1. There is no more outrageous and presumptuous idea than that we ought to be able to pray. Prayer is an impossible possibility. Prayer is miracle, prayer is resurrection from the dead. We pray not by nature but by grace. We are free to pray only as we are freed to pray. Only in Christ are we free: thus we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord.
2. Prayer, like play, is a completely useless activity, a total waste of time. To ask if prayer “works” is to reduce prayer to a mechanism and God to a utility, or, worse, to reduce prayer to a kind of magic and God to the Wizard of Oz. Eberhard Jüngel speaks of the “nonnecessity of God” (only the god of ontotheology is a necessary being; indispensability is not a predicate of the true God). God is not necessary, “God is more than necessary.” So, correspondingly, with prayer: prayer is not necessary, it is more than necessary.
3. We never begin to pray, we always enter prayer in medias res, prayer that has already begun before us and without us, the prayer of the church. We may pray alone, but we are never alone when we pray. Prayer is the end of the isolated ego: “Our Father …” A fortiori, what Wittgenstein says about thought goes for prayer: it is not a mental activity, something that goes on inside our heads, but a human action. Hence the importance of posture and gesture in prayer. And what is fasting but praying with your body?
4. Prayer is a risky, dangerous activity. The prie-dieu is
… a plank
to walk over seventy thousand fathoms,
as Kierkegaard would say, and far out
from the land.
(R. S. Thomas, “Balance”)
The experience of prayer is transformative. In prayer we are changed – and change is frightening and painful.
5. Even in private prayer goes public. Indeed prayer is the most political activity in which a Christian can engage. Political? Indeed revolutionary. “Thy kingdom come” is a call for the overthrow of all earthly governments. “To fold your hands in prayer is to begin an uprising against the world” (Karl Barth). Which is not an excuse for quietism. Augustine said, “Without God we cannot, without us God will not.” Ora et labora, insisted the Reformers. Prayer and ethics belong together.
6. It is nonsense to suggest that prayers of adoration trump prayers of petition. We are children of God. What would you think of your own child if she never pestered you for things? You would think, “What an obnoxious little goody-goody.” And we must be honest about what we want. In the film Bruce Almighty, Bruce (Jim Carrey) asks God (Morgan Freeman) how he’s doing as he prays for justice and peace. “Fine,” says God, “if you want to be Miss America. Now what do you really care about?” If we are honest with God about the small things, we can trust that he will lead us to the bigger things, especially the needs of others for whom we intercede.
7. With petition goes gratitude. What could speak more eloquently of our radical dependence on God than “Please” and “Thank you”? Yet prayer does not begin with the mouth, prayer begins with the eyes and ears. Prayer begins with attentiveness, with listening. Prayer begins with expectant waiting for a close encounter. Prayer is a date in which God makes the first move. “Surely some revelation is at hand” (W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”).
8. It is also nonsense to ask whether or not God answers prayer. The Father is the object of prayer, the Spirit is the subject of prayer, the Son is the predicate of prayer. How then can God not answer his own prayers? If God is silent, it is because he is listening – and thinking about his answer. And as for those answers, William Temple said, “When I pray, coincidences happen.” Or not. The problem of unanswered prayer does not arise for Jesus. Yet the answer to his prayer in Gethsemane is “No.” God is silent. This tells us something about prayer – and something about God.
9. Do you have arid times of prayer? Can’t focus? Overwhelmed by distractions? Join the club! But flailing around in choppy seas, and even going under, gasping in the deep – that too is prayer. There are no points for poise or polish. And wherever did we get the idiotic and disabling idea that prayer must be a richly rewarding experience? From the Psalms we learn that lament as well as praise, cursing as well as blessing, can be prayer.
10. Ultimately, the question of prayer is the question of God: What kind of God do you believe in? Or better: Who is your God?
Kim Fabricius, Propositions on Christian Theology: A Pilgrim Walks the Plank (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 2008), pp. 73-75.