Prayer is a problem for me, especially praying in public. It is so dangerous, too easy to say the right words but lack the cry! to God from one’s heart (Matt. 6:1, Luke 18:9-14). Personal prayer in my study is better, since there I can just let myself go and wrestle with God, and not worry so much about hypocrisy. But is my private prayer honest enough, truly godly (James 5:13-18), to have God actually hear my pleas?
I asked an atheist friend, “Do you ever pray?”
“No,” said my friend, “but sometimes when I am walking through the autumn colours, I thank the universe.”
Rather than feel self-righteous, I remembered a remark I heard from the famous French philosopher Jean Baudrillard at a York University, Toronto conference in 2002. After a brilliant lecture on how the “make-believe media” have disintegrated our reality, Baudrillard ended by saying half-sadly, half-wistfully, “There’s nobody left to thank.”
That’s really what my friend was saying. Such a basic, at-bottom empty loneliness is what every man and woman acknowledges who does not pray: We (can) (have to) take care of ourselves.
My personal history of prayer goes like this:
As a young person who had a rather fatalistic idea of providence and believed God had already predestined everything, I figured, why pray? It’s all set what happens any way.
The Heidelberg Catechism Q/A #116 says: you must pray to show God you are thankful. So I prayed purely thankful prayers for a while.
Can I not ask God for things I want too? Heidelberg Catechism Q/A #117 says, you can ask God for everything God says you can ask God for.
That’s where I have remained for some 80 years, searching the Scriptures for what I may ask God for, and it’s a lot.
But it still has felt restrictive. The Church prayer circle I participate in: our prayers are so proper, for so-and-so’s healing, for traveling mercies, for blessings on the worship service, for our missionaries’ safety, for government officials (in general), with genuine piety and thankfulness. But it seems to me so tepid! I’d like to know how to wrestle passionately with God as Jacob did that one night (Gen. 32:22-32), and not give up until the Lord came through with a specific blessing I deeply desire . . . that makes me limp (?).
When Rob Ford was the bad, over-weight incorrigible mayor of Toronto, I asked, “May I pray that one of God’s angels give Rob Ford a gall-bladder attack, to put him temporarily out of commission?”
Nobody gave me an answer.
Signposts of shalom
Recently I read a good little book about “The way to go about praying” (H.M. Miskotte, De Weg van het Gebed), which has helped me see how terribly necessary prayer is, and the surprising restorative gift praying can be for us creatures who are human. It is human to pray, and not just when you are scared to death in a Viet Nam foxhole. In fact, affirms Miskotte, “The Lord God rules the world through the prayers of God’s children.” If that be true! –
Then we who confess to be children of God had better learn how to pray first of all for your kingdom to come, Lord, on the earth as it has come in heaven (Matt. 6:9-10,33). We need to let go of the gimmie requests to God that we think will make our lives more pleasant (James 4:1-3). Our earnest prayers are even fake, says the Bible, if we do not stop violence and protect the defenceless around us (Isa. 1:15-17, Matt. 15:7-9). To pray words for Christ’s Rule of merciful justice to appear concretely must propel us to actual deeds in an effort to bring about those signposts of shalom. It is hypocritical to pray for something, and then sit back and wait to see what God will do.
Genuine prayer is not restful, I now believe, like meditation, but is taking up Christ’s fight against the senseless evil and demonic powers loose in the world that are locally at hand too (Eph. 6:12). Mature prayer will be grounded in thanksgiving for Jesus Christ’s victory over death, deeply aware of our own sinful short comings, marked by supplications couched in vows to serve in the Lord’s Name, and prone to move the laments and our petitions on to joyful shouts of “Hallelujah!” Christian prayer is as serious as exorcism.
But there is one amazing feature of genuine, mature, Christian prayer that flummoxes unbelievers, disbelievers and even many believers: the prayer is good when the crux of its request is childlike simple. “Daddy, I’m sorry for being impatient, but stuff hurts; please let your Son’s shalom filter in now like a gentle rain in the sunshine that brings rainbows” (Rev. 1:9).
“Abba,” “Daddy,” is the actual setting for biblical prayer (Mark 14:36, Rom. 8:15). Praying grown-ups become like little children who want to become hugging close to God as our Father. (If you did not have a good father and mother as I did, you will have to take some other older wise and loving, trustworthy person you can feel very close to, to feel this wonderful presence of Abba.) By “childlike simple” I do not mean “childishly selfish” and “simple-minded.” I mean, you simply take God at God’s Word, and persist like the widow (Luke 18:1-8; 11:5-13) in reminding the Lord of God’s promises.
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