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Healing Prayer Perfection Paralysis

Breaking Enslaving Traditions, Part 3

Nineteen years ago, when I was a magazine writer, my editor sent me on a press trip to a spa in Arizona. I was five months pregnant, and spent three wonderful days taking meditation classes and getting massages. Then one workshop I took turned out to be both physically and emotionally challenging. It was a horse therapy workshop, designed to teach people interpersonal skills by asking us non-horsey people to interact with and groom horses. Apparently, the way we approach animals is similar to the way we approach people. I chose to work with a miniature horse named Merlin, thinking that his hooves would be less dangerous to my womb.

Merlin turned out to be averse to grooming, and able to duck under the hitching post fence, which the full-sized horses weren't able to do. When he finally held still, instead of getting down to business (which was cleaning his hoof with a pick), I tried to make friends by petting him, even though I was pretty irritated with him at this point.

The horse guru came up and questioned me:

Guru: What are you doing?

Me: Petting Merlin.

Guru: Why?

Me: Uh. I'm making friends with him. I want him to like me.

Guru: Why?

Me: Uh. I don't want him to think I just want something from him.

Guru: But you do want something from him. You want his hoof.

Me: Ok.

Guru: Do you always need people to like you before you can ask for something you need?

Me: Uh. Yes.

My time with Merlin revealed some of my anxious attachment wounds. It revealed a manipulative side of me that tried to be nice rather than direct. I believed that before I could get my needs or wants met, I had to prove my worthiness through people pleasing. And also, through pleasing God.

For those of you just joining this series, Attachment Theory research shows that parents who meet their baby’s needs for connection and comfort consistently until they are 18 months old, and then set appropriate boundaries in years three to five, develop secure attachment. They are less- anxious as adults, better able to self-soothe, and more likely to seek healthy relationships for comfort. Anxious attachment results from inconsistency on the part of the parents and lack of comfort and ignoring or shaming of emotional expression. These children learn that they can get connection when they perform correctly, or when their parent happens to be in the mood. People-pleasing is an addictive coping strategy for the anxiously attached.

I often think of my time with Merlin when I consider my relationship with God. The inability to be direct about what I really want – indeed, the belief that I am sinful or selfish for even having wants – affected my relationship with God even more than my relationships with people. This series has been about the undoing of that belief, and growing to believe that God actually desires to draw close and comfort us in our distress, rather than chiding us for having human desires. The primary way I was taught to connect with God was through prayer, but the prayer formulas I was given triggered my attachment wounds.

The ACTS acronym for prayer was the primary model I was taught as a teenager. It stands for A-adoration, C-confession, T-thanksgiving, and S- supplication. Tell God that you worship him and all the reasons why. Then thank God for your blessings. Then confess your shortcomings. And then, having brought your heart into the “right” place, ask Him for what you need and want. I’m sure there were many good intentions behind this model, but to this day I feel like its primary message is that we need to be nice and clean up our attitudes before we talk to God.

Not that an attitude adjustment is bad. As a form of corporate prayer and worship, ACTS prayers are extremely encouraging and can increase our awe of God. But as a model for individual relationship with God, this became an enslaving tradition for me. I spoke about this on Instagram last week, and one of my college friends messaged me that this model led to “prayer perfectionism paralysis.” I totally agree: If I didn’t adore God enough and assure him of my affections, perhaps He would think I just “wanted something,” and withdraw His affections from me.

My understanding of God’s love and grace has expanded, so I am confident God is not angry when I want something, especially if it’s comfort and connection from Him. I had made God as small as that little horse named Merlin. For years I would go to him broken, tired, frustrated, and in desperate need of help, but I padded my prayers with insincere pats on the back for God before I could tell him why I was really there. Like God didn’t already know why I was on my knees.

I have since found ways to pray that make me actually want to pray, because they emphasize that I’m drawing near to my compassionate, powerful Father, who sent His son to prove his desire to be near to us. Rather than trying to force myself into an attitude adjustment via ACTS, I do one of two things:

I share my actual attitude, feelings, thoughts and distress without editing. In this, I have the Psalms as my model. David is often praying the ACTS prayer in reverse. He starts with requests and gets to adoration later. Psalms 54, 55 and 59 are good examples of these prayers of lament. They often start with anger and despair; they include raw requests (like, “smote my enemies with fire” kind of requests). But they end after a “But you God…” moment, where David reminds himself of God’s power and faithfulness. David is comforted by who God is before God has done anything on his behalf.

I use the words of others to pray, often in repetition, which calms my nervous system as well as my mind and soul. The “Our Father,” given to us by Jesus himself, contains both worship and requests. The Serenity Prayer, said at the beginning of every Twelve-Step meeting, sums up the limits of my humanness and my need for God’s guidance very nicely. Sometimes I read A Diary of Private Prayer, written by John Baillie in 1949. And recently, I’ve been using prayer beads given to me by a Methodist friend; after inviting God to show make His presence felt, for each bead I breathe deeply and name someone/something I’m thankful for or someone/something I am asking God to bless.

In both cases, I walk away with more reverence for God, and also calmed and assured of His love.

If you're a little stuck in your prayer life, try a little something new, or a something old that’s new to you: whether it be Psalms, liturgy or your own stream of consciousness. You might feel a little guilty the first time you tell God you really want him to avenge you and smote your enemies, and you'll wonder if you need an attitude adjustment after all. May I encourage you: God is big enough to take our messy, mean spirits, calm us down, and make us gentler. It's an act of trust and worship to show up to prayer busted up and ticked off. He takes pleasure in comforting us, and in granting our requests. And you're safe asking, because He won't smite someone for you, unless it's actually the right thing to do. He won’t bolt if you use the wrong words. He's not our horse, in need of petting: He is the good God almighty.

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