A brief thought on prayer

by Richard on October 28, 2005

How and why should we pray? It seems to me that lots of Christians are beset with problems about their prayers. They wonder why they don’t get the answers they are looking for. They feel guilty because they’ve heard it suggested that the failure of their prayer is their own fault. They aren’t praying earnestly enough, they don’t have enough faith, their motives are unworthy. The “Prayer of Jabez” phenomenon is indicative of a belief in a “mechanical” approach to prayer - turn the handle the right number of times, at the correct speed and your desire will be met from the little slot at the bottom.

Our thinking about prayer is often focussed on results - what we will get as a result of our prayers. So you find books on “effective praying” which offer all kinds of hints and tips on the proper techniques. Using the right words, adopting the correct posture and repeating the procedure at the proper intervals will all (allegedly) play a part in twisting the Almighty’s arm and make sure he gives the right answer. Getting what you want is the outcome you want from prayer.

But all this is missing the point. Prayer is not a problem to be solved, nor is it a technique to be learned. Prayer is a relationship to be entered into. True friendships are not forged on the basis of what good the other will be able to do you. Friendships exist for their own sake. They are a good end in themselves. We do not pray to God because of what we expect him to do for us. We pray because of who he is, the eternal Father who loves us beyond our understanding and who longs for us to respond to him.

Being focussed on “technique” and “results” in prayer is all about being in control, clinging on to a sense of self-determination and pride. But at best, prayer is the opposite of those things for it means letting go of ourselves and acknowledging our weakness and helplessness. We come to God, not as skilled negotiators or clever bargainers. We come as little children to our daddy.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


Eugene McKinnon 10.29.05 at 3:47 pm

Your right Richard,

Prayer is about letting go. The technique and results books on prayer treat God like God is some pagan being who needs to be appeased with the right words or right rituals. I think Jesus taught prayer best by giving us the Lord’s Prayer in which it keeps it simple.


Kim Fabricius 10.31.05 at 6:39 pm

I am, in principle, in agreement with both Richard and Eugene on this one. Surely the end must be nigh! (By the way, Eugene, I await your reply to my critiques of your understanding of what it means to be “Reformed”!) That’s why my favourite definition of prayer is “wasting time with God”. In prayer, we are in the realm of play, not work; the point is the relationship itself, not any results.

But let me make a few awkward points that bother me, just to keep things honest. The first is graphically put by the finest adviser and commentator on the spiritual life I know, the late Father Herbert McCabe: “‘Pray and you’ll see the point of praying,’” he suggests, “is not as anything like as simple as ‘Taste lychees and you’ll see why people eat them’ because the whole point of eating lychees is that they taste nice, whereas the whole point of praying is not in the satisfactory experience of praying - at least I cannot believe it is. I do not usually find praying a deeply satisfying experience.” Well, do you?

Put it like this (continuing Richard’s parental analogy): the relationship between fathers and their children is never a simple one, rarely an easy one, and can sometimes be quite fraught. (Even our Lord prayed in agony in the garden and in dereliction on the cross.) We must be careful not to overplay the “Daddy” card (it is, of course, now widely accepted that Jeremias’ famous exegesis of “abba” was innacurate as well as twee). In short, shifting the essence of prayer from the result to the relationship doesn’t suddenly solve all our “problems” about prayer, for relationship itself can be problematic.

Secondly - petitionary prayer. (Eugene rightly cites the Lord’s Prayer as the paradigm.) For all the quite appropriate talk of prayer as a “letting go”, the fact remains that our Lord himself, in his teaching on prayer, talked primarily about “asking”, not about “being”, nor (primarily) about “thanking”. And asking not just for noble things like world peace, or the well-being of other people, but for quite material things (cf. Luther’s interpretation of “bread) - and for - me! Selfish? Of course! But only a prat of a child doesn’t ask his father for things for me, me, me. In fact, it has been accurately observed that what are often called prayer “distractions” are simply our real wants refusing to be repressed by high-minded concerns that haven’t really gripped our hearts and therefore obviously escape our attention. The point being: if the last thing prayer should be is a pretence, then let us start from where we are, self-centred as we are, not being backward in coming forward with what is really on our minds, and then trusting that the Father, through our ongoing prayer-life, will lead us to desire the more excellent things.

Finally, the so-called question of “unanswered” prayer. I say “so-called” because it is, in fact, a bogus question. Jesus himself did not entertain it for a minute. Why? Because it can only arise from a distorted understanding of what prayer is. It assumes that prayer is a human possibility. It is not. It assumes that prayer is something we start. We do not - prayer is something we are always joining in. Though let me restate that - the point is crucial: “we” do not pray, the Spirit prays in us. Almost all problems to do with petitionary prayer stem from forgetting this simple fact: it is not just God who answers prayer, it is God who does the asking to begin with. In fact, ultimately, all prayer is simply (!) participating in the one prayer of the Son to the Father in the Spirit, the prayer that is the Holy Trinity.

I confess that I can’t get my head around these claims, but they do seem to me to describe accurately the way things are with prayer.


Milton Stanley 11.03.05 at 2:12 pm

Right on, Richard. Prayer is not technique, not magic. I wrote about your post on my blog this morning. Peace.

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