To illustrate the predicament of the modern mind, C.S. Lewis once described a pretend conversation with a two-dimensional figure who lives on the plane of a two-dimensional drawing. How would you describe the existence of our three-dimensioned world to such a figure? Lewis imagined pointing to a drawing of a road. However, in Lewis’s thought experiment, the two-dimensional figure sees only a triangle.
Finally, the two-dimensional figure cries out in exasperation, “You keep on telling me of this other world and its unimaginable shaped which you call solid. But isn’t it very suspicious that all the shapes which you offer me as images or reflections of the solid ones turn out on inspection to be simply the old two-dimensional shapes of my own world as I have always known it?”
That frustration mirrors the frustration that Christians often experience when attempting to describe the realities of life in Christ to modern people. Unfortunately, because we occupy the same the world, Christians, too, often struggle to see past the material and live in the God-dimension of reality. The world has a way of obscuring the sightlines to anything beyond it. It’s like we’re all living under a mechanized roof that blocks out unmechanized reality.
Life in the machine makes the cultivation of habits like prayer particularly difficult. Prayer calls us to communicate with a God we can’t see. Further, prayer does not pay immediate measurable dividends. There’s a reason why, when given a choice between prayer and something else, the something else appeals more to the modern mind. When I read a book, I can count my progress in pages read. When I answer emails, I’m eliminating items off my to-do list. When I pray, I don’t receive that same immediate reward. After prayer, I simply wait. Modern people don’t like waiting.
However, as people committed to following King Jesus, we know we must pray. So, most of us do the best we can while going through our days with constant low-grade guilt over the insufficiency of our prayer habits. We are haunted by Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) every time we realize that the only “without ceasing” habit we have is scrolling on our iPhone screens.
So, how do we pray in the modern world? How do we resist the allure of the machine?
First, we must realize that any insufficiency we possess is already taken care of by the blood of Christ. Guilt makes a poor motivator. Thankfully, Christ has atoned for it all. Further, the insufficiency of our prayer life is covered by a Savior who prays for us constantly (Romans 8:34). When you don’t pray or pray too seldom, you are being prayed for by the One who prays perfect prayers.
Second, we must look to Christ for guidance. Our Savior also faced pressure not to pray. After he had performed many miracles, Luke reported that “great crowds” gathered around him, but Jesus “would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:15-16). The enthusiasm of the crowds was a temptation to Jesus to bypass the cross. In Luke, every time Jesus prays, the cross is in view. Jesus withdrew from the chaos so that he could keep his eyes focused on his mission. Prayer functions in much the same way for Jesus’s followers. We need scheduled times of solitude to pray. We need breaks from the hectic pace of life to fixate our hearts on the One who rules the universe.
For me, the first moment of my day is the best time for prayer. Before the notifications start buzzing and beeping, before the rush of the day’s tasks take over my thoughts, I need to devote those first moments to communicating with my Lord. On mornings when I miss that window, I struggle to make it up.
Third, be content with imperfection. Let’s be real. You’re never going to feel like you’ve mastered prayer. Your life is never going to line up perfectly to give you that ideal prayer experience. You’re going to face interruptions and disruptions. You’re going to feel distracted and inauthentic. God delights in those feeble attempts all the same. Perfection is the enemy of progress.
Finally, use the prayers of others. Jesus taught us how to pray. The most complete version of that prayer can be found in Matthew 6:9-13. The Psalms are full of the prayers of God’s people. Church history contains innumerable prayers from those who have gone before us. Use these prayers. Repeat them. Add to them. Written prayers are such a gift for distracted people.