“I don’t pray,” my ten-year-old son said the other day at the dinner table, and my heart just about stopped.
“What?” I said. “What do you mean? Why not? What happened?” My head filled with even more questions. What had I done wrong? Hadn’t I taught and modeled prayer for him? Was he going through some sort of a spiritual crisis that I hadn’t noticed? When had this happened?
It turned out I had jumped to conclusions, something I’m sure has never happened before.
What he meant, it turned out, was that he felt uncomfortable praying aloud for all of us. He talked to God privately in his head, he assured me. It was just the praying out loud in front of other people that felt troublesome.
Whew, was my first reaction. And then understanding. I knew that feeling and knew it well. Since college, I had become my family’s designated pray-er at meals and family events, and I always worried that I wouldn’t say the right words or cover all the necessary topics or that I’d just plain not sound all that smart or godly.
Isn’t it awful when we pass on the things we don’t like about ourselves? How could I teach my children not to be anxious about prayer when I suffered the same anxiety?
I took him aside that night and told him what I think prayer is: just talking to God. That it was important to remember that God is our audience, the only audience that really matters. That sometimes adults make the terrible mistake of making their spoken prayers all about impressing the people listening, rather than speaking their hearts to God. That I’d rather listen to a hundred sincere and plain-spoken prayers from a child than the most eloquent and beautifully-phrased performance prayer from an adult.
I had to remind myself too. The only real difference between praying silently and praying aloud is the people listening.
Here as in so many other places I find my spiritual life hindered by concern about what other people think of me.
And what a shame, really. I didn’t want to discourage him from praying in front of and with other people. Far from it, I wanted to embolden him to do so. Because as much as I sometimes feel anxiety over praying aloud, some of my most powerful experiences of prayer have been shared with a small group. I have heard other people speak God’s truth so beautifully or ask for something with such passion it brought tears to my eyes. And it’s an incredible experience to feel surprised at the words coming out of your own mouth when you’re able to let go enough to let the Spirit take over.
The next time I feel nervous about praying in front of others or see this worry in my son, I’ll tell us both to name it for what it is: worry about what others think about us. And then I’ll remind us both of one of my favorite verses about prayer, which begins, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
May that peace be with you today and with your children.