Are You There, God?

An interview with Matt Woodley, author of The Folly of Prayer

In The Folly of Prayer, Pastor Matt Woodley challenges us to re-imagine and revitalize our prayer life.

IVP: Why do you describe prayer as folly?

Woodley: Prayer doesn't always operate according to our standards of "wisdom." Nor does it conform to our expectations or formulas. Sometimes our prayer life leaves us bathed in God's warmth and safety. At other times we feel abandoned by a mysterious and elusive God. During these times we feel more of God's "absence" than God's presence.

One of the classic hymns asks us to sing about how prayer "draws us from a world of care," but at times real prayer plunges us into a world of care and pain and injustice. Prayer awakens our heart to the ache within us and the cries around us. At times prayer feels so utterly desperate—loud, urgent, messy groans that issue from our gut to a hidden God. Prayer can seem so inefficient. Spending time listening to God's heartbeat doesn't produce immediate results; it doesn't appear to change the world for Jesus' sake. And yet, these times of confusion, failure, silence, darkness and apparent powerlessness can open our hearts to the presence of our triune God.

We live in a society that is very results-driven. How would you convince someone who has seen few results from prayer that it is still important?

We usually think of results in terms of efficiency and control—in other words, how much did I get done today or this year? Was I in charge of my life? Unfortunately, when we apply this control model to our prayer life, we'll focus on questions about results: How long did I pray? How many words did I use? Did I feel an experience of intimacy with God? Did I get the right answers from God? Did God fix me or something else? Did I get through my prayer list?

But prayer isn't about control. It's about being with Someone. Sometimes when we're with those we love the most, we just want to sit in silence and enjoy their presence. We may need to argue with loved ones, or tell them that we're hurting. We may need to connect with loved ones through a hug or a hand on the shoulder. If you're talking to me, I have to pay attention and listen to you. These aspects to human relationships aren't about results or efficiency.

In the same way, praying isn't about productivity and control. It's about being with our heavenly Father who loves us. Within the safety of this relationship we can just be with God, or we can groan before Jesus, or we can cry out to him, or pay attention or even argue. It's such a beautiful, safe relationship, but we don't control the results of it. In the book I use the following picture to describe our prayer life: It's like those tiny birds that ride on the massive shoulder of a wild rhinoceros. Imagine the bird telling the rhinoceros, "Okay, buddy, turn left. Now turn right so I can get some more sun. Now charge full-speed ahead because I need some wind in my face." For the most part, the rhino sets the agenda, not the tiny bird. Our heavenly Father is utterly good and faithful, but he's also a mysterious, jealous God.

Should people be prepared for some darkness as they engage in a deeper life of prayer?

Yes. Our evangelical tradition loves to emphasize the dramatic upside of prayer and worship. Being with Jesus makes us happy. Worship music makes us happy. Darkness is quickly dispelled as we align our lives with God's good will for our lives. Some of this is true, but there's another equally valid tradition in Christian spirituality. John of the Cross called it being in the whale's belly or the horrenda noche, "the horrible night." Sometimes we just hurt, groan and ache and there aren't easy resolutions. A few praise songs and bright lights won't fix the sadness in our hearts. Sometimes we're utterly desperate for God. Sometimes prayers go unanswered and we're not sure why. We may want to rail against God and argue with God—a practice which God encourages.

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