We Christians are a praying people. Many of us pray as we go to sleep at night. Some bow their heads to say “grace” at meals. Many whisper one liners throughout the day at the onset of some less than pleasant experience. Maybe the holiest of us are the ones able to muster a prayer through sleep-crusted eyes as we moan and groan our way out of bed in the morning. Ask many, however, what prayer is and you’re bound to get a few different responses. Some of these responses will be complimentary, others mutually exclusive.
Some of us, myself included,struggle to understand prayer. Our present circumstances so easily change our views and practices. Sometimes the joys and the ‘easiness’ of life may make prayer seem like an unnecessary chore, something we do simply to be a good person. At other times our pain brings the necessity of prayer to the forefront of our minds, but our ability to pray in such moments seems thin. How is it that both extremes of joy and pain have a way of stifling prayer?
Possibly we’ve seen prayer only as asking for what we want. When asked we may not admit it, but in my experience, even if my theology says differently, I still pray for things. So when life is good, there is no real need that can be perceived, we don’t pray. Prayer in such a situation would seem like greed, would it not?
“God, thank you for all this stuff, but could you give me more?”
When life falls apart; when the threads that hold our existence together are broken at the weight of our pain, prayer seems empty. We know what we want, but we just can’t believe we will get it. The desire of our hearts is already gone, so how can we pray that what is not, comes into being again? At the very least, in times such as these, prayer can seem dishonest. When we lose all we’ve ever hoped for and our lives are utterly destroyed, prayers of praise and thankfulness seem more like masks than genuine representations of who we are.
It does seem, then, that both of these issues have their roots in a prayer that basically asks for things. When I have all I want I don’t need to ask for more. When all I have is taken from me, I don’t see how asking for it’s restoration will do me any good; it’s already gone.
But if prayer isn’t asking for things, what is it?
Prayer, biblically speaking, has much more to do with communion with God and with aligning ourselves to God’s self than it does with giving our wish-list to Santa Claus. In Matthew 6, the prayer that Jesus gave us to pray is based in the person of God (v. 9), seeks God’s kingdom and will (v. 10), and looks to restore broken relationships (v. 12). The only petitions are for daily sustenance (v.11) and protection from evil (v.13), and these two requests are rooted in our desire to seek God’s kingdom first. We need food and protection for the journey.
Prayer, in this form, reorients us into right standing with God. We seek what God wants, not what we want. We seek to put God’s kingdom into practice, not our own.
But I know the objection of many, because it is my own. What about when all hell breaks loose? When a prayer for protection from evil seems dishonest because all we see is evil’s hideous face? In the midst of tragedy, loss, pain, and anger, even this reorientation of prayer can be difficult to swallow.
That’s where lament enters the picture. Praying that God’s kingdom come, means that, at times, we realize that the brokenness of our world doesn’t always line up with the Kingdom Jesus set out to establish.
Prayer is more than praise and thanksgiving. Prayer is laying ourselves bare before God in communion. It’s letting God know where we are and how we feel. It’s saying that we’re still seeking God’s face even if we don’t feel like it. It’s saying we still have faith, even if our present circumstances don’t seem to merit it. It’s saying that we know that God desires something else, something better for us, and we’re just wondering where that is. Just listen to the Psalmist’s words:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
The Psalm does end with a statement of faith and reliance, but that faith and reliance mean nothing if at first I haven’t been honest in my lament before God. Prayer is sharing what we have on our hearts, it’s communicating and communing with God. At times that means we’ll ask for things. At other times it means we’ll cry. Sometimes we’ll shout for joy. Other times we’ll share our heart’s desires, but doubt that we’ll get to have them.
At the end of the day, prayer is my saying, “God, you are God and I am not. This is where I am, and I pray you will help your kingdom to come into my circumstances, whatever that may mean. Please take care of me and protect me; help me to be one with you and my fellow humans.”
That is what prayer should be. That is what we need prayer to be: less of a list, more of a relationship.
This blog is part of a series on the “Meanings” of Christianity. You can find other posts in this series here.