Stages of Growth in Prayer: Moving Beyond Magical Thinking to the Gift of Contemplation

We often hear about the importance of prayer in the life of faith, but few receive significant teaching on this subject. As a result, some longtime Christians experience the limitations of an immature prayer life. In an effort to address this challenge, I think it is helpful to think about prayer in terms of three different stages.

Stage One: The “Me” Prayer of a Child

The operative image of God in stage one is a heavenly Santa Clause, and prayer is mostly a monologue in which we present God with a long list of requests and demands.  Our goal is to persuade God to use his power to change our external circumstances so they will conform to our internal yearnings. This often leads to magical thinking that does not align with reality. The gift that we receive in this stage is a growing desire to pour our hearts out to God with childlike humility, and growth is evidenced by a gradual shift away from a Christmas list to an authentic sharing of our interior life.

Stage Two: The “We” Prayer of Conversation

Sharing with God from the heart helps us to get in touch with our deepest needs as human beings, and this generates a growing desire to hear back from God. Brief moments of silence create the possibility of hearing a word from the Lord as a salient insight, keen intuition, strong conviction, or deep sense of peace. For those of us who inhabit a therapeutic culture, the operative image of God in stage two is a divine therapist, someone who listens to all our problems and gives us sound advice. In a way analogous to a therapy session, prayer starts with us doing most of the talking, but periodically we pause to seek guidance from God. This is the beginning of a genuine conversation.

Since this is a transitional stage, our expectations about what should change as a result of prayer are often conflicted. On the one hand, we still want God to use his power to make our external circumstances conform to our internal desires. While this might not entail the Christmas list of stage one, our desire to hear from God is still driven by something we hope to gain: we seek advice that will empower us to continue doing what we are already doing but with better results. We pray in hopes that God will help us to realize the kind of life we envision for ourselves. On the other hand, the very practice of prayer leads to destabilizing experiences that upset our expectations: sometimes God answers our prayer in unlikely ways and sometimes God does not answer our prayer at all. These unsettling experiences raise important questions. Is there something more to prayer? Am I praying for the right things? Should I uncritically accept everything my heart desires as God’s will? Maybe instead of asking God to change my circumstances, I should ask God to change the way I am responding to my circumstances so I can live more faithfully, even in unfavorable seasons. This line of thinking leads to a new kind of prayer: “Lord, teach me to pray.” As prayer matures in and through stage two, more questions than answers are generated, which is exactly what is needed to enter stage three. Before this happens, we have to surrender the desire to leverage God’s power and wisdom to realize a life of our own creating. When we stop asking, “How do I get what I want?” and start asking, “What does God want?” we discover that what God wants is simply to spend time with us.

Stage 3: Prayer as Contemplation

In quiet moments that emerge by pondering of difficult questions, we hear a whisper say, “Be still and know that I am God” (1 Kings 19:12; Ps. 46:10). If we are obedient, the Holy Spirit can use this divine silence to utterly transform our prayer life. In stage three, we experience a growing awareness of the greatness of God, which explodes all the categories of human thought and language. We try to grasp more fully what it means for God to be the Creator, the ground of being, or the giver of the power-of-being itself. We contemplate God as the Spirit of life in whom we live, breath, move, and have our being. God becomes the mystery of the world that explodes all of our images of the divine and leaves us speechless. We sit in silence—awestruck, reverent, worshipful silence—and the “me” in prayer almost entirely vanishes. When we finally find our tongue, it breaks forth in spontaneous worship and praise.

What we expect to change in stage three is the “me” that is praying. I change. My understanding of God changes. The way I pray (and what I ask for) changes. What I expect to change itself changes! No longer do I try to leverage God’s power and wisdom to give me the kind of life that I want, because what I want more than anything is simply to be in the presence of God. We still come to God with childlike humility and a deep desire for intimate communion, but we let go of all expectations and wait upon the Lord in silence. It is in this stage that we begin to understand what Paul meant in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 when he tells us to pray without ceasing.

Conclusion

The stages mentioned above are not intended to be taken literally as a prescription for prayer. If you literalize this interpretive scheme and imagine that growth in prayer proceeds in strict linear fashion from one stage to the next, it can actually narrow and distort your understanding of prayer (which is the opposite of my intended goal). In our lived experience, we might find ourselves praying in different “stages” on any given day. Indeed, it is possible to find all the stages reflected in a single prayer. As mentioned at the beginning, all such interpretive schemes have their limitations. However, if we understand this approach as one model among others and resist the temptation to push it too far, it can be helpful in expanding our understanding and practice of prayer.

If you are interested in learning more, check out the sermon on which this article is based:

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