Did somebody say “obsessive prayer?”
Well, let me be the first one to share a confession: I don’t pray very well.
If we’re going to talk about twisted and convoluted prayer compulsions, I will offer myself as the case study of the day. Obsessive prayer? Yes, I can say a thing or two about that.
Certainly, there are some positive aspects to my prayer life. I talk to God all throughout my day. I tell Him about my thoughts and feelings. I present my troubles to Him. I seek His guidance when I’m making decisions. Prayer, for me, is the opening of my heart to God as to a friend. I also ask Him to forgive me when I make mistakes, which usually goes off without a hitch.
But here’s the problem: I don’t feel comfortable asking for things. Anytime I have something important to request, I get obsessive.
I’ve asked God for things in the past. Big things. Important things. I’ve wept on the floor, claimed Bible promises, and skipped sleep. I’ve wracked my brain to think of any unconfessed sin that might prevent God’s answer. I’ve hyped myself up to a high pitch of charismatic-type super-faith, haunted by the verse, “if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matthew 21:21-22).
But my prayers don’t move mountains. They don’t even move the little molehills that mean a lot to me.
So I double down and pray harder, working very hard to have faith (it sounds ironic, doesn’t it?) Then I read the words of Jesus in John 15:7, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” My mind clings to this verse in a terrifying sort of way. Answered prayer becomes a litmus test for whether I am really abiding in Christ or not. It seems as if the authenticity and validity of my entire spiritual life is on the line.
I pray harder. But still, heaven is silent.
The devastation of such unanswered prayers is difficult to describe, and they leave me feeling shameful and rejected, like a spiritual failure. Unanswered prayers make me feel as though my inadequacies have prevented God from acting.
For me, an unanswered prayer rapidly hatches into an obsessive prayer.
Understanding Obsessive Prayer
I bend my mind to try understanding the mechanics of prayer, but it’s difficult.
I think first of the cliché reminder that we must pray for God’s will to be done. But this brings me little comfort. If God’s will is so settled that my prayer changes nothing, why should I torture myself? If God will implement His own sovereign designs, it makes no sense to weep in prayer, to roll in the thornbushes, or to cover myself in sackcloth and ashes.
While this line of thinking excuses me from trying to force God’s will, it still fails to resolve the tension I find in Scripture. Yes, God has a will—but He still asks us to pray. Therefore there must be some kind of meaningful function behind prayer, otherwise prayer would be nothing more than a cosmic joke in a fatalistic universe. So I must pray, but my prayer has to be in line with God’s will, but how will I always know what God’s will is?
But, but, but…
God, why did you make this so hard?
At some point in my inner dialogue, I stop and take a deep breath. I realize that my thoughts are spiraling rapidly, my breath is coming faster, my heartbeat is fluttering–all biological signs of a stress response. There is no peace or joy, only an urgent, anxious sense of foreboding about what if I don’t get this right.
The only way I can get myself out of an obsessive prayer spiral is to stop trying to understand it and just realize that God never intended it to be so complicated.
The Non-Complicated Prayer
I want to pray well. I want to stop feeling guilty and confused when my prayers are unanswered. But how can I find the way forward?
My default path to relief for many years has been to pray once for the things I desire, then leave the outcome in God’s hands. These days, I don’t have the energy to rally my emotions for weeping and wailing. I present my request before God, once, in a simple manner. Then I get off my knees and trust Him to do what is best.
I don’t know if this is the right approach, but I get the idea from the ancient showdown on Mount Carmel. The priests of Baal leapt and danced and shouted all day long. They cut themselves until the blood gushed out. Elijah’s prayer contrasted sharply because of its brevity. His entire prayer was only a few sentences long. There was no begging, no manipulation. Yet God answered by fire.
Perhaps Jesus was thinking of Mount Carmel when He said, “when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). It seems that God is not interested in hearing us babble and screech all night long. He is not interested in obsessive prayer. After all, “your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8).
A Terribly Made But Answered Prayer
Five years ago, I passed through one of the darkest seasons of my life. After a series of painful difficulties in the mission field, I experienced a breakdown in my mental health. I became severely depressed and anxious. I spent my days weeping, convinced that I was shut out from God’s favor and that I would be lost for all eternity. I felt no comfort from God. No matter what I did, I couldn’t establish a feeling of connection with Him. The logical conclusion, to me, was that life without God’s favor wasn’t worth living. I began having suicidal ideations.
In this season of deep despair, I could not pray. But oh, how I yearned for some promise that God accepted me! How I longed to reach up a trembling hand to my Father in heaven!
At that time, my husband and I lived in a Catholic enclave in the Middle East, and I had often seen my neighbors burning candles in front of icons of the saints. The foyer of our apartment building held a statue of Mary, and on any given day, one or more tall red votive candles would burn in front of her image—a ritualized way of offering prayers to the saint.
Despite being a lifelong Protestant, and knowing that any number of my Protestant family members would raise eyebrows if they knew what I was doing, I purchased a red prayer candle and placed it on a shelf in front of my Bible and a picture of Jesus. I remembered how, in the Old Testament, the priest would burn incense before the Lord, which represented the prayers of God’s people (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 5:8).
In my extremity, when I could not pray, I lit that candle beside my Bible. I would sit and stare at that candle through itchy, tear-dried eyes. I could not formulate the words of a prayer. I could not think clearly. But that candle was a wordless plea; lighting it every day was a physical act of saying, please, do not forsake me.
That candle was my prayer.
Because conservative Protestantism in general tends to frown upon anything perceived as “ritualism,” I know my prayer candle might raise some eyebrows. But I don’t really mind. I believe that God answered me, because I was able to get help and heal completely from my depression. I was able to reconnect with God and begin understanding the ways my anxiety could trick me into feeling rejected by God when this simply wasn’t the case.
So many times, I had wept and spiritually self-flagellated to get God to hear my prayers. I would pour myself into obsessive prayer that left me feeling empty and drained, and afterwards I would be devastated by heaven’s silence. But in my time of greatest need, when I couldn’t offer the sacrifice of a “good enough prayer,” God heard and answered me.
Avoiding Obsessive Prayer When God Says No
I don’t know with scientific accuracy why God answers some prayers with “yes” and other prayers with “no.” But I do believe that He knows what’s best for me and will never give me anything except that which is for my best good. This mindset helps me trust Him as a loving Father and not ask too many questions when I don’t get what I want. I’ll admit that I’ve heard many explanations for why God still asks us to pray when He already has a “yes” or a “no” prepared, and none of them make 100% sense in my mind. And that’s okay.
I’m learning that God cannot be boxed in and pinned down by tightly-woven theological explanations.
The essence of the Christian life is experiential religion–a great, existential reaching out to grasp God and appropriate Him to my inmost self. God is not a concept, He is a divine Person who reveals Himself intimately and yet remains an incomprehensible mystery. Encountering the paradoxes of faith is not a bad thing, for it propels me forward in my experiential relationship with God.
Perhaps, then, it is in the blurry area between my own feeble sight and the unexplained mysteries of God’s purposes where I will learn the most about how to avoid obsessive prayer and how to gracefully accept God’s noes.
In the majority of cases, I will not immediately understand God’s answers to prayer. This side of heaven, I may never understand. But a no does not necessarily indicate that I have prayed a faulty prayer.
A no does not mean I am faithless, or sinful, or presumptuous.
It just means that God said no, and I don’t have to neurotically analyze what might be wrong with my prayer life. No is no. Don’t analyze. Just trust.
Even the Apostle Paul had an unanswered prayer for no known reason. Remember when he asked God, three times, to remove the thorn from his flesh? God said no, but promised to strengthen him to bear the affliction.
I must trust my Father’s heart. Trust that He has my best good in mind. Trust that He has a purpose and a meaning for everything, and that “no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).
So how can we avoid obsessive prayer? By resisting the urge to analyze the no.
I don’t know what part of prayer you struggle with as an obsessive-compulsive sufferer. Maybe you get caught up with confessing just right, or having the correct imagery in mind when you pray. Maybe you have a long list of prayer points to check off every day, or the need to feel sincere and sorry enough.
I sympathize. I really do. It isn’t easy to regain a sense of peace about prayer when prayer itself is supposed to be the tool that helps us access God’s peace.
But we can do this. By God’s grace, we can learn how to move forward and develop non-obsessive prayers.
My friends, it must begin with a commitment to trust. When we trust ourselves fully in God’s hands, we can let go of the need to hyper-fixate and analyze the aspects of prayer that are tripping us up. When Scripture invites us to “pray without ceasing,” I highly doubt that God was inviting us into an obsessive experience. I believe it is simply an invitation to live in a consistent, open connection with our Father, who loves us and pours out His grace continually.
Counterfeit prayer lookalikes, which bring inner harassment, pain, and confusion, are not required. We can leave these by the roadside and ask God to help us genuinely enter His rest.
Today, may you recognize elements of your own prayer life that have become obsessive and need to be left behind. May you daily experience a deeper commitment to trusting God with your unknowns so that you can experience peace.
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;Isaiah 30:15
In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”
How is God teaching you to move beyond obsessive prayer? Leave a comment below and share with us.
Best wishes on the journey,