Poverty in Prayer

Three whole weeks ago, on Friday, March 13, 2020, we officially began our homebound exile from society. At first it was self-imposed, as my husband discovered that he had a fever (it was just a cold—he’s fine). On that day the alarms increased hourly in the news, and the need to isolate ourselves became as evident to most people as the doctors and the CDC had been trumpeting for weeks.

Three whole weeks. At first, I was rather relieved by the enforced seclusion. I could finally get some of my writing projects finished and posted. I had time, at last, to bake sourdough bread, a project that requires attention for an entire day. I painted my nails. I read books. I resumed my morning walks.

But now, looking at the calendar and counting twice to be sure I have it correct, it’s been three weeks. The days are getting longer. My mind is more scattered. Finishing an entire post for the blog is getting to be more difficult. It’s as if the cloudy and drizzly weather outside my window has creeped into my mind. I have four, maybe five, unfinished drafts sitting in my laptop. My heart is restless and I’m finding it harder and harder to finish what I begin.

I need help.

One of the books I’m reading now is Paul E. Miller’s A Praying Life: Connecting With God in a Distracting World (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2009). I’ve gotten to chapter 7, where he addresses praying continually, as encouraged by the apostle Paul. Miller shares that he didn’t so much “learn about” the practice of continual prayer as much as he discovered that he was already doing it—especially in moments when he realized his helplessness in the face of difficult situations which were out of his control (p. 52). He found in these situations that he was praying quietly to himself petitions such as, “Father, Father, Father,” or “Come, Spirit,” or “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” He was quietly crying out for help, because, like Augustine, his heart was restless, and he needed to find his rest in God (p. 51 & 52).

In his letters to the churches in Rome and in Galatia, Paul wrote about the Holy Spirit helping our prayers from within our own hearts. “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:6), “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). Referring to Romans 8:26, Miller writes, “Praying simple one-word prayers or a verse of Scripture takes the pressure off because we don’t have to sort out exactly what we need. . . . Often we are too weary to figure out what the problem is. We just know that life—including ours—doesn’t work. So we pray, Father, Father, Father “ (p. 53 & 54).

I know I’m too weary to sort out what the problem is. And I know I’m not alone in concluding that right now, life’s not working so very well. I need to cry out to my Father in prayer. Not eloquent prayers with a solution in mind, but simple, heart-cries of Abba, Father! Is this weariness the poverty of spirit which Jesus called blessed? Miller writes of his own poverty, and ours, being a door to prayer. In a moment of overwhelming need while driving to work one day, he turned a familiar passage from the Psalms into a prayer:

The closer I got to the office, the more overwhelmed I became—I didn’t have the wisdom to sort through the options. The Scripture, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2) came to mind, and I turned it into a simple prayer. I needed a rock higher than myself. That momentary poverty of spirit (I became overwhelmed . . . I didn’t have the wisdom) was the door to prayer. We don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; we just need to be poor in spirit. Poverty of spirit makes room for his Spirit. It creates a God-shaped hole in our hearts. . . (p. 54)

praying Scripture is not a new idea for me. But seeing it as a provision for my poverty of spirit in these times of weakness is new. What passages of Scripture come to your mind when you are overwhelmed and need to step through the door of your own weakness and into the presence of your mighty Father with your needs? Here’s a short list out of potentially thousands of suggestions:

“We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” —2 Chronicles 20:12

“Be still, and know that I am God” —Psalm 46:10

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken. —Psalm 62:1–2

My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. —Psalm 121:2

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope —Psalm 130:5

“fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” —Isaiah 41:10

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” —Luke 18:38

“I believe; help my unbelief!” —Mark 9:24

“Come, Lord Jesus!” —Revelation 22:20

My heart is restless, and I need to find my rest in God. Through his book, Paul Miller is helping me to see that I don’t need to labor in my weariness to craft eloquent prayers; I simply need to cry out in my weakness to my Father. I can step through that open door and come to him with his own words, gifts to me, together with his indwelling Spirit, and draw close to him in prayer. I need help. I’m overwhelmed and needy. And my Father has provided, in his word and by his Spirit, the help for my need.

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