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Become Like a Little Child

Jesus wants us to be without pretense when we come to him in prayer. Instead, we often try to be something we aren’t. We begin by concentrating on God, but almost immediately our minds wander off in a dozen different directions. The problems of the day push out our well-intentioned resolve to be spiritual. We give ourselves a spiritual kick in the pants and try again, but life crowds out prayer. We know that prayer isn’t supposed to be like this, so we give up in despair. We might as well get something done.

What’s the problem? We’re trying to be spiritual, to get it right. We know we don’t need to clean up our act in order to become a Christian, but when it comes to praying, we forget that. We, like adults, try to fix ourselves up. In contrast, Jesus wants us to come to him like little children, just as we are.

Come Messy

The difficulty of coming just as we are is that we are messy. And prayer makes it worse. When we slow down to pray, we are immediately confronted with how unspiritual we are, with how difficult it is to concentrate on God. We don’t know how bad we are until we try to be good. Nothing exposes our selfishness and spiritual powerlessness like prayer.

In contrast, little children never get frozen by their selfishness. Like the disciples, they come just as they are, totally self-absorbed. They seldom get it right. As parents or friends, we know all that. In fact, we are delighted (most of the time!) to find out what is on their little hearts. We don’t scold them for being self-absorbed or fearful.

That is just who they are.

God cheers when we come to him with our wobbling, unsteady prayers. Jesus does not say, “Come to me, all you who have learned how to concentrate in prayer, whose minds no longer wander, and I will give you rest.” No, Jesus opens his arms to his needy children and says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.

What does it feel like to be weary? You have trouble concentrating. The problems of the day are like claws in your brain. You feel pummeled by life. What does heavy-laden feel like? Same thing. You have so many problems you don’t even know where to start. You can’t do life on your own anymore. Jesus wants you to come to him that way!

Your weariness drives you to him.

Don’t try to get the prayer right; just tell God where you are and what’s on your mind. That’s what little children do. They come as they are, runny noses and all. Like the disciples, they just say what is on their minds. We shouldn’t try to fix ourselves up, but when it comes to praying we completely forget that. We’ll sing the old gospel hymn, “Just as I Am,” but when it comes to praying, we don’t come just as we are. We try, like adults, to fix ourselves up.

Private, personal prayer is one of the last great bastions of legalism. In order to pray like a child, you might need to unlearn the non-personal, non-real praying that you’ve been taught.

The only way to come to God is by taking off any spiritual mask. The real you has to meet the real God. He is a person. So, instead of being frozen by your self-preoccupation, talk with God about your worries. Tell him where you are weary. If you don’t begin with where you are, then where you are will sneak in the back door.

Your mind will wander to where you are weary. We are often so busy and overwhelmed that when we slow down to pray, we don’t know where our hearts are. We don’t know what troubles us. So, oddly enough, we might have to worry before we pray. Then our prayers will make sense. They will be about our real lives.

Your heart could be, and often is, askew. That’s okay. You have to begin with what is real. Jesus didn’t come for the righteous. He came for sinners. All of us qualify. The very things we try to get rid of—our weariness, our distractedness, our messiness—are what get us in the front door! That’s how the gospel works. That’s how prayer works.

In bringing your real self to Jesus, you give him the opportunity to work on the real you, and you will slowly change. The kingdom will come. You’ll end up less selfish.

The kingdom comes when Jesus becomes king of your life. But it has to be your life. You can’t create a kingdom that doesn’t exist, where you try to be better than you really are. Jesus calls that hypocrisy— putting on a mask to cover the real you.

Ironically, many attempts to teach people to pray encourage the creation of a split personality. You’re taught to “do it right.” Instead of the real, messy you meeting God, you try to re-create yourself by becoming spiritual.

No wonder prayer is so unsatisfying.

So instead of being paralyzed by who you are, begin with who you are. That’s how the gospel works. God begins with you. It’s a little scary because you are messed up.

Become like the little children Jesus surrounded himself with. The disciples often behaved like little children. For instance, what does Peter do with whatever is on his mind? He blurts it out. That’s what children do. When Nathaniel first hears about Jesus, he says the first thing that comes to his mind: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). It is the pure, uncensored Nathaniel. When Jesus greets Nathaniel, you can almost see Jesus smiling when he says, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (1:47). Jesus ignores the fact that Nathaniel has judged Jesus’ entire family and friends in Nazareth. He simply enjoys that Nathaniel is real, without guile, a man who doesn’t pretend. Jesus seems to miss the sin and see a person.

It is classic Jesus. He loves real people.

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