Have you ever called a company for help and got someone who read a script or followed a guide? If so, you probably experienced someone who wasn’t really listening to what you were saying. They were forcing you into a script. Now, have you ever heard of ACTS? ACTS is the Christian version of a call center script.
ACTS is an acrostic designed to teach us to pray right, where right prayer is defined as: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Folks occasionally switch the letters around preferring, for example, to Confess before expressing Adoration (CATS). I was taught ACTS starting in my teen years and tried to use it to pray (literally) for decades. As the years turned and I slowly saw the fruit of my efforts, I began to see something else: ACTS is kinda evil.
The problem with ACTS is not that it’s unbiblical; it is absolutely biblical. The problem is that we’re not typically engaged in the conversation. We’re praying a script rather than our truth. This is understandable, of course. Our truth tends to be exceedingly messy, and ACTS makes prayer artificially neat and tidy, like those plastic flowers always in sterile bloom.
Eugene Peterson says that “we must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be.” (Answering God, HarperCollins, 1989; pg 100). This is essential truth, and I suggest the superior alternative to ACTS. Namely, just be yourself. Dare to tell God what’s really going on. If you do this, truthful prayers will come out of your mouth. Some will be quite raw, like Psalm 109, Psalm 137, Psalm 88, etc. Others will be stunningly beautiful. All will be genuine.
Misuse of ACTS is an example of what I call mechanical Christianity. Mechanical Christianity looks right but is robotic, disconnected, and ultimately lifeless. It’s like assembling a Frankenstein and expecting it to come to life because all the right components are in place. It just never works because we’re using willpower to animate the lifeless parts, and our willpower WILL eventually flag and fail because we’re trying to impose life from the outside in. To make matters worse, most of us think we actually failed God because we ‘didn’t pray hard enough’ or some other bogus reason. What a brutal lie! The Gospel is not about, I repeat, not about, willpower. Any “performance principal”, “meritocracy”, or similar will-powered, gut-it-out mentality is from us, not from God.
Organic Christianity, in contrast, has life happening to us; we just participate. It’s the truth hidden in plain sight: something bigger is always going on around us and we’re invited to see and join in. We are actually, dare I say, entrusted to join in and discover this Reality for ourselves. It’s a high and risky call. It’s about going through life and paying the price. It’s never about going around our problems, but going through them. Another way to say it is that it’s the inside->out route, rather than the outside->in route.
This is messy, but a wonderful, chaotic messy. It’s not “churchy.” And it’s not our Sunday Best. It’s merely what is, what’s real. As we choose to participate in this Reality, we inevitably become more real ourselves. We transition gradually, almost without awareness, from a belief-based relationship (the “script”), to an experienced-based relationship. The reward is grand: we become increasingly present to God, ourselves, and others; we are able to live questions we avoided before; and we get to experience a wild, free, and spacious life. Rules fall away.
How do we achieve this? Honest prayer. Honest prayer is the means, probably the only means, to make this journey. I suggest praying the Psalms to start, which Peterson calls the “gym of prayer.” He (and I) recommend five a day. In 30 days you’ll be finished with all 150 chapters (5 * 30 = 150). Lather, rinse, repeat. After awhile, your inner life will become deeply anchored in truth. You won’t know this primarily in your head. You’ll know it in your heart, in your gut, which is almost unbelievable because you cannot rationally say why you’ve become secure. You’ll just know it’s been done to you, as in you’re being held, securely, from the inside out, in a way that you can barely discern but know for certain. It really is unbelievable AND doesn’t go away. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. Trust me on this.
You may wish to get that book I referred to above. It launched me into reading the Psalms for almost three straight years, and helped me risk being honest instead of merely performing. I personally wouldn’t have done it without Peterson’s book.
In closing, let me address ACTS one more time. Are there times when praying it is true? ABSOLUTELY. But it’s only sometimes, and you’ll know when it’s true. “Doing it right” is never more important than honesty. Trust yourself, and don’t listen to any folks that say God only wants to hear ACTS prayers. They’re bad teachers and their god is not God. At least, not a god you want!