Lent Course 2009: Prayers for Lovers

Adoration, Contrition & Thanksgiving

Let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.

Hebrews 12.18

Repent and be baptised

Acts 2.38

Come before him with thanks

Psalm 95.2

As we noted in the Introduction, a healthy, growing and deepening relationship requires a balance of expression: it would not last if we never apologised to, praised or thanked the beloved, just as it would not thrive if we spent all our time asking for favours.

1. Prayer and The Trinity

The central mystery of Christianity is that God has three attributes or 'persons' but is indivisible. What we 'say' to one 'person' we say to all but it might be helpful for the purposes of organising our thoughts to respectively associate adoration with The Father, contrition with The Son and thanksgiving with The Holy Spirit.

2. Adoration

Remembering that we pray to God through Jesus, our fundamental purpose for being is to choose as creatures to adore our Creator. Naturally caught up in the concrete presence of Jesus, we sometimes forget that aspect of the Godhead which we call "Father" or "Creator" but without that loving impetus there would be nothing else.

Christianity has not had a great deal of difficulty with understanding creation as a mystery (not a contradiction) but it has wrestled to very little effect with the mechanics which is why we sometimes find the ideas associated with creation so difficult. In the first place, we find it difficult to grapple with ideas about time and timelessness: that God is outside time but that the aspect of God which is Jesus is both out of time and in it. Secondly, we have problems with the idea of intention, with why God did it. Thirdly, there is a long tradition of friction between Christianity's account of creation and that of science. Finally, and in a sense summing up all these points, we naturally ask our questions from our point of view - why did God do this or that? - rather than from God's point of view.

In spite of these complexities, adoration should be simple; that is, it should not be clouded by issues of motive and outcome, by how we feel about where we are and what we are doing.

We should start with the simple difference between the Creator and ourselves as created. Regardless of our relative position to other human beings, our initial impulse should be to acknowledge the difference and what that involves. Some Christians have tended towards adoration out of fear, understanding that God has power to affect their earthly and salvific prospects (note how many prayers begin with the expression: "Almighty God") but to consider God in these terms is, again, to make him behave as we would behave. Of course, a priori, God could act in any way he pleases, whether there was a physical world over which to exercise power or not, but the important element of creation is our freedom to act. Our acknowledgment in adoring God, then, is to recognise the comparative status which engenders our obligation to adore. Unlike human power relationships, this act is not demeaning but is, rather exalting; in adoring God we raise our own spiritual 'status'.

It then follows that we see all of humanity in the same exalted position as ourselves, having been created out of love to love. Often we are so involved in the other three elements of ACTS - thanking God for what we have, asking God for things we want, apologising for falling short - that we forget the sheer magnitude of the enterprise in which we are involved whose basis is adoration. If we lose sight of the relative positions of Creator and created we leave ourselves open to all kinds of misapprehensions about ourselves, our freedom and power, our purposes and our merits. If our besetting fault is pride then this results from a lack of adoration. Conversely, true humility does not involve under-estimating ourselves as created but in under-estimating the 'distance' between God and ourselves or failing to recognise that what we have is gift not right. 

3. Contrition

There is a profound paradox in the precept that we should imitate Jesus because at one level, knowing him through the Gospels, we have a much clearer picture of our obligations to God than we would have had Jesus not come to live among us, but at another level we know we are bound to fail because we are not Jesus.

In considering contrition it is vital that we understand what we are being sorry for. We cannot be sorry for our createdness, no matter how we understand it and so it makes no sense to be sorry, for example, if we think that we are in some way 'fallen' or are afflicted by 'original sin'. Neither can we be sorry for 'falling short' if we think that such falls are inevitable; because we are corrupt or 'fallen' such lapses are inevitable. Neither can we be sorry because we are not Jesus. Such forms of being sorry are all, in essence, misunderstandings of who and why we are.

If we were created to give God pleasure through exercising our choice to love God both in our relationship with him and through the love of all that he has created, then the sorrow which we can and must properly express is for making wrong choices which take us further away from rather than nearer to God. Because we were created in God's image and because Jesus was created in our image, it cannot be that our fundamental nature is corrupt. If we are fundamentally corrupt and Jesus was perfect when he was on earth it makes very little sense to say that he had a human nature. A better way of understanding ourselves is to say that it is our purpose to realise God's Kingdom on earth by striving to grow ever close in our relationship with God through exercising the choice given to us so that we can be as near perfect as it is possible for us to be, given that choice necessitates imperfection.

In this light, our sorrow is not because we are imperfect but because we have not achieved the degree of perfection which is possible. In this light, the passion and death of Jesus tell us that no matter how badly we exercise choice - and killing Jesus is the ultimate manifestation of our imperfection - we will not impair God's love for us. Our contrition, then, is because of the misuse of the means we have been given, exemplified above all in the death of Jesus. In a mysterious sense, Jesus had to die both in order to articulate our imperfection and to demonstrate that we would not be punished for it.

The fundamental of contrition, then, is to understand ourselves and the way we live our lives in three related but distinct senses:

Even if we do not submit ourselves to individual oracular confession (The Sacrament of reconciliation), we are not released from the obligation of rigourous self criticism; to participate in an uncritical collective act of penitence is not enough; we do not have to be sorry in a general way for 'sin' or the state of the world' but, critically, for "what we have done and failed to do" as individuals.

4. Thanksgiving

Our understanding of our purposes and our obligations is generated from within us by The Holy Spirit who gives us the capacity to adore, repent and thank our God as Creator and Redeemer; by The Spirit we recognise our relationship to God as Creator and the relationship of jesus to God as Redeemer; from the Spirit we receive the gifts of creaturely and incarnational perception.

Our thanks can be understood in three ways:

First, then, The Spirit is our engine of thanksgiving because through The Spirit we recognise for what we should be thankful. Again, reflecting the thoughts on adoration, our thanks is not comparative, it does not relate to how well we think we are doing compared with other people, it relates simply to our relationship with God. In that light we can then see that the structure of our existence, in time and space, in physicality and human solidarity, is God's framework in which we exercise choice. Further, we can then see that exercising choice involves human hardship, physical imperfection and suffering. It is for that reason that our thankfulness is not related to our individual position in the world but arises because each of us has a position in the world. We should therefore not simply be thankful for who we are but for who others are. None of us could exercise our obligations to God without the existence of others.

Secondly, too often we personalise thanks to our own situation when it should always be a reflection of our inter dependence; we cannot thank God for our personal situation without understanding that, in reality, it is not a personal but a corporate position.

Thirdly, we tend to thank God episodically for events in the past but the thanks we offer should arise from the essence of who we are and not from individual events. Like adoration and the acknowledgment of imperfection, thanksgiving should be part of our condition independent of what happens to us individually.

5. The Meaning of Balance

Now that we have considered all the elements of prayer other than Supplication - the aspect, I will come to argue, to which we give excessive emphasis - this is an opportune moment to think about the balance of elements in prayer.

If we are thinking about a long standing relationship we might want to say that the different elements will come into play at different intensities over time and we might represent that difference in snapshots, or poems, with the different elements featuring strongly: we might want to praise the beloved's beauty on a particularly sunny day, beg forgiveness for a harsh word, or tell other people how lovely the beloved is; but we might equally want to try to encapsulate the essence of the relationship by structuring the different elements into a single work. Some Christians have been extremely suspicious of love poetry because they are quite wrongly suspicious of or even frightened of God's creation of the physical, but we can learn a huge amount from love poetry about the elements of a relationship which we need to hold in balance over time or which we need to bring out individually or synthesise.

The Church's year is designed so that we can concentrate on different elements in a fitting sequence so that, for example, we have a period of preparation before Christmas and an even longer one before Easter. We should take the opportunity to consider and involve ourselves in the Church's year as an aid to reflection and enrichment.

Having said all that, it would be a denial of relationship to eliminate our own personal feelings towards God the beloved. We should not be afraid of laying ourselves bare before the beloved because love is impossible without vulnerability and also because, in reality, we are not telling God anything that he does not already 'know'; being vulnerable is, essentially, telling ourselves what we need to know; and in that truthfulness we leave ourselves open to God's love.

6. Questions & Exercises

  1. Are there elements other than ACTS that ought to be essential to prayer?
  2. Choose a love poem and identify its elements;
  3. Consider the issues in Sections 1, 2 or 3;
  4. Discuss prayers which focus on adoration or thanksgiving;
  5. Write a love poem to God concentrating on one or more elements.