For years I had the same perception of prayer. I would often experience fluctuations, and my belief was that when prayer felt good, it was good, and when prayer felt bad, it was bad. I am convinced that such labels are both unhelpful and incorrect. In all my study of sacred scripture and the saints, I have never heard such labels attached to prayer.  Although I would not recommend beating yourself up if you hold this opinion, I want to challenge your thinking a bit. Consider more carefully what you mean by prayer being “good” or “bad.”

Often, what we label as “bad” prayer is actually suffering. We experience suffering in our prayer, and our natural tendency is to avoid suffering and to embrace comfort. This tendency is not an altogether unhelpful way of sorting through our experiences. In many situations, it can be of real benefit as we consider what is nourishing and strengthening us as opposed to what is robbing us of our interior peace. However, our need for self-preservation must be balanced by the command of Jesus to take up our Cross. I often understand this as meaning that we must have the freedom to choose the good, true, and beautiful even when it causes us suffering. Our natural tendency towards comfort can prevent this.

As we grow in intimacy with Jesus Christ, we learn that prayer is always good. The only bad prayer is not praying at all. Along these lines, suffering in prayer has many root causes and takes time to navigate. In some instances, it can be a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. Particularly in the case of painful memories and trauma, when we learn to suffer in prayer, we can begin to experience healing and freedom. Other times, our suffering may be tied to poor decisions or our natural limitations.

Spiritual maturation means that instead of jumping to the label of our prayer being “bad,” we instead learn to explore and understand our suffering with a richer palate of expressions. We learn to identify the patterns of suffering and to invite Jesus into it. Thus, we can suffer intensely in prayer, but our prayer can still be good. In fact, at times it might be at its height when we our suffering because this might mean that we are finally facing some of the darker parts of our life.

With this in mind, I invite you to get rid of the phrase “bad” from your descriptions of your prayer life. Try to avoid attaching this unhelpful and imprecise label to your experience.