Editor’s Note: This article is the second installment in our five-part series on renewing storytellers’ souls. To learn why we’re doing this series and how we’re approaching the topics, read our introductory post.
Sometimes I worry that we spend more time talking to peers about the ins and outs of being a Christian writer than we do asking God to help us flourish at it.
Chatting about ourselves is easy—it’s one of our favorite hobbies as humans. And if the other person shares our interests, we can ramble back and forth for hours. But when we speak with our Heavenly Father, other concerns tend to crowd in. An ailing family member. A sin we need to overcome. A decision we’re not sure how to make. Prayer is the lifeline that keeps us afloat in the whitecaps. We have no doubts about that! But is it necessary to our writing?
From conversations I’ve had, I get the impression that many writers (myself included) misperceive the purpose of prayer in storytelling. And when we approach the foot of the throne with the wrong mindset, we deprive ourselves of the joy and contentment we could be experiencing. To restore the richness of our fellowship with God, we need to correct three bad habits.
Mistake #1: Rarely Praying about Writing
As I alluded to in my introduction, one of the worst mistakes is not praying about our writing at all! Perhaps we don’t bring it up out of forgetfulness or general sluggishness. Sometimes, however, we judge it as inconsequential compared to other matters we could be seeking guidance about. After all, if we were computer engineers or construction workers, would we be making a big deal about praying over our trade? I’ve heard people downplay the importance of applying a distinctly Christian perspective to writing according to that reasoning.
However, when our profession has the potential to influence the hearts and minds of others, our faith needs to play a more active role in it. Teaching, counseling, pastoring, and writing all fall into this category. Although an accountant’s service to his clients, for example, is no less meaningful, a writer has the unique responsibility of accurately depicting both humanity and divinity, which requires additional wisdom that can only come from above.
But how does prayer specifically benefit our writing? Famed southern author Flannery O’Connor remarked in her prayer journal that “I see my ridiculous self by degrees.” When we’re conversing with the One who formed us in the womb, we gain an awareness of ourselves that personality tests, new experiences, and even family members can’t give us. Timothy Keller agrees: “Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge” (Prayer, p. 18). This self-knowledge is essential for us as storytellers, because if we don’t understand our own inner life, how can we portray anyone else’s? When we’re striving to develop authentic characters, perhaps the most revolutionary tactic we can try isn’t filling out another questionnaire—it’s praying more!
Prayer, of course, has a higher function than acquiring self-knowledge. It also elevates our knowledge of God. Whether we’re targeting the Christian or secular market, every compelling story grapples with moral questions. Because virtue originates with God, we’ll fumble to push our characters toward the right answers without a clear conception of who He is and the redemption He’s accomplished through His Son. While Scripture offers us a plethora of insights into God’s nature, if we don’t (or infrequently) lift our thoughts to Him, our comprehension of His attributes will be deficient.
As famed Anglican bishop J. C. Ryle said in Do You Pray?: “A Christian never finds he is a loser, in the long run, by persevering in prayer.”
Mistake #2: Treating Prayer Like a Laundry List of Requests
In prayer, we’re often markedly attentive to our own wants and needs. So when we begin to include our writing, our first impulse may be to ask for solutions to our immediate problems, such as acing a certain character, recovering from writer’s block, or attracting the interest of our preferred publisher.
But when we pray like this, are we really trusting in God and submitting to His will? Or are we hoping to use Him to control our lives?
Sometimes our requests aren’t as propitious as our short-sighted human minds assume. If a literary agent had picked up my manuscript a couple years ago, I would have been ecstatic, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t have been ready for the pressure. And when I’ve wanted a shortcut to fleshing out a difficult character, I’ve later realized that I learned more about human behavior through research and observation.
When we’re constantly dumping a six-inch-thick index of petitions on God, we might be missing the point of prayer. The unknown author of this beautiful poem about the Apostle Paul conveys that truth better than I can:
He asked for strength that he might achieve;
he was made weak that he might obey.
He asked for health that he might do greater things;
he was given infirmity that he might do better things.
He asked for riches that he might be made happy;
he was given poverty that he might be wise.
He asked for power that he might have the praise of men;
he was given weakness that he might feel the need of God.
He asked for all things that he might enjoy life;
he was given life that he might enjoy all things.
He has received nothing that he asked for, but all that he hoped for.
His prayer is answered.
What if an ongoing conversation with God is more fulfilling than an instant yes? I’m not implying that He doesn’t care about our desires, or that laying them in His hands is unbiblical. But when we approach Him like a loved one and pour out our deepest fears, biggest dreams, and daily ups and downs, we may discover what we truly need, not just what we want.
Maybe, instead of getting published as quickly as possible, you need to focus on studying story craft before you have a slew of readers watching and critiquing your every move. Maybe, instead of perfectly executing an idea from the outset, you need to grow through the practice of identifying and repairing the plot holes so that your next project, the one that will most affect readers, is phenomenal.
Communion with God reminds us that His ways are greater than ours, and all of the blessings we receive while in His presence are far superior to any favors we might wish for.
Mistake #3: Viewing God as a Helper Instead of a Source
If I’m being honest, sometimes I activate prayer like a “final boost” when I’m nearing the end of a writing endeavor. Those thought patterns (if slightly exaggerated) go something like this: Sure, God can teach me how to depict human beings, the crowning jewel of His creation. But I can figure out most of the complexities myself. I just need Him to fill in the gaps. And sure, I need His help to catch an agent’s attention. But if I can whip up a zinger premise and build a solid platform, I’ll be halfway there.
On paper, the above assertions sound pretty silly, even arrogant. But how often do we subconsciously deflect the credit for our abilities and achievements onto ourselves?
As our Christian Storytellers Manifesto states, imagination is “a gift from God” that He benevolently directs. Even when we don’t reach out to Him during the writing process, we’re still relying on His strength. He doesn’t intervene at the last second and add finishing touches that transform our manuscripts from meh to amazing. He’s involved in every jot and tittle, from the plot to the characters to the prose, and in every stage, from brainstorming to writing to editing to querying.
Do we praise Him for all of that, or only the parts that we deem especially significant?
When we acknowledge God as the fountain of our creativity, we better glorify Him and stay humble. And when we recognize how much our writing cup overflows, our gratitude, and thus our happiness, will overflow as well.
Encouragement for Weary Sinners
Discussions on prayer can leave us feeling guilty about our failures to be as devout as we could be. But this article isn’t about heaping more burdens onto our backs, and we don’t worship a God who demands that we pray like saints before He begins to bless us like His children. Instead, He urges us to “come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Prayer is not a ticket to obtain writing success. It’s a haven alongside the road where we can unload our burdens, run into God’s embrace, and find comfort, peace, and contentment amid a mentally taxing vocation.
If this post has motivated you in your prayer and writing life, we’ve compiled twenty-eight different prayer starters into a downloadable PDF you can access below and implement over the next month. We’ve also opened a thread on our forum for anyone who’d appreciate the chance to partake of this challenge in conjunction with others.
When we pray more regularly over our writing, we begin to see that our confidence isn’t tied to winning a contest or our name appearing on a shiny cover. God is changing us through our stories so that someday, maybe tomorrow or maybe five years from now, we can inspire change in others. His works in us and through us are our assurance.
Rejoin us on Monday as Martin encourages writers to pursue personal growth before crafting character arcs. In the meantime, we’d love for you to share your perspective. How has prayer impacted your writing life?
Josiah DeGraaf is the Marketing Director of Story Embers. He loves helping Christian writers impact readers. As a reader, he loves epic fantasy stories with imaginative worldbuilding. And as a storyteller, he loves crafting fantasy stories about characters who face the same dilemmas we do when we try to do the right thing. You can download his illustrated short story collection for free to read about ordinary people who need to decide how far they’re willing to go to save lives when they’re gifted with supernatural powers.