Lent Course 2009: Prayers for Lovers

The Nature of Christian Prayer

Pray earnestly night and day

1 Thessalonians 3:10

Love is a set of characteristic behaviours which need to be kept in balance. A relationship where the lover is forever penitent or forever suppliant, is not going to work; we can also go overboard on adoration and thanksgiving. As situations change so does the balance of these elements - adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication - summed up in the ACTS acronym.

1. From Supplication to ACTS

Prayer, generally speaking, is a mode of address to a deity. All kinds of people from all kinds of cultures pray to animate and inanimate, visible and invisible entities which they classify as in some way divine, or superior to themselves. In every culture the initial impetus to pray began with the felt need to appease or request, to mitigate a crisis or seek a favour but in the Second Century BC two inter-connected developments raised religion and prayer to a new dimension: first, the advancement of human control over what had hitherto seemed to be arbitrary phenomena raised human self consciousness and consequently called for a re-assessment of the concept of deity; secondly, the development of complex social organisation encompassed the religious impulse. During that millennium we should note the development of such significant phenomena as: irrigation and food storage and the reduction of the power of arbitrary natural forces; the associated generation of food surpluses which created social and occupational diversity in place of the universal tyranny of subsistence agriculture and the consequent development of and individual, social and political capacity to formulate abstract ideas and associated ritual; and the development of writing as a much more efficient method than sculpture for preserving and transmitting ideas.

The Jewish response to these developments was not unique but it was uniquely documented and rich. The initial supplicatory impulse was complemented by adoration, contrition and thanksgiving to form the basic elements of prayers summed up in the familiar ACTS acronym; but the unique contribution of Judaism to the development of religious thought and, therefore, to the concept of prayer, was its insistence on the personal nature of God: the Old Testament is the surviving library of the struggle by the Jews, who saw themselves as God's "Chosen People", to come to terms with their personal God. Having personalised God it was not a great conceptual step to monotheism (although its development is frequently over-simplified). The Deuteronomists of the 6th Century BC were keen to establish a link between Jewish faithfulness and earthly well being where unfaithfulness accounted for exile; to ask God not to inflict misfortune on his people was now no longer enough; God required adoration, contrition and thanksgiving as necessary preconditions for any form of supplication; and the Deuteronomists also felt that transactions with God should be essentially corporate. There was a tradition of solitary prayer exemplified by the prophets but they were always in potential conflict with the religious establishment which not infrequently persecuted and murdered them.

2. Christian Prayer

Christianity inherited both the individual and corporate dimensions of the Jewish prayer tradition and, with the exception of some establishment suspicion of the mystical tradition, the two elements have not been regarded as incompatible; all Christians are supposed to participate both in corporate and private prayer.

The Trinitarian economy, or choreography of prayer, largely developed in the Gospel of John, is uniquely complex and interlocking: we always pray to The Father (Creator), through The Son (Redeemer) in the power of The Spirit (Sanctifier). Uniquely in Jesus Christ we have a tangible, divine intermediary equal to the Creator which profoundly affects the dynamics of Christian prayer compared with other forms of prayer.

3. The Dynamics of Christian Prayer

All prayer is an attempt to establish communication between entities which are, necessarily, in different categories, such different categories that it is impossible fully to express the difference which is why we use the word "mystery" not in the sense of hidden or undiscovered but unfathomable. It is the very nature of the relationship which makes it so problematic. The human being, praying to a deity is, by an admission of the concept of deity, condemning herself to an impossibly difficult relationship, to bridge the unbridgeable gap. Yet from the time of the Deuteronomists there was a theological superstructure which made sense of the gap, which proposed that God's will for his creatures could be understood and that he should be accorded what was due to him as the result of the act of creation.

The Christian, Trinitarian formulation added two critical dimensions: first, Jesus, as the incarnational bridge between the human and the divine, brings the Godhead from the abstract and the timeless into concrete history; secondly, we recognise the reality of Jesus through the incarnational perception generated from within us by the Holy Spirit. Consequently, our prayer life is mysterious and rich but it is not purely speculative, the participation in a struggle doomed to fail.

Critical to our understanding of prayer is the centrality, inherited from Judaism, of the concept of the personal relationship with God who is not with us as an abstract idea, a form of causality or a way of explaining consciousness but is, essentially, not only our creator but the purpose for which we were created. We were made to give God pleasure, to choose to love him freely, to choose to worship, thank and adore him as well as to ask for help and support while we exercise our human powers to create The Kingdom on earth before we are enfolded back into his perfect love. In other words, to pray is not an option, it is the very essence of being human.

The essence of relationship is that it is two-way; we try to communicate with God through human language which is necessarily the simpler part of the relationship because it is in the nature of God to 'know' what we are trying to say but prayer also involves 'listening' to God to ascertain his will for us. This is the aspect of the relationship which is most problematic for us because it is so open to self delusion and the abuse of power: delusion because we can persuade ourselves that what we want for ourselves is what God wants for us; and an abuse of power because those who exercise influence or authority can all too easily invoke the will of God to further their own ends. This latter tendency is not, we should note, necessarily, exercised selfishly or cynically as many people believe that the communication of the will of God to them should be extended to others for the general benefit. Yet we need to be particularly careful here because no two relationships are ever identical and so no two relationships between humans and the Creator can be identical.

This is not to say that we cannot talk about the will of God and talk about ways of understanding it; but what we are doing for each other is presenting experience, suggesting options, developing tools and finding a common language for mutual support.

At this point it is important to recognise a deep division within Christianity about the relationship between God and humanity. In a perspective which we might loosely call "Protestant" which owes much to St. Augustine and, in turn, to Plato, humanity is fundamentally imperfect, corrupt or fallen whereas there is a contrary tradition which sees a continuity rather than a discontinuity between God and humanity. That difference of perspective cannot but deeply affect the way in which we approach prayer: in the former case the primary purpose of prayer is to acknowledge the inevitable failure of our enterprise whereas in the latter case the approach is to see how close we can get to God. Many Christians do not hold firmly to either view of humanity but oscillate subconsciously between the two which is one major reason why many of us have problems with prayer; we are not really sure of our fundamental purpose.

4. The Practice of Prayer

In considering how we pray it might be helpful to use three images:

5. Kinds of Prayer

In subsequent Units we will be examining these and other questions but we will conclude this Unit by reminding ourselves of the different styles of prayer within the Christian tradition:

6. Questions and Exercises

  1. Define prayer and its purposes
  2. Discuss the development of the concept of prayer in the Old Testament through reading Exodus 3, Isaiah 44:9-20
  3. Discuss the implications for our prayer life of the perceptions of humanity as being in discontinuity or continuity with the divine
  4. Discuss your 'prayer history' from the time you were first taught to pray. What does this say about our contemporary ideas about prayer?
  5. Suggest some images, on the lines of broadcasting and the gym, to explain prayer.