A few years ago, on a warm June evening, I joined forces with about 30 guys for a hearty (and highly unskilled) game of church softball. After an hour of running, throwing, hitting, sliding, sweating, yelling, and eventually losing, we packed up our gear and paused for a postgame prayer. So we all dutifully stopped talking, bowed our heads, and closed our eyes as the team captain prayed.
As I tried to focus, I heard a gaggle of geese honking over our heads. The scent of freshly mown grass filled my nostrils. Maple leaves rustled in the breeze. Midway through the prayer, I cheated: I opened my eyes. After all, for 60 minutes our bodies had been immersed in “stuff”—dirt and grass and fresh air, aluminum bats and leather gloves, sights and sounds and smells. I wanted to pray the way I had just played, with my eyes wide open to the beauty all around me. But for some reason, the urge to look while praying seemed spiritually inappropriate.
Unfortunately, many of us have developed a distorted assumption about prayer. Namely, we tend to think of it as a “spiritual” experience. So no matter where you pray, never open your eyes, never touch or smell—just think good thoughts about God.
We don’t pray better by becoming more “spiritual”; we pray better by becoming more “physical.”
But from a biblical perspective, we don’t pray better by becoming more “spiritual”; we pray better by becoming more “physical.” As a matter of fact, praying with our eyes wide open to the “stuff” of God’s good creation can make our communication with Him come alive in ways we never imagined. Throughout the Bible, God more or less keeps telling us, “Look at that. Taste this. Smell this. Touch that. Move your body—clap, shout, sing, kneel.” Tasting and touching and smelling are not prayers in themselves, but when combined with an active trust and faith in God, they can deepen and enrich our prayer life.
Consider just a few of the Bible’s examples of praying with eyes wide open. After the flood, when God wanted to show His love for all of creation, He promised to establish His covenant with Noah and “every living creature” (Gen. 9:9-10). The covenant included a physical, open-your-eyes-and-look-at-that “sign of the covenant”—a rainbow.
A few chapters later, Genesis 15:5 says that God “took [Abraham] outside and said, ‘Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars . . . So shall your offspring be.’” At one point, Abraham responded to God’s promises with a physical gesture: he “planted a tamarisk tree at Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 21:33).
For the Passover, God instructed His people to paint the doorposts and lintel with lamb’s blood, roast the lamb over an open fire (imagine the smell!), and then eat it with side dishes of unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Ex. 12:7-9). In Joshua 4, after the Israelites had crossed the Jordan River, they were instructed to gather and make a pile of 12 stones as a sign or a memorial of God’s faithfulness and power.
Tasting and touching and smelling are not prayers in themselves, but when combined with an active trust and faith in God, they can deepen and enrich our prayer life.
Jesus also told us to pray with our eyes wide open. Based on His well-known teachings in Matthew 6, most Christians try to obey Jesus’ words about not having two masters (v. 24) and seeking first the kingdom of God (v. 33). But we tend to ignore two other clear commands in this passage: “Look at the birds of the air” and “Observe how the lilies of the field grow” (vv. 26-28, emphasis added). Jesus wasn’t implying that bird watching by itself constitutes prayer. His point was that observing God’s care for birds can nurture the trust that prompts us to cry “Abba, Father!”
Gazing at stars, planting trees, smelling a lamb cook over an open fire, watching birds and lilies—all of these prayer-nurturing activities aren’t just “spiritual”; they’re intensely physical. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things . . . to put the new life [of Jesus] into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”
Based on my experience as a pastor and a fellow prayer-struggler, here are some practical ways that I’m learning to pray with my eyes—and my ears, skin, nose, and taste buds—wide open in a way that deepens my prayer life.
Go outside. Sometimes improving your connection with the living God is that simple: go outside and pray. The Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry once commented, “The great visionary encounters [in the Bible] did not take place in temples but in sheep pastures, in the desert, in the wilderness, on mountains, on the shores of rivers and the sea . . . I don’t think it’s enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is . . . It is best read and understood outdoors.”
I’m learning to pray with my eyes—and my ears, skin, nose, and taste buds—wide open in a way that deepens my prayer life.
He’s right. Creation, the exodus, the giving of the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ teaching and miracles, the crucifixion and resurrection, the daring deeds of the early church—most of the important events in the Bible took place outside. Where did we get the idea that most of the good stuff in our spiritual lives has to occur indoors?
So go outside and pray. Read a portion of the Bible; then go for a long walk in the woods, and talk to God about what you just read. Sit under a sugar maple tree in autumn, and watch the leaves swirl and drop to the ground. Listen to birds sing. Get away to a park, an ocean, a river, or even your very ordinary back yard.
Move your body. This is an ancient and simple suggestion: Read the Psalms, and then go and do likewise. So when the psalmist says, “Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Ps. 95:6), try kneeling before God as you pray. The psalmist tells us to “shout joyfully ” (v. 1), “lift up [our] hands” (63:4), and “cry aloud . . . to the Lord” (142:1), which are good to do as well.
Obviously, not everyone can (or should) do all of these actions during a typical hour-long worship service. In fact, I’ve often excused myself from psalm-like movements or postures by appealing to my British-Minnesotan heritage. (“But, Lord, I’m kneeling and shouting to you in my heart,” I plead.) Yet maybe there’s a middle ground. For instance, try kneeling before the Lord in your private devotions. Or sit quietly in God’s presence with your palms open before the Lord. These are simple, quiet ways to get your whole self—your mind, your heart, and your body—involved in a prayer of devotion and surrender.
Touch others. When the apostle Paul wanted to pray for Timothy, he didn’t just wave from afar and yell, “Hey, Tim, been praying for you, man.” No, he reached out and touched his protégé as he prayed for him. So when Paul wanted to “kindle afresh the gift of God” within the young man, he reminded Timothy of how that gift got into him in the first place—“through the laying on of . . . hands” (2 Tim. 1:6).
Of course God doesn’t need our hands, but on some occasions He uses human touch in the process of imparting His power. C. S. Lewis had a point, considering how many times Scripture mentions “the laying on of hands” and Jesus touching people: God likes His creation, so He can work through whatever part of it He likes—even human hands.
Celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist—Christians use different names, but we all agree that Jesus “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19 niv). We can also agree that it’s not just an intellectual exercise. It involves real stuff—real bread (or a cracker), real grape juice (or wine). We eat and drink.
In a way, it’s so ordinary. Childlike, even. But maybe that’s the point. The 16th-century reformer John Calvin said that “because we are flesh” God has to “instruct us according to our dull capacities” so that as we celebrate Communion, God “leads us by the hand as tutors lead children.” This means that however your church views the Lord’s Supper, don’t just go through the motions; prepare for it, plan it, and celebrate it prayerfully—with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.
Of course, celebrating the Lord’s Supper—along with every other way of praying with our eyes wide open—doesn’t automatically produce prayer. But openness to God can surely precede, lead into, enhance, and deepen our prayer life. So expand on the psalmist’s exhortation, “Taste (and look at a rainbow, observe some flowers, smell a roasting lamb, raise your hands to God, plant a tree) and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).