So far you’ve established a discipline of prayer and have begun to practice solitude. So what else is there? A few years ago I would have answered: “To learn better and deeper ways to pray.” That would be helpful, but today I would answer differently.
Key #3: Adjust your attitude.
Really? Is that it? What do I mean by attitude?
On the surface, adjusting our attitude coming into prayer would seem straightforward and relatively easy to achieve. Maybe it’s not even evident why our attitude is that important. We need to take a closer look at what this means.
“You gotta have heart.”
As far as I know, there’s only one place in the Gospels where Jesus instructs his disciples how to pray: when he gives them the prayer we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” But he did have lots to say about the way we should approach God in prayer. For example:
- Resolve disputes before making an offering to God. (Mt. 5:23-26)
- Don’t swear before God; just say “yes” or “no.” (Mt.5:33-37)
- Pray with humility and not to impress others. (Mt. 6:5-8)
- Forgive others if you expect God to forgive you. (Mt. 6:14-15)
- Don’t worry about your life, but seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness first. (Mt. 6:25-34)
- Saying “Lord, Lord” will not gain you the kingdom of God. You need to do the will of the Father. (Mt. 7:21-23)
- Listening to Jesus’ words is not enough. He asks us to listen and to act on them. (Mt. 7:24-27)
It seems Jesus was more concerned about the state of our soul than he was about the form of our prayer. So when I speak of our attitude, I mean for us to look at where our heart is when we come before God.
The right stuff
So what is the right attitude — the right “heart” to bring before God?
Here’s my list. It’s not a complete list, but it’s a good place to start.
- A contrite and repentant heart.
- Purity of heart.
- Trust in God.
- Reverence & fear of the Lord.
- Gratitude and thankfulness.
- Patience & perseverance.
- Hunger & thirst for God.
If this were a book on prayer instead of a web posting, I would go on to explain each of these in detail, as they have much to say about the spiritual life.
The rich young man
The Gospels tell the story of a rich, young man approaching Jesus and asking what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him: “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Mt. 19:17)
The young man sincerely believed he had followed the rules. Why did Jesus make a point about how only God is “good?” I think it was to show that next to God, our works are nothing. Jesus went on to challenge the man to go further — to give up his wealth and follow Jesus. We think we’ve come a long way. We’re ready for God! Then, when we think we can step to the front of the line, we realize we belong at the end. We never could do it on our power, anyway. We need to let God work in us. We need to surrender to him — to surrender everything!
That brings us back to the third key to prayer. On the surface, having the right attitude doesn’t seem like too big of a hurdle to jump. But ask yourself: “If I came before God with a video recording of my life, would it show anything but the eight attitudes listed above?” Probably not. We don’t act one way and then come to prayer suddenly transformed with the perfect attitude.
A reason for hope
Some people might take this to mean we’re doomed — that we’ll never really get close to God in prayer. To that, I say baloney!
Why? Because it’s God who bridges the gap, not us. He meets us where we are. We can always pray and come to him, no matter how sinful and weak we are. Our prayer will grow in perfection as God shapes us into the image of the Son, but the only barrier God won’t traverse is when we close the door of our heart to him.
This is a message of great hope. But there is another reason to be glad.
If prayer were a matter of method and skill, many of us would feel like losers. I know many people who can’t pray through meditation. Does that mean they’ll never pray as “perfectly” as the next person who finds meditation as easy? No! Even if you can only pray vocal prayers like the Our Father and the Rosary, your prayer is pleasing to God as long as you come to him with the right heart!
Putting principle into practice
For each of the first two keys to prayer, I gave several concrete suggestions for practice. With some work, it’s entirely possible we can become adept at both establishing prayer as a discipline and practicing solitude. This key is different. It is at the same time, both a guideline for beginners and those advanced in the spiritual life. It is key we will never master but must always pursue.
1) Do a periodic “heart check.”
How easily we deceive ourselves and how quickly we become complacent!
It is a good practice to start your prayer with a brief self-examination, or you can do this self-review at some other time of the day. For many, this is the same as an examination of conscience. But sometimes these self-exams turn into running through a checklist to see if we did anything wrong. A heart-check not only checks for sins of commission, but it also checks to see if we have acted with the right motivations and attitude. As we do this, we’ll likely uncover ungodly attitudes and sin. This discovery should lead us to confession and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
2) Use meditation to grow in understanding.
Some people use meditation to help them feel closer to God. That may be, but an experience of God in prayer is a work of the Holy Spirit, not a matter of our reasoning or imagination. I think one of the greatest values of mediation is that through it, the Spirit helps us know who God is, and he helps us know who we are. We grow in self-knowledge — a prerequisite for conversion. We’ll take a more detailed look at meditation in future postings.
3) Amend your life.
What can we do about adjusting our attitude in prayer? Are we supposed to screw up our face and talk ourselves into being repentant, humble, thankful, etc. within the course of a few minutes so we can be “one with God?”
Thankfully, no! We could never do it, and it would be a lie. Instead, the attitude we bring to prayer will also be reflected in the life we live the other 23+ other hours of the day, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can do something about that!
If we forgive our brother and seek forgiveness for our trespasses, we will grow a contrite heart. If we come to admit the truth about who we are and who God is and act accordingly, we will grow in humility. If we develop thankfulness and gratitude toward God and others in all circumstances, we will grow in gratitude.
Prayer transforms our lives, and our lives will transform our prayer. It’s not an either-or or a first-second kind of thing; it is both.
In the first article, I spoke about our desire for communion with God and to pray always. Adjusting our attitude, that is, developing a new heart, is a critical step in that pursuit.
Three Keys to Transforming Your Prayer – Key #3 is the third in a three-part series on developing a consistent and transformative prayer life.