Prayer: It’s not rocket science

I517udw6am2l-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_n his interesting book Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, Mark Miodownik examines the science and history behind many of the most common objects of our daily experience: glass, steel, cement, paper, chocolate, etc.

One of the main questions he asks is: “Why do these materials have the properties they do?” He often takes the investigation to the molecular level to explain why steel bends and why chocolate tastes and feels so good as it melts in your mouth. Today’s scientists understand why materials are the way they are with a precision never before known. It is impressive and fascinating.

At least as fascinating (to me at least), is the fact that humans figured out how to manipulate these materials long before they had the skills and equipment to examine what was happening at the smallest level. Long before we could understand the complex changes that are involved in the formation of steel from iron and carbon, sword-makers had developed the processes necessary to make steels of varying strength and flexibility. The same can be said for chocolatiers, bakers, and experts in any number of other fields. In the absence of precise scientific knowledge, humans were still able to develop impressive results with a variety of materials.

There may be a spiritual lesson for us in this. Our modern, scientific environment has trained us to expect precise explanations for most phenomena. We may not ourselves know the explanation but we trust someone does and could find the information if we needed to. (Just google it!). This expectation is frequently frustrated when it comes to spiritual realities. How does prayer work? How do miracles happen? Is there really a spiritual realm? The absence of satisfactory, precise answers to these questions disappoints the modern mind.

But as the examples above illustrate, the absence of detailed knowledge of a reality at the most precise level is not a barrier to fruitful use of that reality. We don’t need precise, technical knowledge of steel-making to benefit from steel or even to make it! The same is true of the spiritual disciplines and particularly prayer. We don’t need to know precisely how prayer works for prayer to do its work in our lives.

To be sure, we may desire deeper knowledge of these realities, much as ancient bakers may have wondered why some loaves turned out and others didn’t. But it can be freeing to know that our knowledge—or lack thereof—is no barrier to our benefitting from these divine gifts.

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Spiritual IRA

This time of year it is common to hear people making resolutions about their personal habits. Among Christians this often includes the practices of prayer and Bible reading. These are often referred to as “Spiritual Disciplines” and traditionally include other practices such as memorization, meditation, silence & solitude, fasting, stewardship, worship, journaling, and serving. The list varies from author to author.

The term ‘discipline’ captures a part of the reality of these practices; most of them require dedication and perseverance to become part of our lives. But the term carries mostly negative connotations for most of us and may contribute to our lack of enthusiasm at developing them.

Developing these practices is further complicated by the fact that though we may call them disciplines, we often treat them as if they were transactions. That is, we want them to function the way most of our purchases do. We give the “payment” of prayer, reading, a donation, etc. and we expect to receive a “good” in return. The goods expected may be material “blessings” as we sometimes call them, but they may be more nebulous things like personal peace, or immediate insight, or a sense of God’s presence, or personal recognition. We seem to default to expecting a nearly one-to-one correspondence between our acts of personal piety and identifiable outcomes. Further, we want those identifiable outcomes to be nearly immediately recognizable. This usually doesn’t work.

It would perhaps be better to think of these practices as spiritual “investments.” With most of our investments we contribute a certain amount of money and hope to receive something beyond that amount at some later date. The length of time and the scale of increase are largely out of our control. But we know that, by and large, consistent contribution to these investments compounds the accruing benefits.

The analogy is imperfect, of course, but it holds true that the dividends of spiritual disciplines are paid out most often in the long term. Much like our retirement funds, Scripture calls us not to occasional, frantic, outbursts of spiritual passion, but to small, regular, honest acts of devotion submitted in faith to the market forces of the Father’s mercy.

Praying the Kingdom

As if there aren’t enough other barriers to meaningful prayer, the question of how to pray ‘according to the will of God’ is a stumblingblock for many people. In one sense this is a good thing. It means that they have moved beyond thoughtlessly praying for the easiest things that come to mind. They genuinely want to pray, “Not my will but yours be done” but they get hung up on “What is God’s will in this situation?”

For example, they want to pray for someone who is suffering from some medical condition. It seems natural to pray, “Lord, please heal Jane.” So they start to pray that and then it occurs to them, “But what if it isn’t God’s will to heal Jane right now? Will I be praying against God’s will if I pray for healing?” Not surprisingly, this line of thinking often takes the life out of prayer.

Same Idea, Different Angle

Scripture certainly encourages us to pray in line with the will of God. The Disciples’ Prayer is representative: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But God did not intend this concept to paralyze our prayer life. In fact, a way forward may be found in the very context of those familiar words.

Directly preceding the call for God’s will to be done is the phrase, “Thy kingdom come…”. The concept of God’s “kingdom”, though not necessarily immediately clear to all of us, carries a bit less baggage than the idea of “the will of God.” While we may not be able to express exactly what the Kingdom of God is, we have at least a general sense of what it will include. At the very least we have some idea of what life will be like in the end when Christ’s kingdom comes in its fullness.

In fact, it is likely that these phrases are intended to interpret one another anyway in the prayer. What is God’s will? The coming of the kingdom? When will the kingdom come? When God’s ways are done on earth as they are in heaven.

Praying the Kingdom

So let’s return to ailing Jane. While we do not know what God may be intending for dear Jane in the near future, we are confident that when the kingdom comes in its fullness such things as physical illness will not be a part of it. Jane will not suffer in the kingdom. Accordingly, we can pray that God might make this aspect of the kingdom present now for Jane with confidence because we know that such things are in line with God’s ultimate plans. “May your Kingdom come upon Jane in physical healing.”

The careful prayer will also recognize that other, perhaps even more important aspects of the kingdom might be called for in the situation. We might pray that Jane perseveres or has peace in spite of her condition. These, too, are kingdom realities and ones that we can be more sure God intends for Jane in the present.

God’s kingdom WILL come. His will WILL be done in his timing. Don’t let fear of praying against God’s will keep you from praying earnestly for God’s vision of the future to become reality sooner rather than later.

The Gift of Prayer

I am slowly reading through Jacques Philippe’s small book on prayer: Time for God.* What I have read so far has been simple yet helpful, so I thought I would pass it along.

Philippe’s first declaration is that the life of prayer comes to us as a gift from God not as a result of our efforts nor the application of techniques. He contrasts Christian prayer with the meditative practices of other religions that seek to achieve mystical experience through the performance of specific practices. But these are based in the efforts of humans. Christian prayer is a gift from God. This does not completely remove a human part to play. He writes:

Although–as we shall see later–a certain human initiative and activity has its place, the entire edifice of the prayer life is founded on God’s initiative and on his grace. We must never lose sight of the fact that one of the constant and at times most subtle of temptations in the spiritual life is to base it on our own efforts and not on the free mercy of God.

I particularly appreciate that Philippe brings in the aspect of human personality. He notes that there are always some people who are much better at employing techniques, being disciplined, or forming ‘spiritual’ language (‘hermosos pensamientos’ in his phrase). But since the reality of a prayer life is a gift from God, these abilities are not the sum and substance of a good prayer life. “Each one, by cooperating faithfully with the divine grace according to their own personality, with all their gifts and weaknesses, is able to have a deep prayer life.” Each of us has a God-given personality that has features that both help and hinder our prayer life. We must learn to work patiently with our own graces and limitations to receive God’s gift of himself through prayer.

While there are not “tricks” or “techniques” for the Christian prayer life, Philippe suggests that there are attitudes, certain dispositions of heart that set us up to receive God’s gift of prayer more readily. About those anon.

*For the record, I am reading it in a Spanish translation of the original French. Therefore, any of the English quotes you read below are my clumsy translations. The book is available in English. Since I have not yet read the entire thing I cannot at this time make a blanket recommendation.

(This post was simultaneously posted on the website of Union Christian Church).