Stop Trying to Pray: Prayer as Resonance in a Secular Age

In this secular age, it’s hard to view prayer as a point of resonance with God, not as a discipline


This essay is part of a series reflecting on the loss of transcendence in contemporary cultures and the experience of resonance through the Relevance to Resonance project

It seemed that prayer came naturally to me when I was younger. I was a strange sort of kid—the kind who went to church by choice and actually enjoyed listening to sermons. I guess, in retrospect, it’s no surprise that I eventually became a pastor. I grew up in the rural town of Ramona, California, in a neighborhood where the houses are fairly spread apart, and most people own at least an acre of land. My parents, for their part, owned one and a half acres, where we boarded a couple of horses and occasionally, some chickens. When I was 12 and 13 years old, I used to ride my bike after school. I guess that’s what lots of us neighborhood kids did back then. We’d go up to the hills behind the property and ride the dirt paths. But, what I assume was peculiar to me was that I would often ride by myself out to a specific place that became like holy ground to me. It was a small rock formation fixed in the middle of an open field. There was no formal path to access it, but I had a mountain bike and I made do. It was almost a daily ritual for me to ride out to that rock formation where I felt I was all alone. I would park my bike, sit on one of the rocks, and I would pray. I would pray out loud. Sometimes I would even sing worship songs at the top of my lungs where only God could hear me. 

Like I said … strange kid. 

No one taught me to do that—at least not explicitly—and I didn’t have to be coerced into doing it. Quite the contrary, I did it on my own. And I certainly wasn’t doing it to gain attention. I would have been tremendously embarrassed had anyone found out about it (as I am a little embarrassed writing about it now). I didn’t do it to get anything from God, in fact I don’t recall any of my prayers being of the supplicant variety. I didn’t do it out of any sense of obligation or desire for mastery. In this way, what I was doing on those rocks was quite distinct from many people’s experience of prayer. On those rocks, prayer was easy. But in today’s world, at least for most people including my apparently mature self, prayer is quite difficult. 

How is your prayer life?

As a pastor, I have the privilege of talking with lots of people about their prayer life. In fact—and not only in preparation for writing this reflection on prayer—I’ve gotten in the habit of asking people about their prayer life. “How is your prayer life?” I will ask. And when I ask the question, I am readily prepared for someone to say, “what kind of question is that!?” Indeed, that would probably be my first thought if someone were to ask me that question. After all, it’s a somewhat aggressive question. What am I really asking, anyway? But so far, no one has responded that way. In fact, I’ve found that people seem thankful for the question and even eager to answer it. “It’s fine, Pastor … ” they might say, “but really, it could be better”; or, “I just know I should pray more often”; or, “I’m trying hard to be a ‘prayer warrior,’ but I’m not nearly as strong as so and so”; or, “I’m praying really hard for so and so, but they’re just not getting better.” One person said to me, “I don’t really pray the way a lot of people do. I try to look at my whole life as a prayer.” With all due respect to the person who said that to me, as inspirational as the response sounded, I took it as a confession that they don’t really pray at all. Another said, “I think my prayer life is fine, but I’m not always sure I’m doing it right.” And an older woman—one of those people who’s been marinating in church life since her youth, has more hymns memorized than I’ve ever sung, and is well beyond trying to impress the pastor or anyone else with her spirituality—simply said, “I’m praying, but I sure wish God would listen more.”

What I don’t hear very often is, “Oh yes, Pastor. My prayer life is the joy of my existence. I am praying continually, just like the Apostle Paul, and God always feels oh so near!” (Although I have definitely heard more than one person offer what I am suspicious may be an exaggerated account of the frequency and effectiveness of their prayers.) Inevitably, people either confess that they feel some level of guilt or shame regarding their prayer life or they make a fumbling attempt to justify themselves to me. In short, what I gather from my “research” (I am using that term in the crudest possible sense), is that prayer is difficult for most people, even the most “spiritual” people in my congregation. 

When I ask about people’s prayer lives, I have been surprised to discover that few people go on to ask me about mine. Perhaps they assume that, as the pastor, I’ve got this prayer thing nailed. Nevertheless, I do tell them about mine and I think many people are relieved if not surprised to discover that prayer is difficult for me too. 

A different logic

I don’t know when or why things changed for me, but prayer isn’t easy anymore. It’s become a “discipline.” It’s something I must remind myself to do and, when I do it, I rarely feel like I’m doing it well. I feel distracted and the time I give to prayer is often divided by thoughts about my fantasy baseball team, the latest Wordle (“APTLY”!? Really?!), or what I’m going to write in my next article about prayer (for example, this one). It’s no easier for me than it seems to be for the folks in my church family. But why is prayer so hard? Why do I have to try so hard to do something that used to come so easy? 

I think at least part of the problem is that we have allowed prayer to be subsumed into the logics of our secular and developmentalist age and have thus changed what is essentially a mysterious, uncontrollable, and relational encounter, into a “discipline” that must be mastered, a technique that must produce outcomes, and an overall controllable commodity that must be optimized and innovated. In other words, we apply the same pressures we feel in our work life to our relationship with God. Prayer has become a means to an end rather than an end in itself. I am borrowing these terms, “aggression” and “resonance,” “controllability,” and “uncontrollability” from the German sociologist, Hartmut Rosa. 

Rosa diagnoses our secular society with what he calls, “social acceleration.” This logic compels us to see any effort or discipline from which we do not gain “something to show for it” as a wasted effort.  I suggest that if we are willing to pray according to a different logic—perhaps, the logic of the Spirit (hat tip: James Loder)—then we may allow ourselves an easier, more consoling, and less anxious relationship to prayer.

Trying to pray: prayer as a point of aggression

Industrial/capitalist modes of existence have turned the world into a “point of aggression”—a place of which we must take hold through increased effort. The gap between the world’s controllability and uncontrollability, we believe, can be traversed by our determination, our aggression. Rosa writes in Uncontrollability, “Everything that appears to us must be known, mastered, conquered, made useful.” Even our relationship to our own bodies has become such that “everything that we perceive about it tends to be subject to the pressures of optimization.” We live in the regime of the “fitness studio” and CrossFit. We are driven to produce, achieve, and develop. Everything, including human life itself, is interpreted on a scale of improvement and decline. There is no simple change anymore (if ever there was), all change is dynamic change, and the stuff of life is to find a way for that change to be improvement rather than decline. Time itself has become a commodity, as theologian John Swinton points out in Becoming Friends of Time. We use it, spend it, save it, waste it, the same way we use money. The model of life is the model of the markets: growth. Thus, the dynamics of life are the dynamics of acceleration. “Always act in such a way that your share of the world is increased.” Always try and always have something to show for it!

Prayer, too, has become a “point of aggression.” And in a world of social acceleration, prayer is a waste of time. 

Or at least it has come to feel this way. Prayer, as a point of aggression, feels like it must be mastered (especially by pastors), and it must help us “grow.” It is a discipline that leads to “spiritual maturity” through a “process of sanctification.” I put quotes around these terms not to disparage them but to try to obscure their apparent indigeneity to our idiom. From a theological perspective, I would think these terms should be seen as dubious, if not toxic. And yet, this is how we talk without a second thought. 

Is it really a wonder why prayer is hard?  

When I pray, I don’t always feel automatically close to God. If that’s the purpose of prayer, then I am apparently failing at it. When I pray, I don’t always get results (but, boy, if I see any sign that my prayer was “effective,” I am gonna testify!). So if that’s the purpose of prayer, then I am apparently failing at it. When I pray, it takes a lot of effort and, subsequently, time to focus. Thus, it is often an inefficient “use” of my time. Prayer doesn’t always solve my problems, make me feel better, or magically make me into a better person, so I can’t help but feel that I have failed to master the discipline. 

I believe that many of the people I talk to express disappointment in their prayer life and a sense of guilt or shame because they are trying too hard to pray and they’re not getting results. They and I are praying according to the logic of controllability, when prayer, as it turns out, is uncontrollable and cannot be wielded for an outcome. So by trying so hard, and by turning prayer into a point of aggression, we pull the rug out from under our own feet. We make it hard. As Jürgen Moltmann wrote in Theology of Play, “Those who try to defend religion by establishing its external usefulness and necessity turn out to be its worst enemies in the long run.” By the logic of late modernity, as Rosa has described it, we have become our own enemies and the enemies of prayer. So by what logic can we befriend prayer rather than remaining its enemies? What, for me, might allow prayer to become easy and light, like it was when I went out to those rocks? Perhaps what we need to do is embrace the waste of time.

Wasting time with God: prayer as a point of resonance

Knowing God is not like knowing a scientific fact. Knowing God is knowing a person, and persons are not controllable, persons are mysterious. Relationships are about disclosure, not discovery. So to know God, we cannot be in a posture of conquest or discovery, optimization or control. We must, instead, be driven by the relationship itself—driven by love. We must put ourselves in a posture of receptivity. As Karl Barth put it in Prayer, “Prayer cannot be for us a means of creating something, of making a gift to God and to ourselves; we are in the position of persons who can only receive.” Prayer must become, for us, a point of resonance.

When I rode out to those rocks in the field behind the neighborhood, I was not compelled by the desire to improve, or the fear of decline. I was compelled by joy. I believe I was compelled by resonance.  According to Rosa, “The basic mode of vibrant human existence consists not in exerting control over things but in resonating with them.” It is not in having but in being (see Erich Fromm). I went to the rocks to be with God. That’s it. 

Prayer is not something we can control, nor does it always produce replicable outcomes, so perhaps it’s best not to view prayer as a “discipline” at all. Perhaps we shouldn’t view it as something we do. It is, as a register of grace, something that God does. And we won’t always feel resonance when we are praying. That’s part of how resonance works. It’s unpredictable! Like falling asleep, sometimes the harder you try, the less “successful” you’ll be. 

We can position ourselves to receive God’s self-disclosure, just like we can position ourselves to fall asleep, but it will always only be received as a gift. It cannot be taken; you cannot have it or control it. You can only receive it. John 3:8 says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” Such is the logic of the Spirit, and it is in this logic—not in the logics of acceleration, optimization, controllability, or development—that we must pray. So embrace prayer as a “waste” of time. Embrace prayer as a gift—an opportunity to be with God, to be open to God, to encounter God. Stop trying to optimize your prayer life. Instead, just let yourself be with the God who is God. And in some of those moments, like my childhood moments on the rocks, you may experience resonance. The final word in prayer is not “Eureka,” but “Amen.”

Suggested resources:

  • View these two animated videos on Church in the Accelerating Age produced for the Relevance to Resonance project.
  • Watch the five-part Congregations in a Secular Age video series with Blair Bertrand, featuring Andrew Root’s book.
  • Barth, Karl. Prayer. Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
  • Fromm, Erich. To Have or To Be? Bloomsbury, 1976.
  • Han, Byung-Chul. The Burnout Society. Stanford University Press, 2015.
  • Loder, James. The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective. Jossey-Bass, 1998.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology of Play. Harper & Row, 1972.
  • Root, Andrew. The Congregation in a Secular Age: Keeping Sacred Time against the Speed of Modern Life. Baker Academic, 2021.
  • Root, Andrew. The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God. Baker Academic, 2019.
  • Rosa, Hartmut. The Uncontrollability of the World. Polity Press, 2021.
  • Swinton, John. Becoming Friends of Time. Baylor University Press, 2016.

  • Wesley W. Ellis

    Wesley W. Ellis, Ph.D. (University of Aberdeen) is the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Ramona (United Church of Christ) in San Diego, California. He is the co-author of Delighted: What Teenagers Are Teaching The Church About Joy with Kenda Creasy Dean, Abigail Visco Rusert, and Justin Forbes. He also edited Embodying Youth: Exploring Disability and Youth Ministry with Michael D. Langford. He lives in Ramona, California with his wife Amanda and their two children, Bonnie and Henry.

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