At our weekly Bible study yesterday evening we began what is intended to be a series of meetings looking at the practice and understanding of prayer in the Christian tradition using written prayers from its various periods and strands along with passages reflecting on what prayer is or was thought to be. We began with a selection of Old Testament “prayers” (excluding the Psalms and using a fairly wide definition of prayer).
- Abraham’s plea on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis 18;
- David’s response to God’s promise that his descendants would sit on the throne in Jerusalem forever from 2 Samuel 7;
- Solomon’s appeal for wisdom in 1 Kings 3;
- Nehemiah’s prayer for success in his meeting with King Artaxerxes of Persia to ask for help in rebuilding Jerusalem (Neh 1)
- Job’s repentance of his defiance after God appears to him in the whirlwind (Job 42)
What I found fascinating is how much easier we find it to think about God and God’s nature than we do to pray. Our discussion of prayer was overshadowed and crowded out by a set of issues only indirectly related it:
- Do we believe God to be active in the world or do we believe that the course of events is independent of anything God wills or does not will?
- Do we believe that God is implicated in the suffering of the world by allowing or even causing it?
- Who or what do we think is named by the name “God” and in particular is the God we name the same God as the one named by Moslems, Jews or other religious believers?
- Does the Biblical text have any authority over or even relevance to contemporary people, including those who call themselves Christians and attend churches?
My own answers to these questions are predictable in minister of the Christian church who professes a faith bound by (my understanding of) the normative orthodoxy expressed in the confession of faith of the United Reformed Church (UK). I believe that God is active in the world, that the relationship between God’s will and the world’s ills is inseparable from human sin and God’s mission of salvation, that the one true God is the three-in-one, one-in-three Father, Son and Holy Spirit revealed in Christ and that the Biblical text is the highest authority over our life and faith.
That is, though, only the beginning of the discussion since how we should conceptualise all these matters is both complex and contested. If we had to answer any of these questions definitively before we could pray then there could be no prayer. Indeed I think that they are important only insofar as they act as barriers to prayer. Somebody who can’t answer any of them AT ALL but who can sincerely and prayerfully address themselves to God is in a much better place spiritually (which is to say has a much healthier relationship with God) than somebody who has sophisticated and well worked out answers to them all but is unable to find a way to come into God’s presence.
This is not to suggest that we wasted our time going round these matters again but rather to say that it is only worthwhile if it removes barriers that are preventing prayer. I sometimes worry that theology can be a form of prevarication, a way of delaying the dreaded moment when one comes face to face with God in the privacy of one’s own room (as Jesus recommends in his teaching on prayer during the Sermon on the Mount).
Prayer, it seems to me, is ultimately an admission of dependence and helplessness. We turn and appeal to God when we know ourselves inadequate or overwhelmed. This is not the only kind of prayer, of course, we offer praise and thanks and we offer almost routine pleas for blessing but in all of these we acknowledge a power beyond us towards which we can turn only an appeal, not an offer or a bargain.
Our unwillingness (or inability) to do this is the heart of sin and some of our discussion of theology expresses this as it finds reasons to delay and evade the simple act of saying: “Lord God, help me in my doubt, guide me in my uncertainty, comfort me in my suffering, soothe me in my anxiety. Lord, be gracious to me and bless me, in the name of Christ”.