Cynicism: Low Level Doubt
About the Guest
Let's face it, prayer is hard work. Paul Miller, the former associate director of World Harvest Mission, talks about the why, when and how-to's of prayer. Paul encourages listeners to talk unreservedly to God as children do their fathers, and warns against giving into cynicism when it appears God isn't listening or not following our plan.
Paul MillerPaul E. Miller (MDiv, Biblical Seminary) is executive director of seeJesus, a global discipling mission, and best-selling author of books and interactive Bible studies including A Praying Life and J-Curve. He and his wife, Jill, live in the Philadelphia area and have six children and a growing number of grandchildren. Follow @_PaulEMiller on Twitter, listen to the Seeing Jesus with Paul Miller podcast, or learn more at seeJesus.net.
Paul Miller talks about the why, when and how-to’s of prayer. Paul encourages listeners to talk unreservedly to God as children do their fathers.
Cynicism: Low Level Doubt
Bob: Alright, let's be honest for a minute. Have you ever found yourself thinking about prayer and thinking: "Come on—what's the use? I mean, really!" Here's Paul Miller.
Paul: A lot of people are set up for cynicism by thinking their prayer is magic—that you are actually kind of controlling God—it's almost a Christian voodoo going on. God doesn't like to be controlled in relationships any more than any of us do. So, a lot of praying is then entering into the story that God's weaving and watching for the plot line, giving God time—watching your prayers over years—and you see what God does.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, August 24th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. If your prayer life is rich, and full, and vibrant, you can probably skip listening to today's program. Everybody else—stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Monday edition. Have you ever come across a passage in a book, where you read it and just go: "This guy gets it—he knows. He understands. He's been around”?
Dennis: Oh yes.
Bob: “He's been in my head—he knows what's going on.”
Dennis: I wonder if it's going to be the same passage—go ahead and read it.
Bob: I'll—well, why don't you go ahead and introduce our guest? We're talking about prayer, and Paul Miller is our guest. You introduce him, and then I'll read it; okay?
Dennis: Well, Paul, welcome to broadcast, first of all.
Paul: It's great to be here.
Dennis: Glad you've joined us—you and your daughter, Kim, have joined us. She's not on the air right now. Perhaps, before we're done here this week, we'll have a chance to talk with her.
Paul is a graduate of Temple University. He taught in the inner city schools in Philadelphia for more than 10 years. He and his wife Jill have six children.
Paul: That's right.
Dennis: How many grandchildren?
Dennis: Eight grandchildren—you need to upgrade and update your bio. [Laughter]
Paul: They're coming too fast for us. [Laughter]
Dennis: I understand that—trust me. [Laughter]
Dennis: He has written a book called A Praying Life, and he works in a ministry. Now, I want you to get this—he works in a ministry that creates curriculum and trains people, who pray badly, to learn how to pray correctly and effectively. Is that accurate?
Paul: That's correct. That’s great—great summary.
Bob: The passage that I want to read actually comes at the end of a story that you tell, right at the beginning of your book—where you were out on a camping trip with your daughter—
Dennis: Well, why don't you let him tell that?—and then read the story.
Bob: Yes, I'll do that—she dropped a contact lens; right?
Paul: That's right.
I was about 20 feet away from her. She was next to our Dodge® minivan. I wasn't quite sure what was wrong. You could just tell something was agitating her. The closer I got, I realized something was wrong. I said, "Ash, what's wrong?” She said, just really tightly, "I dropped a contact, Dad." It was on the forest floor, which was a thousand crevices at her feet with all of these leaves.
Bob: How do you find a contact when you don't have your contacts in? That's always a problem.
Paul: Yes. I said: "Ashley, freeze. Let's pray." She burst into tears and said: "What good does it do? I've prayed for Kim to speak. It's been eight years, and she's still not speaking." Kim is our daughter who is mute, and autistic, and developmental delay and things like that.
I think that really is the rub that people feel with prayer—is they've shut their hearts down over prayer that didn't seem to work in their lives.
Bob: Here's what you wrote in your book. It's—I read it and I went, "I've been here / felt this:
Few of us have Ashley's courage to articulate the quiet cynicism or spiritual weariness that develops in us when heartfelt prayer goes unanswered. We keep our doubts hidden, even from ourselves, because we don't want to sound like bad Christians. No reason to add shame to our cynicism. So our heart shuts down.
The glib way people talk about prayer often reinforces our cynicism.
We end conversations by saying, “I'll keep you in my prayers.” We have this vocabulary of prayer-speak, including “I'll lift you up in prayer,” / “I'll remember you in prayer.” Many of those who use these phrases, including us, never get around to praying. Why? Because we don't think prayer really makes much difference. Cynicism and glibness are just part of the problem.
The most common frustration is the activity of praying itself. We last for about 15 seconds.
Then out of nowhere, our day's "to-do" list pops up in our minds. We're often on tangent. We catch ourselves and, by sheer force of the will, we go back to praying. Before we know it, something has happened again. And instead of praying, we're doing a confused mix of wondering and worrying. Then guilt sets in, and we start to think something must be wrong with me: “Other Christians don't have this trouble praying. I'm no good at this. I might as well get some work done.”
You keep going on and you say:
In a burst of spiritual enthusiasm, we put together a prayer list; but praying through the list gets dull—nothing seems to happen. The list gets long and cumbersome. We lose touch with many of the needs. Praying feels like whistling in the wind. When someone is healed or helped, we wonder if it would have happened anyway; and we misplace the list.
I mean, you understand the issue here because I've felt this way. You've felt this way; right?
Dennis: Yes. Let's go back to Ashley, your 14-year-old daughter, who had lost the contact lens.
Paul: Yes; right.
Dennis: What happens to an "Ashley" if, at the point she loses the contact lens, doesn't come clean about her loss of hope about prayer, and then, she grows up to become a “practicing Christian” in the church, once a week / twice a week, but she basically is losing heart in praying?
Paul: Yes, her heart shuts down. I come from Philly, in the northeast. What would be more likely to happen down there is that she wouldn't even stay in a pew—you know, you would lose her from the church altogether.
It's just the early edges of unbelief—is what you're describing with Ashley's heart—where God is no longer interfacing with your world. In other words, Christianity isn't working at its most basic level. So you become just quietly cynical. You go through the forms of Christianity, but it's not working. I think we lose a lot of our kids to the culture because we've not taught them how to engage God in their daily life, in their younger years, as they're going through life.
Dennis: You know, I really agree with you on the concept of cynicism. I feel like it is a poison—that if dumped into the fountain / at the foot of the mountain, that bubbles forth the spring—it'll spoil the spring, all the way downstream. I think the devil of hell knows that if he can just get us to pray a prayer that we don't see the answer as soon as we expected to see it, the seeds of cynicism—or that poison of cynicism—gets dumped in the spring—
Paul: Yes, yes.
Dennis: —and some never recover from it.
Bob: Well, let's be honest. Prayer is fundamentally a “faith” exercise.
Bob: When I pull out my cell phone and call my wife, I hear her voice on the other end.
Bob: I hear things connect. She responds back to me in an audible, tangible way. When I bow my head and pray, I don't hear any voice back in my ear.
I may wonder about an impression I get and go: "Okay. Well, where did that come from?" Again, it's a faith exercise to believe there is a God / He is listening—there's some response going on and He's paying attention to what I'm talking about.
Paul: But let me make it real simple. It is a faith exercise that involves all those things, but it works almost instantly when you become like a little child. That's what I did with Ashley in that forest scene, when we were out camping. I became a little child with God. I prayed before I prayed with Ashley—I said, "God, this would really be a good time to come through!" I just prayed quietly with Ash, and looked down, and there on the leaf was the contact lens.
I mean, not that God always does that—
—later on, we'll get into some longer prayer stories—where we go down on the leaf, you know, metaphorically, and there's a smashed contact lens: “What's God doing?”
Dennis: That's right.
Paul: We'll talk about that whole thing later on. But still—to become like a little child is the key to good parenting with prayer.
Dennis: I want you to expand on that in just a moment—but I want to make sure we have finished unpacking what the follower of Christ, who feels like they've become cynical about prayer—what they do with that because everyone has experienced what they might view as unanswered prayer. That does feed the cynicism we're talking about here. That's what Ashley was expressing.
Paul: Yes. Oh golly, there are so many answers to that. One of the themes that we'll talk about—that is big in the book—is to begin to see prayers as stories and that it's not magic.
But let me just quick get back to the simplest cure for cynicism—is to be a child.
Dennis: Is that what you mean in your book, when you said, "Learning to pray again means learning to play again"?
Paul: Yes. Yes. Take the scenario that Bob was mentioning earlier about—or quoting me on—how defeated we are in our prayer. We try to get going, and then, we collapse. Just to play / just to tell God what's on your heart—that's kind of what a child does.
A child is not cynical—they simply tell God what they want. It's almost a fear of human desire because it's often so wrong that we're just not telling God where we're at.
Bob: Yes, and I think one of the reasons—I know I tend to do this—I’ll tend to hedge my prayers—do you know what I'm talking about?—
Paul: Right; right.
Bob: —because I don't know what God is going to do in a situation.
I’ll pray almost in a way that acknowledges, in some way, that I'm giving Him permission to do whatever it is He wants to do or is going to do in that situation.
I'm thinking of a friend of mine, right now, who has been diagnosed with a terminal disease. I've been praying, "Lord, would You please heal my friend?"—right? I've been doing this partly in response to what I've read in your book, as I've gone through this.
In past days, I might have said, "Now, Lord," you know, "if it be Your will,"—and I'll put the hedge statements around it. Just to say: "Lord, here's what I want. Please, would You do this?" I still know, in the back of my heart, that God's sovereign—He's going to do whatever He is going to do—and that it's right for Him to do whatever He's going to do.
Unpack some of what's going on in my own psyche as I pray these prayers. Can you?
Paul: Let me just give you a couple quick responses—one is to ask boldly and to surrender completely.
On the one hand, by asking boldly, as you're doing with your friend, you're letting God know your real desires. On the surrender-completely side, you're letting God be God. You're doing both sides with full vigor.
Paul: You're not watering down either one. There are examples all through Scripture of it. One of the most poignant examples is Jesus praying in Gethsemane: "Father, take this cup from Me,"—He asks boldly—then he surrenders completely: "not my will but Yours be done." It's just a perfect balance of the praying life. So you really tell God what you want.
One of the reasons the church is sometimes afraid to ask boldly is sort of a lingering influence of the Greek mind on the church. A quick example of that is Augustine, who was very influential with this on the church—has this quote, where he says, "Ask nothing of God but God Himself."
That sounds real spiritual—to ask nothing of God but God Himself—but that's not Jesus. Probably, if I were to summarize, with one word, everything Jesus says about praying, it's: "Ask."
Dennis: Yes, it's: “Recognize that God's in the details of life.”
Dennis: He's in the pine needles—
Dennis: —where the contact lens is lying.
Paul: Yes. Now, Dennis, have I answered you on cynicism?
Dennis: Not quite—not quite because I think you've said—first of all, let me review what you said: “Learn to play again and become like a child.” A child isn't cynical—they trust simply.
You've also said, “Begin to pray and ask God to show you what the story is: “What's going on here?” You're looking at, really, “What's the big story?”—I mean, “What's God up to?” You try to see it and recognize it—that creates hope / that defeats cynicism.
But you've got somebody, who's listening right now—they're going to say: "You just don't understand, Paul.
I prayed repeatedly for my sister, who was going to get a divorce. I mean, that divorce sent ripples through our family in so many different directions that we're still bearing the consequences of this. We're reeling from it. How can I hope again? How can I put to death this cynicism?"
Paul: Let me answer that by telling you a little longer story. It's a story of Kim when she was born. She was our fourth child. I was an inner-city principal, making $20,000 a year, plus benefits.
When Kim was born, I thought something was wrong—we actually didn't have a diagnosis for 20 years later. The doctor bungled things—he gave Jill way too much Pitocin—and Kim's Apgar scores were really low. I had seen Jill go through labor / natural child birth with our first three, and she was just in agony.
She would have uncontrolled really long contractions. Kim came out all blue. She was in the incubator for a while. She seemed to be doing okay—we weren't sure. But she clearly began to miss some benchmarks. I went to the doctor and told about what he'd done. He threatened to sue us. So we didn’t do anything. We were young and didn't have a lot of money. It was just like this—
Dennis: It was a tough hit though. You talk about the opportunity to dump the poison of cynicism in the stream.
Paul: Oh yes. What made it worse for Jill was that Jill had prayed—when she was pregnant with Kim—from Psalm 121, that God would keep this baby in her from all harm. Psalm 121 is this beautiful lyrical psalm about: "I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord." The theme of, “No harm…” “No harm…” “No harm…” reverberates through the Psalm.
Then, we have a harmed daughter—and it is irreparable harm. I mean, it's like the divorce—it's gone. Barring a miracle—that no one has heard about in 2,000 years / kind of bringing someone back from the dead—the damage was done. It still ripples in our family.
I asked Jill—this was—Kim was maybe about 10—“What's it like having a child with disabilities?” She said, “It's every mother's nightmare.” Early on, when Jill was just in agony, I told her—it wasn't one of my better caring moments for her—I told her, “Jill, why don't you just give Kim to Jesus?” She said: “Paul, every day, I close my eyes. I pick Kim up. I walk up to the foot of the cross and I put her down. I turn my back and walk down.”
It was just this kind of daily dying that was going through Jill.
It took our finances away. We actually—we lived for 20 years without savings because we used the last of our savings to convert the heat in our house because we knew Kim was having some kind of problem—with every time the heat went on in the wintertime, she would get pneumonia and asthma. We just didn’t know what was going on. We were poor / we didn’t have a lot of money, but it just—God dumped this thing that was just kind of endless on our family, which is just a fodder ground for cynicism. What comes out of cynicism is bitterness—not only do you shut your heart down—but especially, if you nourish it, you can just then get angry at God.
Now, what does the idea of story have to do with that? Well, within five or six years, we began to see what God was doing and begin to poll that.
One of the principle things He was doing—it was so clear—is He was humbling two proud, willful parents. I mean, Kim was the best gift that we could have. I’m not saying that that’s—every story is different—but just watching the story, as it evolves.
We had to learn how to do life by prayer. We would have a little family prayer time after dinner once a week. Jill would sometimes fall asleep during dinner. We would have to wake her up for the prayer time. When we would get to that, Jill would have two prayer requests—one was for faith / the other was for strength. Over time, what God began to show us was that this Kim was really the best gift He could have given our family.
I'm not saying that's the solution to that particular situation you've raised; but by paying attention to the themes of the story, patterns begin to develop. You begin to see God work.
Now, if I could have bought this disability in Kim's life—if someone said, “Paul, if you have a million dollars and you can go spend it on a house or something, or you can buy this thing that Kim has…” It would be a no-brainer to buy the thing. What God taught us—what He did in our lives was just priceless.
Dennis: I'm thinking back to a period in my life, a few years ago. It was, nonetheless, a several-year valley that Barbara and I went through. The issue of story is really huge because, if you don't see God at work in the valley, the valley becomes a very dark existence. There is hope in the valley if you can see God at work in you / through you—maybe, to you / to others.
One of the things your book did, as I was going through it, is it prompted me out of a couple of ruts that I'd gotten into in my prayer life—
—where, admittedly—not that I'd lost perspective of who God is—but practically, I didn't believe God was going to do anything. So, you just quit praying about a broken relationship or someone where there's been something that you humanly have not been able to fix.
I think all of us have those ruts that we get into in our lives. We need resources / we need mentors. We need godly counsel to come alongside us—and kind of put their arms around us—not in an arrogant, prideful kick in the seat but in a gentle invitation—which I think you did a good job in your book, A Praying Life, of not making me feel ashamed / but at the same time, inviting me out of the rut.
Bob: Well, and I think all of us need a little coaching. I was going to say, “I think we need a kick in the pants,”—but you know—[Laughter]—
—maybe we do. I think this is an area where a lot of us struggle in our lives, spiritually. Paul, your book, A Praying Life, gets us thinking differently about prayer. When we think differently, we act differently in that area.
I want to encourage our listeners to go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Get a copy of Paul Miller’s book, A Praying Life. When you get to our homepage, at FamilyLifeToday.com, look in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. You’ll see a link there that says, “GO DEEPER.” When you click that link, you’ll see information on Paul’s book and how you can order a copy of his book from us, online, or how you can order by calling 1-800-FL- TODAY. Again, the book is called A Praying Life. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link that says, “GO DEEPER,” in the upper left-hand corner. You can order, online; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY and order the book by phone—
—1-800-358-6329—that's 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, then the word, “TODAY.” Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
While we’re on the subject of prayer, a quick reminder that next week we will be kicking off a 30-day challenge—30 days where you spend a couple minutes each day just praying and asking God to work in your life, in your marriage, and in your family. If you sign up for the prayer challenge—the FamilyLife 30-Day Oneness Prayer Challenge—we will send you—either by e-mail, or by text, or through the My FamilyLife app—a prompt each day that will remind you to pray, and will give you a specific subject to pray about, and an assignment for what a husband can pray for / for what a wife can pray for—just a way to try to make it easy for you to accomplish this 30-day challenge.
We’re hoping that there will be tens of thousands of FamilyLife Today listeners who will take the month of September and say, “We’re going to pray together, as a couple.”
You can sign up for the 30-Day Oneness Prayer Challenge, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Again, click the link that says, “GO DEEPER.”
If you can help support FamilyLife Today with a donation today, we would like to express our thanks by sending you a book by Dennis and Barbara Rainey on the subject of prayer called Two Hearts Praying as One. It’s our gift to you when you help with a fiscal yearend contribution. We’re about to wrap up the books on fiscal 2015 / we’ll start a new fiscal year in September. We’re hoping to end this month in a very healthy place, financially.
Would you consider, today, making a donation? Again, at FamilyLifeToday.com—click the link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen that says, “I care.” You can make an online donation, and you can sign up for the Oneness Prayer Challenge there as well. Or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY—make your donation over the phone.
Or you can mail your donation to us at FamilyLife Today, PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR. And our zip code is 72223.
Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about the connectedness between prayer and self-discipline. Do you have to be good at self-discipline to be good at prayer? We’re going to talk more about that tomorrow. Hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with help from Mark Ramey. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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