Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The temptation of prayer. . .

I grew up amid the catch phrases about prayer that today make me uneasy.  Prayer changes things. . . Don't underestimate the power of prayer. . . Time spent in prayer is never wasted. . . Prayer connects us to God. . . Don't pray for that for which you are not also willing to work. . . God does nothing except respond to the prayer of the believer. . . 7 days without prayer makes one weak. . .etc. . .  Various authors, similar sentiments!

What seemed at first to encourage earnest prayer I now believe distorts what prayer is.  As I have written before, a church without sacraments (can there really be one?!) must turn prayer into a sacrament -- a means by which they know God's presence and direct Him to do what they desire.  

There are many Lutheran books on the Word of God, on the Sacraments (though fewer), but very few indeed on prayer.  Perhaps the standard work is by Ole Hallesby (1879-1961) entitled simply "Prayer."  Many of them are from the pietistic side of Lutheranism (which does not mean to diminish them but does direct us to their context nonetheless). 

Hallesby is still available on reprint and worth the price.  He does well to remind us that prayer is not sacramental -- it is not a pipeline to God such to direct the Lord to do what we purpose Him.  Instead, he does well to remind us that the purpose of prayer is not to command "God to do our bidding but for us to do God's bidding."  Prayer may not change things at all but it changes us before such things for which we pray.  The act prayer is an act of faith, confidence in the good and gracious will of God which is not our recourse after all other options have been pursued but our first and constant refuge. 

I had a member once who complained about the public intercessions.  He said he was no longer going to supply names for the prayer list because when I prayed for them I hedged my bets by praying either according to Thy will  or not our will but Thy will be done.  His complaint was that this gave God an out to ignore the purposeful will of His people and do whatever He pleased and that this rendered prayer impotent.  My response was that prayers to direct the Lord to do our will were the most impotent prayers of all and that the most powerful prayer we can pray is what we learned of Jesus in the Garden (Thy will be done) and what He indeed has bidden us to pray in the Our Father.

Absent sacramental presence, the absence of God must be filled.  Since many Christians see the Scriptures themselves as a book of facts designed for the intellect instead of a living voice of God through which the Spirit does His bidding, a word must be invented which does connect one to God.  Without the means of grace that Christ has given us, we must take something and redirect it to become a means of grace.  Thus we have come to understand prayer as the manipulation of the Divine will and purpose as if grace were in short supply and God must dispense it sparingly or as if God could not be trusted to have our best interest at heart.  The wrangling with the will of God has become the conversation of prayer, convincing God against His own instinct to grant us what we know to be best for us and for those for whom we pray.  So conditions are arranged to provide a checklist to make sure the prayer of a righteous man will avail much -- since it won't without hitting all cylinders of trust, confidence, obedience, and a clear conscience!

Hallesby got it exactly right.  We do NOT pray to get God to do our bidding but for us to do His bidding.  Even more, for us to be at peace with His good and gracious will to hinder all things against us and our salvation and to prosper all that will sustain us in His grace to everlasting life.  So it is good for us not simply to pray our needs but to pray what God has promised (at least so that we remember this in our time of doubt, fear, or terror and that these promises may comfort us as we open our hearts to the Lord). 

Honestly, we often operate as if God were an ogre who was working against us and would only reluctantly give to us what He Himself has promised.  It is as if we neither believe His grace is sufficient or in sufficient quantity for us to depend upon that grace entirely.  So we depend upon our works, upon the right formula for praying, upon the agreement of many praying the same thing, or upon our ability to negotiate from God the very thing He does not want to give (grace).  How sad it is that prayer in this way becomes a false comfort to us and no comfort at all at the same time!  How great are the gifts of God that He has well supplied us with the Gospel and the Sacraments to comfort us in our need, assure us of His gracious favor, and sustain us in the hour of trial.  For these bid our hearts release and our voices to ascend with the wants and desires of our hearts, most chiefly from baptism and faith, to trust in His good and gracious will.  Amen.


David Gray said...

C.S. Lewis observed that prayer didn't change God, it changed Lewis. And he wasn't even Lutheran!

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Prayer is needful in the lives of every Christian. Prayers can be very simple, not formal and long winded. We bring our feelings and hopes, our concerns, needs, and aspirations to the "will" of God, knowing He reserves the sovereign right to answer or deny our petitions, yet we know He loves us and will act mercifully. I pray for little things, like asking God to help me when my car is about to stall, when I am engaged in a maintenance project and am stumbling, when faced with temptation, when counting blessings, for my wife and adult children, for our country, and so forth. Most of all, our prayers should be thankful to a loving Lord whom we will someday see face to face in glory.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I looked for the O. Hallesby book, Prayer, and found that it can be downloaded as a PDF for free here: http://www.prayermeetings.org/files/P_Prayer_O_Hallesby.pdf