Honestly, I know of no conversation more important, or more direly needed than this one, especially during Lent. Because frankly, prayer, though we know it’s paramount in a life of faith, seems to be something we have all struggled with at some point. We pretended that prayer made sense, but it didn’t. Prayer was dry, boring, and, while we’re being really honest, something we avoided at all cost. Prayer at meals was fine. A quick prayer for others was great. But being with God in the deep realities of life felt like wandering in a desert. After I read their book on prayer, which I couldn’t put down, I’ve been keenly anticipating welcoming my brilliant friends Kyle Strobel and John Coe to the farm’s front porch today. If you have ever longed for the practice of your faith to include an authentic, intimate prayer life or if you have longed for your life to become prayer, I highly recommend their words…
As Margery Williams depicts in her beloved children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit, the process of becoming “real” often entails a journey we did not expect—a journey that often feels more like being worn out than becoming something new.
But something new is made through this journey of love. This is the reality of prayer.
As the Skin Horse tells the Velveteen Rabbit in the nursery,
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes. . . . “It doesn’t happen at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Becoming real is a confusing journey that, at times, can hurt.
For Rabbit, it will prove to be a journey of love that meant losing his fur and being made shabby. Yet, even as he appeared shabbier, Rabbit became, in a sense, sturdier.
This is the reality of prayer. It too is a journey that often feels confusing.
We often go looking for answers, for hope, or some sort of acknowledgement of our pain and brokenness, and instead we can often find a relentless silence, a wandering mind, and a body that simply cannot stay awake.
For much of my Christian life, prayer felt like Rabbit’s journey.
It did not seem like prayer was becoming more real. I didn’t seem to be better at it. Prayer was something that I did in obedience, but not in joy. Prayer was often driven by guilt, but it wasn’t fueled by love.
My mistake was to miss that even this was a part of prayer becoming real. I wanted something quick and easy – something that would make the difficulty go away – but the Lord offered love in the midst of my pain, brokenness, loneliness, and struggle.
The Lord offered a journey into the deep places of my heart, where I could discover the truth that the Spirit of the Lord is already in those places, groaning in my soul, beckoning me to follow Him into truth.
Prayer only truly becomes real if it follows the Spirit into these places, discovering His love precisely where we need it.
What this journey of prayer reveals is that it is about the deep in all of us. As the psalmist calls out to God, wondering why God has seemed to forget him, he says, “Deep calls to deep” (Ps. 42:7). Most of us do not know exactly what that means, but we resonate with it. It calls to our souls. It calls to who we really are, to the honest part of us. We know something within us must come out to meet God.
The longer we are Christians, the more we recognize this, maybe even long for it, but are unsure if we are willing to embrace it. Regardless of this uncertainty in ourselves, this journey of prayer is all about love. Only love can guide us into the deep places of our souls, to attend honestly with God in the truth of ourselves before Him. Only love can sustain this honesty in the life of prayer.
My prayers became real once I realize that prayer was not a place to bypass my pain, but enter it.
Once I understood that prayer was not a place to be good, but a place to be honest, I came to see that I was judging my prayers poorly. The path to becoming real – where one’s fur is loved off and where one’s joints become shabby – is the path to being seen and known in the truth of one’s heart.
The Skin Horse notes that once you become real you can no longer become ugly, except to those who don’t understand.
I’m not sure I would have understood prayer when I was a younger Christian. It would not have seemed good and cleaned up like I assumed all devotion was supposed to be.
But prayer in goodness is not prayer in reality.
The good news is that God knows we don’t know how to pray (Rom. 8:26), and has provided a path for our prayer to become real in forgiveness, mercy, and love.
Now, the truth of my heart is the fodder for my prayer. The desires of my heart, the longings in my life, and the struggles I am led into become the place to know God’s presence.
It turns out that the good news is good only as it meets us in reality, and prayer only becomes real in the reality of our lives.
This is where prayer becomes real, and where we know that we are those loved by our heavenly Father.
Kyle Strobel is a speaker, writer, and professor of spiritual theology and formation at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. A popular speaker, Strobel is the author of Formed for the Glory of God and coauthor of Beloved Dust and The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb.
John Coe is director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation and professor of spiritual theology and philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University. A leading expert on spiritual formation, he is a popular speaker on the topic at churches, retreats, and seminaries across the nation.
Kyle and John’s new book Where Prayer Becomes Real show you how to fearlessly draw near to a holy God, pray without ceasing (and without posturing), and delight in the experience of being fully known and fully loved. Each chapter ends with prayer projects or practices to help you see a difference in your prayer life, starting now.