In a world divided along so many lines there are somethings that show our common humanity. When humans are in a state of crisis or in extreme danger the common instinctive response is to cry out for help, to pray. We send a signal into the world hoping that somehow, somewhere there is someone listening. In one of my earliest posts I described the god a person worships is essentially the one who can save them. The most basic prayer is a cry for help, a cry for salvation. Simultaneously that same god should be the one if you fell into trouble with him, no one else should be able to rescue you. He should be powerful enough to deliver you and so powerful no one can deliver you from him. Your ultimate saviour should be your ultimate fear. This means you have absolute trust in him that he will never let you go once you have committed your life to him.
The act of prayer, like anything we do in approaching God, is a fearful thing. We are taking our lives before a power we cannot control. God’s love and care for us does not negate his power and justice. Particularly in my tradition, I find it worrying how sometimes people treat prayer and other spiritual activities with such a cavalier attitude.
To be honest prayer frightens me. It scares me because of what it does to me. In the absolute solitude of prayer, as I open my mouth to give my maker my petition, I become painfully aware of who I am. When you pray you are saying what you want. You, as an individual, are saying ‘this is what I want’ to the one who is truly able to answer your deepest desire. What then comes out of your mouth is the bare reflection of who you are, what your core aspirations are, what makes you tick. It is in that moment above all others, you really listen and hear yourself speak. You are transparent before God and you suddenly realise that is how he sees you all the time.
As much as prayer is addressing God, it’s also an honest assessment of the self. Prayer and reflection go together. In Psalm 19 David begins by talking about the glory of God and the purity of his word. He then expresses his heart desire to live up to the law of God’s word, that he should purify him by his word and change him to reflect his glory. He ends by saying this,
Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. – Psalm 19:12-14 ESV
David goes through this self-assessment and purification as he prays. This kind of prayer happens in solitude. It also happens when you do not rush the experience. If you are uttering a constant stream of words you won’t have time to properly think over what you are saying before the Almighty. This understanding also contradicts a popular thing we like to say that prayer is a dialogue.
Don’t get me wrong. Prayer is communication but it is not really speaking to God. As far as the English language goes speaking implies conversation. The word prayer basically means to ask, to petition. God answering prayer is a response to the petition but it is not a part of the actual petition. Prayer is not a dialogue but a monologue. When we look throughout the scriptures at prayer we will find no instance where prayer is represented as a dialogue. God does answer prayer, and he does so in different ways at different times, but we should remember pray is approaching the King not a friendly chat.
As believers we have the privilege of a prayer answering God. Anytime we pray, we acknowledge the provision and sufficiency of our God. We are also saying he is present and available for his children. We admit that the greater one is the source of our strength and sustenance, and we cannot live without him. As such prayer should be regular part of our lives. The Bible is filled with prayers and in the Epistles we are encouraged many times to pray. When Paul says we should ‘pray without ceasing’ in 1 Thessalonians which I believe implies more than praying often.
When we explored liturgy in the early Church we remarked it was based on Jewish forms and practices but reworked around the Messiah in the spirit. Jewish people had their own well-developed liturgy with particular prayers. At least we know they prayed three times a day, even when they were in exile like the prophet Daniel faithfully did. I believe the early Church continued with such practices albeit modified in the name of the Messiah. For instance in Acts we find that they used to meet at the temple at the hours of prayer (Acts 3:1.) Unfortunately in the Church today on a large scale we do not have that practice, particularly in Protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal/Charismatic circles. Christians are not particularly known for their prayer habits.
I believe there is a lot of merit in developing a Bible shaped liturgy since it can serve as a powerful identity marker for the Christian community. Imagine Christians all over the world had particular times in the day they prayed. That would mean at every single hour, all over the world, we would find believers in prayer. We would have that common sense of identity as one people in the Messiah. Also it would be a powerful statement to the world about who we are as believers and the God we serve. Where we are now we probably cannot have common liturgical form because of our great love of denominationalism. Individual churches and denominations should at least try and develop something that will suit their own traditions if they don’t have one already. Even at the personal level developing your own scriptural prayer liturgy would be immensely beneficial.
Scripture shaped prayer looks very different from a self-shaped prayer. The most common prayer we do is supplication, asking God to do something for us. The scriptures do encourage us to pray such kind of prayers but we tend to become preoccupied with ourselves and this worldly needs. When you look through the Bible we find diverse types of prayer from laments to simply confessing who God is. We need to have that biblical range and depth in our prayers.
Praying according to the Bible is more than reading certain passages that address your situation. Most times when believers pray that way we cherry pick and we forget to properly exegete the passage first. The way they prayed was according to a particular worldview narrative about God, his people, and the past, present and future of their covenant relationship. For example Dr Jeffrey B. Gibson reminds us in his book The Disciples’ Prayer when Jesus taught his disciples to pray it was according to the narrative of Israel’s story. When Jesus’ spoke about God’s will being done on earth, daily bread, and leading them out of temptation he was referencing the story of the Exodus. The daily manna in response to their disobedience, the other temptations that led many of them to perish, and God’s promise to make them his kingdom people (Exodus 19:3-6) were the obvious events he was referencing. The prayer was very reminiscent of Psalm 78 and other psalms.
We must remember that even though they were in the Promised Land first century Jews did not believe the promises had been fully fulfilled. They were still slaves to a foreign power. A prayer for God’s kingdom to be established on earth, that their divine father would rescue his children once more and rule among them encompassed the national, theological and political aims of Israel. Jesus in his own mission as we mentioned in other posts preached the new exodus prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea had spoken about. The disciples’ prayer was really a plea for God to have mercy on his people and to finally fulfil all his covenant promises to them.
Jesus shows us how to pray as much as he showed his disciples. He teaches us to pray the story of God’s word. In the prayer you acknowledge your heritage as a member of God’s covenant people, that we are a part of an on-going story. Prayer is meant to represent and promote our common faith. There is more than enough room in this type of prayer to ask for our worldly needs. Jesus reminded them they didn’t need to prattle on like the pagans, anxious over their material needs because the maker of the heavens was their faithful covenant God. He would take care of his own that he had chosen in the world.
When we look at the prayers of Paul in we find they too are also not self-occupied and materialistic but covenant-story shaped. For instance in Ephesians 1 he says,
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. – Ephesians 1:15-21 ESV
In this prayer is a mini narration of the Gospel, that is, Jesus has been raised from the dead being made lord of all. He prays for the Spirit symbolised as Wisdom, an allusion to Proverbs and other wisdom literature popular at that time, to help them better understand the message that they are now bona fide members of God’s family with a lasting inheritance. (He further elaborates how Jew and Gentile are one family in the Messiah in the next chapter.)
There are greater treasures of prayer hidden in the scriptures. The Bible needs to become our go to prayer book as we carefully reflect on him and what he wants us to do. It is my prayer that like the Son of Man we shall say, not my will but yours be done.