What A Demon and A Muslim Taught Me About Prayer

Prayer is hard. I’m a pastor, and yet this doesn’t make prayer any easier. I feel like the unnamed disciple in Luke 11:1, asking Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray, just like John taught his disciples.” And Jesus certainly is the first person we should go to in learning how to pray. I’ve benefited immensely from daily recitations of the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13), as well as praying Jesus’ greatest commandment in Matthew 22:37-39 (a modification of the daily Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy 6:4-5). After Jesus, psalmists like David and Asaph, and the apostle Paul, have taught me much about prayer.
But recently, I’ve had a couple of unlikely teachers in this area: A demon and a Muslim man. Both characters are fictional, but that didn’t lessen their impact. I met the demon through a book, and the Muslim man, through a television show. The demon’s name is Screwtape, he’s a creation of C.S. Lewis in his book entitled: The Screwtape Letters. If you haven’t read it, Screwtape is a senior-level devil, training an inexperienced devil named Wormwood on the art of ruining lives and relationships with God and others. At one point, when talking about prayer, Screwtape stresses the need to keep people away from the practice, but that if they do pray, to keep it lazy: superficial, spontaneous, and just in their hearts. Screwtape says:
“One of their poets has recorded that he did not pray ‘with moving lips and bended knees’ but merely ‘composed his spirit to love’ and indulged ‘a sense of supplication’. That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s (God’s) service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for a long time. At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you might always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”
Screwtape wants Wormwood to tempt his patients to keep prayer relaxed, lethargic, and nonchalant, to keep their bodies out of it. I know that strategy has worked on me for years!
What about the Muslim man? In one television show, the man went into a mosque to pray. As he went through Islamic prayer practice, everything came together for me. I realized that he was modeling the very thing that Screwtape and Wormwood were trying to hide from Christians: Posture matters. Our bodies matter. Structure and repetition matters.
As a non-denominational Protestant with a (not so) secret interest in liturgical practices, I was mesmerized by the Islamic liturgy. I did some research. Committed Muslims pray five times a day: dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and night. Each time of prayer starts with standing, hands in the hair, and proclaiming: Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest). Soon afterward, they bow and recite three times: Subhana rabbiyal adheem (Glory be to my Lord Almighty). Eventually, they are completely prostrate on the ground, reciting three times: Subhana Rabbiyal A’ala (Glory be to my Lord, the Most High). This isn’t the entirety of what they do, but these steps, in particular, caught my attention and moved me.
It’s unfortunate that God had to use these fictional characters to teach me something that the Bible is filled with anyway. Psalm 95:6 says: “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.” Psalmists often use metaphors in their poetry, but these aren’t metaphors here! They are real positions of prayer and worship. While dedicating the new temple, King Solomon prayed on his knees with arms outstretched to God (1 Kings 8:54). Three times a day, Daniel prayed on his knees (Daniel 6:10). Jesus himself, in his darkest hour, prayed on his face in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39).
Could it be that our non-denominational church tradition struggles with prayer simply because we’re not doing it right? I can hear the objections; we’ve been taught that there are no rules with prayer: “just pray what’s on your heart, whenever you feel like it, however you want.” I think that’s true, but not the whole truth. I think our posture matters more than we believe. For example, if I’m in a conversation with someone, and they’re constantly looking at their phone, not making eye contact with me, or turned in another direction, the conversation’s not going to last long. In the same way, there is a helpful and historic way to pray where our body helps our mind and heart stay a little more focused and a little more reverent.
It can seem like there is little sense of awe, reverence, respect, and submission towards God in the churches that I’ve led and attended. If I’m even more honest, there is a huge lack of these things in ME (and my prayer life). While we probably have a good sense of the love of God, I think we have much room to grow in the fear of the Lord, especially since Proverbs says learning this healthy fear is the “beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Perhaps the Islamic posture towards God is one reason why record numbers of Muslims are bending their knees to Christ.
(It’s probably worth noting that Islamic culture is probably more open to “fear of the Lord” than the “love of the Lord,” whereas western culture is the opposite. Notwithstanding, we as Christians need both an understanding of God’s love, as well as that sense of reverence as we approach him in prayer. He is both “Our Father” and the one “who is in heaven.”)
Here’s what this has looked like in my life. I’m trying to get on my knees more when I pray. This is not because I am super spiritual. It’s because I’m not super spiritual. In my recliner, my thoughts wander and soon I’m thinking about Pita Pit or Arsenal’s miserable soccer season. But on my knees, there’s more of a focus, even a slight discomfort, reminding me who I am, and who God is. In times of musical worship, even when I’m not really feeling it, I sometimes extend my hands as a posture of reception. It’s like a child wanting to receive from his father. Posture matters.
In your own life, what have you learned about prayer posture? I would love to hear your own experiences in this area.