The other night a friend & I had a long conversation about prayer, and how weird it is when the challenge of your faith shifts: When it’s less about the fear that you’ll disappoint God, and more fear that God might disappoint you.

I’m not in that season right now. But I’ve been there. And I figure it will come again someday, because that’s how seasons work.

When you’re in those times, you realize that while it’s true that God delights in blessing us, He also has a larger mission going on, and we don’t necessarily know  our role. Faced with this reality, it’s tough to know how to pray…or if prayer even matters.

Early in my faith life (the Christian part), the main image I was given for prayer was this: that there are these bowls in heaven that receive our prayers. When the bowls are filled, an angel adds incense and some sort of heavenly power, and then POW! There’s an explosion and the angel pours the bowl out onto the earth in answer to our prayers.  It’s based on this passage from the Biblical book, Revelation. From this, it seemed easy to surmise that there was an order of magnitude for certain prayers: world peace required a bigger bowl than relief from seasonal allergies.

I LOVED having such a tangible picture. I went after the HUSBAND prayer bowl like it was my job.  And that prayer was answered rather directly (even though it felt like it took forever at the time).

But prayer has never worked that way for me since. In other ways, to be sure. But never the thing with the bowl. Recently, as I re-read that scene in Revelation, I realized that we’d taken that passage completely out of context. If you keep reading, the Bible doesn’t describe a flood of answered prayers flung throughout the earth. Rather, after the prayers and incense in the bowls, after the pouring out and the lightening/earthquake power, come seven trumpets that unleash, one by one, SEVEN HORRIFIC WOES, and the destruction of a good part of the world. Essentially, it’s the beginning of the end.

We prayed for this for years, dutifully filling up the bowls. Bless our (driven, results-oriented) clueless little hearts.

I’m not that into speculating about the end of the world, but it strikes me that the temptation to make God and prayer, and the realization of our dreams, seem attainable and manageable seems more like a lie than a blessing. But the truth is revealed, eventually, and we’re left to reckon with this counterfeit version of what a real relationship with God looks like.

That’s what my friend and I discussed. How the real thing is complicated. We disappoint, and are disappointed. We’re also blessed beyond measure and loved more than we could ever know.  It’s both/and, in the most frustrating way.

And that’s okay.

We pray on. We wing it. We talk to God like He’s our friend or boyfriend or some random person we met in an airport. Really, it depends on the day. I’m not sure what it means or how prayers do or don’t add up. But I’ve found that somehow, things are better when I engage God than when I shut Him out.

And yet I’ve also learned that it’s okay to take a break. To let your silence do the talking. God can handle that too, and it doesn’t mean we’re leaving some heavenly bowls half-filled.

This is the upside to there being no real system…it makes it possible for us to be real with God in every season.