I looked left to see if my captors would notice any attempt to escape. I stole a glance to the right. I knew they would find out if I attempted to run. And how fast could I really run when my hands and feet were bound?
So rather than run, I decided to plead for mercy. I called the 1-800 number on my monthly internet bill. My captor said in a strange but calming accent that I could not escape because I had signed up for a 12 month contract. And then she dared me to run away as she pointed a $249 termination fee at my head.
My guess is that you have tried to escape as well. You sign a 12 month contract to get a better price and then after a couple of months, your internet speed slowly degrades, and you are only staying with the company because of your obligation.
That is how obligation works. You do something not because you need to or want to or because it brings you joy, but simply because you are required to. Or because the consequence or payment is not worth stopping the obligation. I can deal with sub par internet because it’s better than paying the $249 early termination fee.
But what happens when the consequences of not fulfilling an obligation are self imposed? That’s where guilt, shame, and family background become powerful, unseen motivators. Somehow they seem to hold that termination fee over you if you stop doing what you “should.”
So “Should” becomes the unseen, self imposed contract that we operate by with a lot of areas in our lives. If we stop doing what we “Should” we feel nervous, guilty, afraid. Or like we don’t measure up.
My counselor called this “Should-ing on myself.” And I used to do it a lot.
On page 44 of A Praying Life, Paul Miller describes a message in the head of a lot of Christians that goes like this: “Really spiritually mature people pray more, read their Bibles more and love going to church. If I were a strong and mature Christian, I would pray more, I would read more, and love going to church.”
But Miller says that while it’s true that spiritually mature Christians pray more, they don’t do it because they “Should.” They do it because the more mature they get in their faith, the more they realize how helpless they are.
The sign of growing in our faith, then, isn’t simply an increase in the outward religious practices that we do, but an increase in our awareness that we can’t get it right apart from Christ. I can’t do anything without my Father. That is the attitude of Christ!
So we pray not out of guilt, but out of desperation. I have begun to find this true in my life as I have preached through the Lord’s Prayer for weeks now. God is beginning to help me realize that I need to pray. I want to pray. Granted I still choose not to make time for it sometimes or run out in front of God in my own strength at times, but it’s a growing change and awareness that God is working in me.
I was reading a self proclaimed internet theologian on social media (Not sure why I spent time doing that…). He was ranting about the new freedom he had found in faith.
Previously he said, he and his family just prayed, read the Bible and went to church out of obligation. That was constraining. But now he had a revelation. He says:
“We didn’t enjoy going to church. We didn’t enjoy reading the Bible. We didn’t enjoy praying. We didn’t enjoy worship. It all felt like obligation. So we stopped praying. I stopped reading the Bible. And we stopped going to church.”
And, he says, now he feels so free to just do faith the way he wants to do it.
So is that our only way forward? Either talking to our Father, reading His Word, and gathering with our brothers and sisters simply out of obligation on the one hand?
Or on the other hand, never talking to our Father, turning off his word, and moving in isolation into a self absorbed world of just ourselves?
Or is the answer that maybe we never understood the purpose of those things in the first place? Is the purpose of talking to our Father just for our enjoyment? If it is, then yes, let’s just change the channel and find enjoyment in something else.
No one is obligating us to pray.
But if the purpose of prayer is to make me more fitted for a life-giving relationship with my Father, and if the purpose of prayer is because I really can’t do anything on my own, then, Father, please drive me to my knees!
A Christian who feels like they “Should” pray feels that way because they are afraid that God will be mad at them or disappointed with them if they don’t.
A Christian who feels like they “Need” to pray feels that way because they are afraid they won’t be able to handle life apart from their Father.
The gospel exposes our deepest weaknesses, and at the same time opens the door to God’s grace and power. Without prayer we simply walk around with exposed needs but no way to meet them. No way to change. No help. No healing. No growth.
As Miller says on page 46: “Your own strength will no more help you to stand upright than propping yourself up on a broken reed.”
“Paradoxically,” he says, “you get holier whole you are feeling less holy.” And as we feel less holy and less capable, we begin to talk to God more for help more than we talk to others who we want to change. We begin putting more energy into prayer than we do into trying to change a situation.
So, as my counselor would say, “Stop Should-ing on yourself in prayer.” Don’t pray just because you feel like you should. And don’t stop praying, just because you don’t feel like it, either!
But instead let’s cry out to our Father to help us see that we can do nothing on our own. Help us to see how unholy and weak we really are. May God grow us in being a weak people who are powerful in prayer!