Signs of a Delusional Mind
These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
but why pray?
Admittedly, I don't pray very much - not for lack of trying, albeit I think I used to try harder - but I've never really been able to sit or kneel and simply pray. Throughout high school and much of university, I attempted to maintain a regular prayer life. Whether it was at my desk, in my reading chair, or at the side of my bed I tried to set aside a dedicated time to pray uninterrupted.
For the most part, I did fairly well; but it was never consistent and only came in bouts too few and far between.
I've always found it easier to send a few words to Adonai throughout the day, in my mind as I did something else with my hands. To give thinks, for example, as the feeling arose; to ask for patience, courage, or wisdom as circumstances changed and required it; to shout out in spiritual confusion or anger as the situations in life became seemingly bleak or overwhelming.
A few years ago, as my pastor and I prepared the topics for a catechism, we decided that devoting a few chapters to spiritual disciplines was theologically important. After all, a faith without deeds is dead.1 After some thought, we settled on what we felt to be three major and overarching disciplines: Bible Study, Prayer, and Service. Two of these were fairly straightforward: read your Bible, and do good to others. The other one, however, was not so easy - even if ostensibly it should be.
Prayer is important. There's no doubt about that. It's everywhere in the Scriptures - everyone from Abraham to Jesus prayed to Adonai, and Jesus is depicted as doing so rather frequently, often alone. But for something so ubiquitous, why is prayer so difficult for some and incomprehensible for others? Why should anybody bother to pray especially when we don't get an answer? What is prayer for anyway?
On one occasion, after Jesus had finished praying, the apostles asked of Him to teach them how to pray, so He gives them the famous prayer we know today by the name the Lord's Prayer.2 This same prayer, in a slightly more elaborate form, is recorded in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount as part of a section where Jesus is teaching about doing good works as well as spiritual deeds in not only humility but also in secret.3 Prayer, He says, is not something to flaunt and wave around like a magic wand, but instead is something to do sincerely and privately. It is something between you and Adonai.
Early Jews viewed prayer as somewhat devotional in nature - a conversation or encounter with Adonai, as demonstrated in the extreme by Abraham pleading for Sodom and Moses pleading for Isreal.4 Later, rabbis spoke of prayer through the concept of kavvana, meaning 'direction,' intention,' or inwardness, stating that prayer was more than merely words - it was an outpouring of the soul.5 Still, kavvana involved not only an understanding of the words spoken, but also an awareness of being in Adonai's presence, addressing the Blessed One Himself.
Thus, it seems, prayer is in the first place a communion between us and our Creator.
To be sure, the Hebrew word used for prayer is tefillah and can be literally translated as 'attachment.' In this way, prayer is an attempt and a striving at attaching ourselves to Adonai - it is an expression of our bond with our God. In prayer there exists only two, but it is two trying to become one. When we pray we are opening ourselves to Adonai, and it is at this point of vulnerability that we can allow Him to enter into us and therefore it is where we begin to conform ourselves to His Word.6 We are shaped according to His will - and we are stirred, changed, empowered and guided. It is through prayer that we keep 'in contact' with and attach ourselves to our God.
But tefillah has a double entendre, for it comes from the root that means 'to judge.' In this way, the kavvana, or inwardness, of prayer takes on a slightly different direction. Instead of an outpouring of the soul towards Adonai, the soul stands in a receptive stance before the Creator and Judge - and in so doing puts an emphasis on the altering nature of prayer.
If we look closely at The Lord's Prayer we see that each line is given in such a way that brings about a change of the prayer's heart. When we pray that Adonai forgives us as we forgive others, for instance, we are judged for not actually forgiving as freely as He who forgave us, and thereby calling us to first forgive in order to be forgiven. To pray for Adonai's kingdom to come judges our idolatrous and worldly allegiances, and thereby calling us to abandon them in exchange for submission to His lordship. To pray for His will to be done judges us for our selfish ambitions and egotistical whims of fancy, and thereby calling us to surrender our own wills to Him.
Thus, prayer is not only a communion, but it is also deeply engaging. Scripture shows us that when we genuinely encounter Adonai, we are for ever changed - and prayer is no exception. But what about prayers of petition and intercession - prayers that attempt to change our external realities? Prayers such as healing, for example, which are quite common? Or prayers for safety?
Does Adonai answer prayer?
I tend to believe, along with most, that Adonai does in fact intervene in history - and such a view is biblically based. However, to expect Him to answer every prayer immediately or obviously is presumptuous, and expecting Him to answer the way we think He should is even worse. I do believe prayer has power - the accounts of Abraham and Moses show us that Adonai listens to prayer. However, prayer is not always answered the way we would want it to for Adonai's purposes are much bigger than we can see or know. And sometimes life happens, not because our God can't stop it but because that's the way He structured the universe.
We're not meant to understand anyhow. We're meant to be outraged at sin and its effects and motivated to work towards its defeat alongside The Almighty, and in the power of the Messiah. We're meant to trust in The Almighty and abide in His promises. And prayer is a way of expressing that very trust - trust that Adonai is sovereign, that He does listen and empower us to be His people, that He does provide our daily bread, even if not literal food in our stomachs.
Prayer is 'our acceptance of the invitation to call upon Adonai in confidence'7 and trust that He will in fact make all things to good for those who love Him.
Prayer sustains our righteousness, declares our allegiance, and allows Adonai to change us, mold us, use us and thereby make us His. And so it is crucial to the life of the Jesus-follower - prayer is the lungs we use for each spiritual breath, breathing in our Creator and breathing out His grace. Prayer is a constant conversation we should not be without.
1. '[J]ust as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.' James 2:26 NRSV.
2. Luke 11:1-4.
3. Matthew 6:5-14.
4. Genesis 18:16-33 and Exodus 32:7-14, respectively.
5. Norman Solomon, Judaism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 71.
6. Hans Urs van Balthasar, Prayer, transl. Graham Harrison (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1986), 23-28.
7. Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 242.