Prayer can often be strangely alien. If you think about it, prayer in our churches can be quite otherworldly. Prayer often seems to be inexplicably a-relational and bizarrely formulaic, which conflicts with the reality presented in the Bible.
In God’s story we find that prayer has depth, ceaseless frequency, and a naturalness many of us do not experience. Maybe before I offer some reasons why I think this is the case, let me give a brief description of what I’m referring to today.
The Inexplicable Prayer Meeting: In my experience, a weekly hour-long church prayer meeting consists of a 45-minute discussion about the week to harvest any medical prayer requests. Once the harvesting is complete, the meeting ends with a 15-minute prayer time where each person takes a single turn to pray. When finished, we go home with some sense of accomplishment. We’ve ticked the box that so many Christians have no desire to tick.
But the strangeness of the meeting doesn’t end there. The actual prayer time is quite foreign. You might hear people speak in spooky voices that seem to take possession of warmhearted people. Or you may even hear people pray in archaic language that anyone under the age of 150 can’t understand without some careful translation—as though God says, “I love it when you call me ‘Thou!”
I could go on, but you get the picture. We don’t talk like this to our friends, family, or spouses, well anyone really, yet with God we do. Then we wonder why we don’t pray. Prayer just doesn’t make any sense, it isn’t natural, and lets face it, God doesn’t seem to respond all that much. We don’t pray, but when we have to, when it’s a must, we’ll dutifully break out our spooky voice and pray.
Some Inexplicable Advice: If this is true, and prayer is a duty, we can’t possibly live up to Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” (1Thess 5:17). After all, do we do anything without ceasing? And if we do, it can’t possibly be prayer, can it? It’s just so strange to pray to God … that is, it would be if God hadn’t commanded it.
Leaders that offer instruction on prayer instinctively begin with the importance of prayer (feel the vice squeeze down?) followed by a list of advice in order to develop a habit of prayer. Some advice may include:
- Much praying is not done because we don’t plan to pray, so plan it!
- Pray with some sort of structure like ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication).
- Pray until you pray
I don’t say all this as if I haven’t struggled to pray or haven’t given and used such advice. Not too long into my walk with Christ, I was told if I had difficulty praying to try to pray through ACTS. At the time I thought it was great advice, “Finally,” I thought, “a way to make sure I say all the things I needed to say to God!” Yet after awhile I started to realize I was more concerned about order above anything else. My “conversation” with God was robotic and not truly conversing with and baring my heart to God. Yet I didn’t know what else to do, talking with God just didn’t seem instinctive or easy.
When I finally got into the Bible consistently I discovered this entire struggle was absent. The Bible assumes prayer just happens. From Moses, to David, to Daniel, to Jesus through to the early church, prayer just happens in all circumstances, in every situation, without end. Prayer just overflows from a relationship with God. It is as if communication is the very essence of any relationship.
Why is Prayer so Sci-fi Weird? So far I’ve been slightly subtle, but the answer comes down to how you view God. If we understand God to be the unmoved mover (the eternal monadic God that set everything in motion with a single decree), then there’s no place for prayer. Prayer is as alien to God as it is to us. Prayer, in this reality, isn’t the communication innate to any relationship. Instead it’s some kind of relational dissonance: a creature attempting to speak to a non-discursive deity.
God is a Communicative Spreading Goodness: But thankfully, God has been a Father-Son-Spirit God for all eternity. God’s glory before the creation of the world was a loving communion (John 17). That is, God’s essence is relationship bonded by communication and other-centered love. The overflow of this reality was the motivation for creation. The Trinity desired to have a creation to share his communion, his goodness, and his ethos with his image (male-female person united in relationship). You can imagine Adam and Eve talking with God in the cool of the day in the Garden because they just loved talking with one another. You can picture them enjoying the presence and warmth of communion with the other. This was the reality before death and hostility crept in when the image bearers rejected life with God by exploring the reality of making themselves god–the primary object of their affections and reference of reality.
But wait . . . what’s even more amazing is that this God invites us back to participate in his community again. The Father, motivated by love for his creation, sent his Son to defeat death and make a way for life to return to his creation. And this gift of grace is the communicative bond the Father and Son share–the person of the Holy Spirit. Now as part of the Bride of Christ we have the pleasure to speak to our Bridegroom and our Father who poured their love upon us by the Holy Spirit.
Like everything else in Christianity, we tend to pile instructions on top of advice. However, if we are missing out, the solution won’t come from better techniques, but from a clearer view of God. And when we glimpse the communicative self-giving love of God, isn’t our response to communicate back? That’s prayer and there’s nothing weird about that!