(In The Life Of The Church)
Prayer, Pt. 5
A few months ago, I started writing a series of newsletters on prayer. At the beginning, I said that I would delay taking up the question of why one would pray at all until a later date.
It is now a later date.
But I really don’t have much to say about this.
Because, if I’m honest, this question is not interesting to me.
Don’t get me wrong—I spent years (YEARS) of my life spinning my wheels trying to theologically map out the mechanics of free will and prayer and divine providence, attempting to convince myself of whether or not prayer makes a difference in the world or to God. But at some point, I noticed that the twists and turns of that line of inquiry had little to no effect on my desire to pray.
On an existential level, there were things that I wanted to speak out loud—to shout into the universe. Things that made me happy or angry, things that I wanted to happen or to change. And insofar as I pushed down the impulse to express these things, the low-key preoccupation that I had with these desires more or less amounted to prayers whether I wanted to speak them or not.
And on a theological level, I was reading the Bible, finding time and again that God is portrayed as a dynamic, loving, compassionate Person, who is invested interpersonally with the minutiae of creatures and creation, and is interested in hearing prayers and responding to them—conversing, if you will.
With these two elements in mind, the question of whether or not my prayers get God to do things seems irrelevant. I’ve got stuff to say, and I’m going to say it. And if I acknowledge that God exists as a Person, I’m not going to give God the silent treatment when I don’t feel like God is doing what I ask. I’d much rather tell God how angry it makes me that things fell apart or how help never came.
This leads me to believe that the impulse I have to pray is about something besides making things happen or not happen.
The idea of prayer as conversation is pretty well obvious and/or trite at this point, but I want to take a closer look at it, because I think it is most often discussed as a format or mode of prayer, with the “why” of prayer still being to get God to do stuff. More and more, I’ve come to think of conversation as the purpose and function of prayer.
By that I mean, the thing that drives us to pray is the same drive that leads us to seek out connection with other people, just on a more fundamental, existential level—the drive to know and be Known.
I think about the economy of conversation in terms of expression and transformation. In expressing ourselves, we move toward being known (by both the other and ourselves). In listening, we come to know. And in coming to know, we are changed in some way.
Obviously, the conversational nature of prayer is different in some way from conversing with other people, but I think this structure holds. The primary difference is the listening is more of a posture of existence—a sort of contemplative openness or teachability. With or without words, the aim of coming to know and be Known remains.
And, yes, I do think that just as I am shaped by prayer, God is shaped in some way. I think this because it happens frequently in the Bible.
That doesn’t mean that I or you have control over God, just as a loved one doesn’t have control over us in conversation. But the words or requests of a loved one carry SOME influence, right?
Regardless, the function and purpose of prayer is not to influence God—carrying that expectation will leave you thoroughly disappointed in life, and the expectation of interpersonal control in any other context would be easily identified as unhealthy.
Anyway, that is more or less all the stuff I have to say about that.
I realize that I’ve really only talked about my experience (that’s really the only thing I know how to do). There’s a chance that someone reading this has experiences that contradict these, and for whom these thoughts are wholly unhelpful—people who don’t feel any drive to pray, or who really do want (or need) an answer to the why of prayer. If that’s you, send me an email (email@example.com)—I don’t know that I’ll have answers for you, but I’d be honored to listen to you, step into your experience, and look for an answer together.
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UBC Parishioner of the Week
Paul Jobson, for coaching the Lady Bears soccer team to a big 12 tournament championship followed up by their first ever elite high appearance. Thanks Paul, for being a winner, both on and off the field.
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