Sunday, February 12, 2017

The appeal of prayer. . .

Prayer is a wonderful gift but used wrongly it is actually a curse.  I have written before of those churches without sacraments and of the temptation to turn prayer into a sacrament.  That is not the only temptation.  Though prayer is to proceed from confidence in God's grace, the truth is that some of our prayers proceed from just the opposite.  We have no confidence in God's grace so we must attempt to manipulate, direct, and control Him.  Without the assurance that God knows what is best for us and without confidence that God will do what is best, prayer is like wrangling a reluctant God into giving to us what we want but what He does not want to give.

It shows up in what we pray, what we say.  It seems spiritual maturity to think that the Our Father that our Lord taught us is a nice enough prayer but it cannot possibly cover all the bases of what we think we need, what we want, and how to get God to deliver these things to us.  Yet the opposite is true.  The Our Father is not some child's prayer which we will grow out of and be able to pray better on our own.  No indeed.  The Our Father is both starting point and ending point in prayer.  We pray it both to learn what it is what we need, what we ought to want, and how we know that God will deliver this to us according to His promise AND to pray what we have learned.  In the same way, the simple prayer "Lord, have mercy" is much more profound and has great depth even though our human wisdom seems to think simplistic.

We presume that spiritual maturity leads us past the "simple" words of Jesus and allows us to pray our own, deeper words.  We presume that the Our Father is a good starting point but once we attain a certain level of spiritual maturity we grow beyond the Lord's words and grow into our own.  What an arrogant presumption!

I recall once being asked by a person involved in the Charismatic Movement if I did not want to know more, to attain a deeper level of maturity, if I did not believe that there was something more than what I knew, if I did not want to communicate directly with God, spirit to Spirit.  In my youth I knew instinctively of the dangerous desire to go beyond what God Himself had provided.  It was not wisdom but good catechesis that led me to say "no" to the prospect of moving beyond the Word of God and the Sacraments and into some mysterious level of spiritual reality.  Now about 36 years later, I see the wisdom of denying and rejecting what appeared to be spiritual immaturity to those who wanted to explore beyond the seemingly rudimentary means of grace.  The same is true of prayer.

It may seem the mark of spiritual maturity to pray on a deeper, more mature level than the Our Father but this is the deceptive voice of the sinful self still presuming to know better than God.  We dare not follow this voice or we will be led from the rich and lush garden of God's promises in Word and Sacrament into the desert of idolatry and pride.  Of course we can and should pray other prayers in addition to the Our Father but the Our Father is font and source of these prayers.  In addition, these prayers always lead us back to what Jesus taught us to pray.  The line in that priceless treasure that stands out in this regard is "Thy will be done."  Just as we pray as Jesus taught, in the faith that leads us to believe, trust, and count on God's good and gracious will, so do our prayers strengthen our conviction that God's good and gracious will is all we need.  We are not settling for anything when we pray as Jesus taught but we are expressing as best we are able on earth the fullness of the divine confidence we see expressed in everything Jesus said and did -- right up to His death once for all on the cross.

Do not get caught up in the appearance of spiritual maturity which is, in reality, immaturity.  The Our Father is both where we start and where we return.  To pray as Jesus taught is not simply to mouth the words He said but to believe those words with all our heart, body, mind, and strength.  As we pray the Spirit works to lead us to the place where Jesus is, to full confidence in the good and gracious will of our Father in heave.  Do not be intimidated.  Prayer is not a riddle.  Neither is prayer a ladder to ascend.  It is simply faith at work.

11 comments:

Unknown said...

With all the possible evils lurking in prayer, maybe it is best no to pray at all?
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

ErnestO said...

Jesus spent no time teaching the disciples how to preach, but he did with great care tell and show them how to pray.

Blessed today with the Holy Spirit one can participate in the continuance of our Lords work via intercessory prayer.

I read Gods word and He speaks to me, I pray and He hears me.

In Christ
ErnestO

Lutheran Lurker said...

George, I don't think Pastor Peters is saying that at all. I think he is saying the prayer ought to defined by faith and not by human wisdom which might think the Lord's Prayer a child's prayer or something to get past on your way to something deeper.

Ernest, did not the Lord spend more time talking about their witness than he did actually teaching them to pray (which, in reality, our Lord did not so much teach them about prayer in general but one specific prayer). In any case, the words here are a good reminder that the eloquence of someone's words are not what makes prayer so blessed but the faith that prays (especially Thy will be done).

Unknown said...

Did anyone really think that I advocate not praying? Having read what must be a complete list of all the things we allegedly do wrong when we pray, it was the only comment I could make while trying to control my rage.
It turns out, prayer is simply faith at work. Faith which we receive as a gift from God in Baptism. In Baptism we also receive the Holy Spirit as a gift, and this Spirit, when we cannot think of adequate words, finds the words for us. We do not pray out of human wisdom, because, as St. Paul tells us, we are of the Spirit, Romans 8: 9 “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. 12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Would it not have been better to refer to Romans 8:26, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans,” than to give us the complete litany of evils we can fall into if we are not careful when we pray? Now, maybe the Spirit should watch Himself with those “wordless groans.” I am sure something can be said against them.
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

Ask a pastor and he will tell you that people wonder all the time why their prayers are not answered, why God does not seem to listen to them, or what kind of words will get their prayers answered. It is human nature. How often I have heard folks suggest that praying the Our Father is child's play and how they have equated "real" prayer with formulaic prayers too often borrowed from non-Lutherans (think here the prayer of Jabez craze). All I was trying to suggest that the Our Father is not some prayer we settle for when we can't think of something better to pray. It is the prayer that teaches us to pray and what prayer is (most especially with the petition "Thy will be done." Also, this was not a definitive study of prayer but a reflection on the commonly asked questions pastors hear and the misconceptions about the Our Father. Prayer IS faith at work -- I think I did say that -- and faith means trusting the good and gracious will of God. I believe that no prayer does a better job of placing our desires and faith within the framework of God's good and gracious will than the Our Father.

Unknown said...

That first sentence did it for me, “Prayer is a wonderful gift but used wrongly it is actually a curse.” That same paragraph contained half a dozen ways in which “we” pray wrongly. Moreover, these wrong prayers have been prayed by most of us at some time or other. Therefore, we are cursed. I know you did not mean it that way, but that is how the guilt- ridden layperson will understand it, because he is used to coming to church and hearing how bad he is.
Indeed the Lord’s Prayer is the “Prayer of Prayers.” I learned to pray it as a seven year old, sitting in a basement, while day after day bombs shook the house and brought down those of our neighbors. I kept repeating it over and over again. Was that a prayer from faith? No, it was a prayer from sheer terror! Did God hear that prayer and did He curse me? No, He forgave my lack of faith and my fear, and brought me safely to this day, more than seventy years later.
Does God expect perfect prayer from us? If He did, there would be not need to save us, no need to place us in His Kingdom where the Holy Spirit will keep and preserve us in the faith. Throughout our lifetimes He will guide and teach us, through parents, friends, teachers, pastors, reading of the Word, and participation in the Eucharist, until, at the end of our lives, our prayers are possibly a little better than when we were children. 2 Chronicles 6:21, “21 Hear the supplications of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place; and when you hear, forgive.”
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

Yes, George, curse did not mean accursed but there is a deep and abiding sense in which prayer, used wrongly, does not encourage or uplift the faithful but begs doubt and presumption. I am not so sure there are that many laity left who come to church and hear how bad they are. For the vast majority of Christians in America, sin is hardly mentioned and prayer is a tool used to get what you want and desire from God. Lutherans may not be part of this, but our people do listen to the same public preaching and teaching and read the same popular books and they begin to think that perhaps the reason they have not gotten what they wanted from God is that they have not prayed with the right form, confidently enough, or "from the spirit." I know. I hear things like this all the time. Claim the promise and pray the blessing. It is a far different thing to say that God hears and answers the prayers we pray in frailty and to say that God hears and answers the prayers we pray attempting to connive from Him what we want, making sure that we leave as little as possible to God's will.

Pastor Peters said...

PS I should have said Protestant and Evangelical Christians in America...

Unknown said...

Pastor Peters: when you write, “I am not so sure there are that many laity left who come to church and hear how bad they are,” you miss the point I wanted to make. They do not come, because they want to hear how bad they are, but this is what is done to them in Lutheran churches. We hold to the belief that the Gospel must predominate in teaching, but this is not what is happening. Your posting is a prima facie example of that. How much of it is what we do wrong, what we should do, and how much of it gives the consolation of the Gospel to people who do not think their prayers have been answered? Have you ever heard a Lutheran pastor’s sermon criticized because there is too much Law in it? Does not happen. But put in a little too much Gospel and you will inevitably hear the words, “gospel reductionism”, and “antinomianism.”
Pease and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

George,
"this is what is done to them in Lutheran churches" -- I maintain that this is NOT what is done to them in Lutheran churches. We do not preach the Law as Luther did. We skirt around difficult subjects and omit teaching on controverted topics. We speak the Law but in such general ways that it is easily blunted or deflected. Yes, I have heard Lutheran sermons criticized because there was too much Law in them. I have also heard criticisms of Lutheran sermons that wrongly distinguished Law and Gospel so that the Law did not accuse or direct and the Gospel became a new Law. I have yet to hear a criticism that there was too much Gospel. If you read Luther's sermons you find lots of Law -- both in the accusatory sense and in the sense of the 3rd use, directing the hearer on how them he or she shall live as a baptized child of God.

David Gray said...

"Always preach in such a way that if the people listening do not come to hate their sin, they will instead hate you." Martin Luther