This week’s question comes from Holly, a young writer who says she left the Christian faith because she couldn’t find a connection with God “in prayers, daily life, etc.” However, she recently discovered meditation and she writes, “Why is it that when I do pray I never seem to feel like God (or anyone) is listening, but when I practice meditation I feel an overwhelming peace? …Is meditating a sin?”
When we look at the way prayer has been understood by the past several generations in Church, we may begin to see why Holly is having such a difficult time.
“Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep….”
“God is great, God is good. Let us thank him for our food.”
“Our Father, who art in heaven….”
Rote prayers do serve a purpose. They teach us the “hows” to praying, and serve as reminders to pray. When we first get involved in the Church, these prayers are taught as a means to an end. Unfortunately for many of us, these prayers become the end. We may change the words some, or even a lot, but the church has long taught that prayer is: We talk, God listens.
But prayer is more. Much more.
Prayer is categorical—a subject heading that encompasses much. Prayer can be defined as communication with God. Rote prayer is prayer. Conversational prayer is prayer. Meditation is prayer. Contemplation is prayer. Anytime we are consciously in the presence of God or are seeking God’s attention we are engaged in prayer.
However, when we rely on rote prayer as our primary mode of communicating to God, we ought not be surprised to find that we are missing the communing with God.
Holly’s desire to “feel” God’s presence in her prayers is a common desire—and is often met with little more than emptiness. Certainly, the psalmists regularly cried out to God for God’s presence and seems to be disappointed: “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly” (Psalm 102.1-2).
The question is, why? Why does God seem so far away when we pray?
Because apparently God is interested in being in a relationship with us. And a healthy relationship implies caring from both parties. Imagine communicating with a friend or a spouse in the same manner as most of us do with God. I open the door to the house, stick my head inside, and say, “Thanks for all you do. And by the way, I’m feeling really low today, so help me feel better. Bye!” Then I close the door, get into my car, and drive away. Then imagine that this is all I do. That would be a pretty shallow relationship.
On the other hand, imagine it’s God’s house. I knock on the door and go in. I sit down in God’s presence and ask, “How’s it going? What can I do for you today?” And then I listen. We chat. I share what’s going on in my life and, by and by, I get around to sharing what God can do for me. Then it’s time to go—even though at that point I really don’t want to leave.
The difference between the two is the relationship and the intent of the prayer. In the second scenario I sought God’s presence. In the first, I only wanted to get my voice heard. I didn’t care about what God wanted, nor was I interested in God. I just wanted my way.
The good news is we can seek God’s presence through many different forms of prayer, but the goal is to seek God’s presence, not for me to be heard. That’s why meditation can be so effective. When one chooses to meditate with the purpose of communing with God, then our prayer time is likely to be successful. The scriptures promise, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29.13). Jesus said, “Ask and it shall be answered, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7.7).
There is, however, one glitch to meditation and prayer. Sometimes the purpose of meditation is to focus not on God, but on ourselves. We are a poor substitute for God. When we meditate simply to center our focus or to find a quiet place, we often find only our own presence and our own peace—and that peace is transitory and fleeting at best. It’s not a bad thing, nor a “sinful” thing to get focused and centered with meditation. Not all meditation is meant to be prayer, but when we substitute self-focus for prayer, then we are missing the point.
So, no meditation is not sinful, and yes, meditation is a great way to be in the presence of God. But whenever and however we pray, if we go there to be with God we will find what we are looking for.