Prayer – Part II
The impetus for this second in our perhaps ongoing series on prayer comes from a recent discussion I had with some friends on the beliefs of John Shelby Spong, the former Episcopalian Bishop of Newark. As some of you may know, Spong is a somewhat controversial figure for being ultra-liberal to the point of divesting Biblical Christianity of most of its supernatural themes, and this stripping it down into something that only vaguely resembles Christianity at all. In his “12 Theses of a New Reformation,” Spong cites this as his 10th:
“Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.”
I cannot help but be somewhat perplexed by the idea that anyone laying claim to the Christian faith could not bring themselves to believe in the power of prayer. Now, this is not to say that I am unable to understand such inclinations. Part of the reason I was inspired to write this series (however sporadic and infrequent it might be) is because I understand the human frustration with the transcendental all too well, and prayer is no exception in these frustrations. How often have we felt that our prayers go unanswered? How often have we felt completely helpless in a situation and believed in our hearts that, as much as we prayed, nothing we did could even fractionally remedy the problems we sought to resolve? Indeed, even when we have brought our burdens and concerns before God, how often have we felt completely and utterly resigned to the sheer mystery of what prayer is? As a good friend of mine often says to me, “I’ll be praying… I’m just not sure what it does.” My own guess is that we feel this way about prayer a large majority of the time, no matter how weak or strong our faith might be. I consider that to be, simultaneously, something of a comfort and a concern.
The point is, many of us might be tempted to renounce the belief we have in prayer altogether. After all, if we don’t see it “do” anything, if it doesn’t seem to help, if we seem to pray in vain, then why bother? Surely, we might say, we can be Christians without having to believe in prayer?
This is my own point of puzzlement… On many different levels, I don’t see how someone could be a Christian and disbelieve in the power of prayer; not because I’m getting on a pedestal here and talking about doctrinal differences, but to go back to what Spong writes, he (apparently) believes that “prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.” Is this is but one particular definition we are choosing to place upon what prayer “is,” then at least a few things come to mind for me personally:
1.) Regardless of our beliefs regarding the Incarnation and the Trinity, what is the life and ministry of Jesus if not one giant manifestation of God “acting in history?”
2.) Even if we did strip away every single supernatural underpinning of the Gospel, we are still nonetheless left with a ministry and following which was rooted entirely in the inspiration of morality as perceived to be from God. If this inspiration comes from some form of knowledge or experience about God, then what is this if not God acting in history? Which leads me onto:
3.) What on earth use would it be now to seek an articulation and praxis of morality based upon the Gospel, upon teachings regarding humanity’s exemplification of God’s Law, if we do not believe that God will act within human history?
In other words, it seems to me that anyone who wants to bear the title of “Christian” does so because they wish to enact in their lives, and possibly in their surroundings, a system of ethics they perceive to be based upon the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Now if we choose, then, to believe in God, then I would have to take issue with the idea that God has not acted within human history via the process of prayer at all – simply because that by virtue of living out this inspiration within our own lives, God is acting.
I recently read an interview by Steve Chalke, a prominent (and also controversial in his own ways, surprise surprise) Baptist minister in the UK, who had these words to say on the subject of prayer:
“Prayer is a longing. You do not say it, you long it, dream it, imagine it, give your life for it, weep over it. It keeps you up late at night, it is your soul crying out and not just neat words with an amen at the end. If you mean it you will live it. The words rest on your soul and grip you.”
This rings true with my own very, very, very limited understanding of what prayer is and why every Christian must consider it their duty – In prayer, we are not just committing our burdens, longings, and hopes to the Almighty God, we are committing ourselves to Him as well. As Chalke says, we must live prayer, not just speak it. It makes no sense to pray for injustice to cease if we are not enacting justice in our own lives, nor does it make any sense to pray for peace if we are not being peacemakers in our own lives.
This is not to say, I must add, that I am centralising the conceptual power of prayer entirely within the realms of human action, less the reality of God’s own power be invalidated. However, before we can even begin to have faith in the miraculous (which I trust is partially the reason why so many Christians, myself included, struggle with prayer), we must have faith in the miracle that God has enacted within our own lives as well. Namely, confirming us as made in His Image, then sanctifying, inspiring, and empowering us through the name of Christ. When we have faith, and when we act in that faith, it is then that we see the power of our prayers at work.