.”

Why don’t Christian kids like to pray?

The question has become more intriguing to me over the last several years of my life.

When I was young, the things I really wanted were not things for which I needed God, and so praying for them seemed rather pointless. I did not really care about my sins, which is to say I did not really want forgiveness. My health was good. Actually, my health was invisible. When you are young, there is no “my health.” You’re just fine. Then you turn 30, and God gives you some physical malady to nurse and tend to and worry about for the rest of your life so that you remember you will die. This makes it easier to be good. God chastises those Whom He loves. At seventeen, all I wanted in the world was to not get caught, have a little money in my pocket, and I wanted a girlfriend. At seventeen, I probably would have traded my soul for a girlfriend, and just crossed my fingers that god would make the devil give it back. I was already crossing my fingers that I’d go to heaven. There was a lot of crossing of fingers when I thought about death back at seventeen. Anyway, I didn’t really need God to get a girlfriend. I just had no game. I was tubby and had terrible taste in clothes. My problem wasn’t that I had no God, it was that I had no game.

These rather banal, mundane desires more or less gutted my desire to pray when I was younger. Pray? For what? Prayer was far more ceremonial than anything. Prayer was how church started, how assemblies at school started, how meals started. Prayer was nothing more than a little bell you rang for ten seconds that let everyone know to be quiet. And just like you don’t need practice to ring a little bell, neither do you need practice to pray. It’s whatever comes out of your mouth. You don’t practice it. You don’t prepare for it. You don’t remember what you said ten minutes later. 

I began to pray differently after Paula and I began a correspondence which ultimately turned into an engagement, then a marriage. Love is capable of inspiring genuine prayer. You worry about people you love. I don’t know that I really loved anyone when I was a sixteen. I mean anyone. My parents included. I never complained about my parents. I wasn’t one of those kids who always has something cruel and dismissive to say about his father. My dad was alright, but I was always trying to get away from him, because he had become the person who might catch me. I didn’t want to talk to him. I had no real interest in his life. I had, I suppose, a natural affection for him which is common to all sons. But looking back now, I can’t say that I loved him. I didn’t worry about him. I felt a sense of obligation to say that I loved my parents, but I would have had a hard time proving it. When his health was bad, I said, “Oh,” and assumed he would get over it. I cannot ever recall praying for my father or mother, at least not in high school, and I don’t ever remember being excited when it was my father’s birthday. As Saint John asks in his first epistle, “How can you say you love God, whom you have not seen, when you do not love your brother, whom you have seen?” It is hard to truly love your parents when you are a teenager. Your friends and the world simply mean too much to you.   

Once, several years after high school, I had a girlfriend for a few months, and we broke up, and I remember my mother driving me somewhere. I was depressed, sitting in the passenger’s seat, just the two of us, and she was trying to cheer me up, and she said happily, “You know what? I want some ice cream. Let’s get some ice cream.” And I said, “No, I don’t want any ice cream. I’ll go along if you want some ice cream.” And she said sadly, “No, I don’t want any ice cream.” Her self-forgetfulness broke my heart, because I knew in that moment, very suddenly and painfully, I knew, “This is love,” and I knew there was none of it in my heart. There was the potential for love, but in that moment, in the car, there was none. At the time, I never put together that my failure to love anyone or anything was what kept me from loving God, and what kept me from praying.

This was a time in my life when all my concerns were very petty. I actually thought it was important to be entertained. I prayed shallow prayers. I prayed that I would have fun. I talked about shallow things with my friends. We regarded religion as an adult concern. I loved amusing, petty things, and I became like the things I loved.

The first time I ever really prayed, at least as an adult, I was twenty-three. I was outside, standing in a little field at night. It was the first time I knew I was in love, not some mere infatuation, not lust, not confusion, but love. I got down on my knees in the mud and I prayed. I said, “You’ve got to let me marry this woman,” and He did.

Even then, I was asking for something earthly— something pleasant, really.

All my life, most of my friends were the same kind of slackers I was, and so I never really thought about Heaven or Hell, because I assumed we would all go to the same place. But after I married, I started to worry, because I married a good person. And then I had children, and they were good people. Around the time I had my first child, I began to seriously wonder whether I and my family might spend eternity in different places, and it was then that I began to ask God, very earnestly, for things that weren’t merely the effects of fortune, as Boethius says. I didn’t ask God for money, or a job, or for things to be pleasant. I started confessing my sins very earnestly. This was the fear of God. Perfect love casts out fear, and I didn’t have anything like perfect love. I would need many lifetimes of repentance, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to have perfect love.

For nine years now, I get sick every summer. Something happens to me in the summer, and I believe I am going to die. During the first few summers this happened, I would simply ask God for more time. “Give me more time, please. I do not want my little children to grow up without a father.” In the last several years, I have stopped really asking God to spare my life.

I still do, kind of. I pray, “Dear God, save my body, but save my soul, and if You are only willing to save one, please let it be my soul. And if this sickness of body is for the salvation of my soul, don’t heal me.”

As early as possible in life, it is important to learn to ask God for difficult things. If you’re anything like me, your life is probably pleasant enough that it’s easy to forget God for long periods of time. In Proverbs 30, we find this prayer:

Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread;

Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?”

Or I may become poor and steal and so dishonor the name of God.”

I live with the anxious knowledge that misfortunes are often sent for the purification of our souls, and I am frankly quite terrified that God actually loves me enough to clean me up. At the same time, I know that there are prayers which I am simply too cowardly to pray. There are good things God wants to give me, but if I want to receive those things, I’m going to have to put down some of my favorite things.

I have something I would like to read with you. It is a prayer which might prove very hard for some of you to say. I sometimes struggle to say this entire prayer without a few tears, because the prayer makes me scared and sometimes a little angry, but that is just a sign that I need to say it more often. The prayer is entitled, “Bless my enemies, O Lord,” by Nikolai of Ochrid, a 19th century Russian Christian. 

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into Thy embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world.

Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Thy tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life,they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of Thy garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me:

so that my fleeing to Thee may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and my enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand.

But a son blesses them, for he understands. For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life. Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Amen

It is only natural, I suppose, to finish reading this prayer and to think, “There has to be another way. It does not have to be this hard.” This is true, but for most of us, our real contention is not that there is another way to salvation and sanctification, but that we are not actually willing for it to ever be this way. If salvation means praying that God will multiply our enemies, we will simply pretend salvation is something else, something easier.

I would like to finish with a series of exhortations on the subject of prayer:

First, write down your prayers. Plan your prayers. If you’re going to pour your heart out to God with tears and supplications, then do so. But if you’re not going to pray that kind of prayer, put some thought into what you’re going to say, especially if you’re leading others in prayer.

Second, practice your prayers. Writing down your prayers will allow you to say them over and over. It is hard enough to mean what you say to other human beings, let alone speaking to God, whom you cannot see. You need practice meaning what you say to God. Pagans repeat their prayers because their gods have thick skulls. Christians repeat their prayers because we have thick skulls. If you find yourself mindlessly muttering your prayers, keep saying them until you get it. You might have to pray the same prayer four or five times before you actually know what you’re saying. 

Third, don’t assume that God will accept any old thing you throw at Him. Remember Ananias and Sapphira.  

Fourth, ask God for things which will be good for your soul. Ask God that you would be caught. Ask God that you would be found out. Ask God to lead you into virtue. Ask God to give your teachers and pastors and priests the ability to cut you to the heart with their words.

Fifth, when you pray for really good things, be open to the possibility that some great suffering is the only way of getting those things. Christians tend to speak very glibly of “drawing close to the Lord,” as though it were a casual task suited perhaps to a long weekend. On the rare occasion I have seen someone who drew close to the Lord, they did not look refreshed, they looked terrible. “A sad face is good for the heart,” as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes.

Sixth, there should be something you want from God which is impossible to obtain in this life. You need to know what it is so that you don’t get too comfortable here on earth. Remember, you’re a stranger here. Your true home, your true people, and your true culture are strange, off-putting, and irreconcilable with the world. When life gets tough, take comfort in that. 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

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