Op-Ed for Thursday, December 18 (’14)
Prayer? But what’s the point….
Mechanization. Industrialization. Miniaturization. Production. Bottom lines. Consumption and Consumerism.
This is our world, but it is not all our world is meant to be, and certainly not what prayer is to be.
Miniaturization and efficiency go hand-in-hand in our progressive world. You cannot store 10,000 songs in your home very efficiently. Enter Steve Jobs and the iPod. Now you can store 10,000 songs and have access to millions more in your pocket. We push towards efficiency, and we push away from what isn’t. Depending on the angle of view, we’re like Dr. Doolittle’s Pushmepullyou. Which way are we even going? Do we even know? By what standard do we measure value? Is our standard mere utility—why or why not? Commonly, business success is measured in profit. Some companies claim their focus is not first profit, but people. I tend to believe, and so do the millions of Americans who buy their food and products and feel as if they have been served rather than the corporate interests. As one man has said, for these companies, profit is the applause of their customers. These companies are rare, however, but they remind us that even a business does not have to structure everything around efficiency to be successful. For Christians, this is crucial to remember: efficiency is not God.
Prayer cannot be judged by what it gets you, but in what it is for.
Godliness cannot be measured in efficiency. Prayer cannot be measured in results. Godliness is not about quantity, but quality. Prayer cannot be measured in how passionately you pray, how many hours you pray, or even in how you believe God is answering your prayer (and just because you get what you ask for does not mean God was answering your prayer). Prayer cannot be measured the way we measure business success.
Prayer is for Joy
There is no efficient way to enjoy spaghetti; no “bottom-line” to enjoying fried-chicken. Joy, in fact, is a concept foreign to efficiency. They inhabit such different realms they may as well be magnets with different poles—they cannot be joined together. They may overlap sometimes, but that’s not the same thing. You don’t efficiently enjoy a kiss, a pipe, or ice cream. I would even propose that the more efficiently you think about business, the less you are ever able to enjoy what it is you do, regardless of what you do. I doubt anyone grows up thinking, “I want to be a janitor.” But that does not mean joy cannot be had in janitorial services. Prayer is like this, producing joy slowly and deliberately.
One poet wrote what has become a constant companion for me:
Teach me, O God and King
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.
If done t’obey Thy laws,
E’en servile labors shine.
Hallowed the toil if this the cause,
the meanest work divine.
The poet is praying for joy regardless of how low the work. He asks for joy because he knows life is more than business. Life is worship. At least, it is supposed to be. What does this have to do with prayer?
Prayer is not efficient. It is never a straight, easily-measurable line. It never can be, nor ever was meant to be. Efficiency is the language of Henry Ford and the industrialized plant: move A along to B and receive finished product C.
Such distortions of biblical prayer become like this in the Christian life: If I pray for healing, and if I do it the right way, God will heal me. Sometimes it looks like this: If I pray for 30 minutes a day, I’ll grow in faith, and will finally have the peace I so desperately want. The problem is, this is the modern world talking. This turns prayer into a business rather than what it was designed to be: a gift from God whereby we remain dependent upon him, our source of all heavenly gifts which we already have through our union with Christ.
I know the phrase “union with Christ” may be foreign to many readers. Perhaps we will write a post about it in the future. Union with Christ, however, is crucial to know and believe and so a few words are in order.
Prayer is Part of Union With Christ
You have nothing apart from Christ (cf. John 15:1-11, and the whole chapter). “Union with Christ” means you, a sinner, even while you are still a sinner, are grafted—joined—to Christ along with all believers (Rom 5:8; Eph 3:1-21). Louis Berkhof wrote of this union as that “intimate, vital, and spiritual union between Christ and His people, in virtue of which He is the source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation.” It is not just an individual joined to Christ. It is the entire Church of which you’re a part.
It is God who grants this, not something you can measurably do. Faith is not something that is done, but something that is given (spend time consider this in light of Ephesians 2:8-9). Likewise, grace is not some thing you are given—it is not an external “thing” which you receive once, might lose, might get more of, and can receive it again and again. While the Roman Catholic Church teaches grace in this manner (hence the need to attend the Mass and receive all seven sacraments), historical Protestantism understands grace to be a by-product (forgive the industrial language…) of union with Christ. Please do not miss this point. Scripture speaks of believers joined to Christ; all blessings flow from this union. Once we receive faith as a gift worked in us by the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph 2:8-10 and Ez 36:36-37), we have union with Christ. We are, in a real way, done. We did nothing to “get” union; we do nothing to “keep” union; one day all we will have is union (Rev 21:1-8). To steal a non-PC generation’s metaphor: God is no Indian-Giver. I quote at length from an interview with pastor Sinclair Ferguson on this point of grace and union with Christ:
It is legitimate to speak of “receiving grace,” and sometimes (although I am somewhat cautious about the possibility of misusing this language) we speak of the preaching of the Word, prayer, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper as “means of grace.” That is fine, so long as we remember that there isn’t a thing, a substance, or a “quasi-substance” called “grace.” All there is is the person of the Lord Jesus—“Christ clothed in the gospel,” as John Calvin loved to put it. Grace is the grace of Jesus. If I can highlight the thought here: there is no “thing” that Jesus takes from Himself and then, as it were, hands over to me. There is only Jesus Himself. Grasping that thought can make a significant difference to a Christian’s life. So while some people might think this is just splitting hairs about different ways of saying the same thing, it can make a vital difference. It is not a thing that was crucified to give us a thing called grace. It was the person of the Lord Jesus that was crucified in order that He might give Himself to us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
He is, in other words, as near to us as his own hand is to his arm.
Prayer is Because in Him We Are
Significantly, in John 15, Jesus links union with him to joy from him, both only sustained and possible because of the Holy Spirit. This is getting close to the heart and purpose of prayer. Prayer is not for efficiency, production, or results. Prayer is for dependence upon God, our Maker and Savior. As the great theologian Bob Dylan once said, “We all gotta serve somebody.” To tweak it, we all gotta have joy in somebody. It is a sad human who has lost capacity for joy. In fact, I’d take it a step further: it is not a sad human who has no joy, it is a human acting against their humanity. Human beings are made for joy. The joy we have is the treasure that is Christ. Some believe subsequently that I must be happy and prayer helps. As my friend Brian Gault once told me in a dark time and place of my own:
Sometimes a little talk (“prayer”) with Jesus doesn’t help. Sometimes you can have many talks with Jesus, and it doesn’t make it right. Why does the Psalmist feel this anguish? Because God is hiding his face. A Believer must know that God is with him, and for him, and that He is the one thing that we cannot live without. That if we do not have that—Him—it disturbs us to no end. And this is how we can be assured of Grace in our lives: reprobates don’t care if God is absent. If you were an unbeliever, you wouldn’t care.
Prayer is Because Without Him We Are Disturbed to No End
How’s your prayer life? What’s it like? What do you think prayer is for or, better yet, how do your prayers show what you think prayer is for?
If prayer is for anything other than taking joy in, and depending more thoroughly upon, God, it is God’s terrible joke upon us. Nothing could be more inefficient for a this-world happiness than prayer. Prayer doesn’t get me money, health, or comfort. It is faster to steal money than pray that God would care for your needs. It is faster to go to the doctor for healing than pray for it and wait. It is faster to cook a meal than pray and hope someone shows with food they didn’t know you needed. If I pray for my needs, and healing, and food, God certainly may answer. But this is not primarily the purpose of prayer. If it is, and if God doesn’t answer, then what? Perhaps he was busy relieving himself. Perhaps, like some deities, he simply couldn’t hear you (1 Kings 18:16-40). Or worse, perhaps God doesn’t care, or doesn’t even exist. No: prayer is not for these things first. After all, our Heavenly Father already knows such needs (Mt 6:7-8). Why is that instructional point so easily missed?
Prayer’s Purpose is Joy in Dependence on God.
When he taught us to pray, he said, “Our Father.” My children—I hope—come to me because they love me and not because I’m the Almighty Vending Machine which dishes out when manipulated by technique learned over time. I hope they come to me for joy and because I am needed. Do you need God? Yes. We need him because of what we are: creatures dependent upon him for everything, including joy.
Apart from Christ, we bear no fruit (John 15 again). He’s saying we’re dead, except for our life in Him. The dead have no joy. The dead cannot be efficient, except at death. Death is, after all, the most efficient means of avoiding work and taxes. Prayer is for joy, dependence, and the Holy Spirit. This is another way of saying: prayer is for the truest living. All true prayer comes from a heart that treasures union with Christ, for apart from him we’re dead otherwise. Prayer, then, has Christ as a source, life with God as an end in mind, and the Holy Spirit as the Guarantee and Down-Payment that these blessings will be so.
Considering these things, then, is it surprising that Jesus says the following in the Lord’s Prayer teaching us how to pray?
- The point is to remember God is your Father (Lk 11:2), “Our Father, hallowed be thy name…”
- Who provides what you need (which is basic food for body and soul, Lk 3-4a), “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us.”
- Especially redemption from the Evil One (Lk 11:4b), “Lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from the evil one.”
- And for you to receive the Holy Spirit (Lk 11:5-13, esp. vs. 13), “How much will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
So we ask again: how is your prayer life? Prayer is grossly inefficient, but it is highly effective for why it was given. My prayers may not always be productive, but I don’t measure them that way. I simply know that without prayer, I would wither.
Man doesn’t live on food alone; he lives upon the Word of God, which is to say: man lives by depending upon the Lord as the Lord gives himself to us in and through the Word. He gave us prayer as part of this process. He has ordained it to be an instrument by which our creaturely nature finds pleasure and joy in being His creatures. Thus, even if I never “feel” that I’ve “met with God,” or “heard from God,” or “God spoke to me” or whatever Evangelicals like to say, I know that prayer is good for me, and that I need it because I need God. “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
Prayer is for Those in Union With Christ
It’s as simple as that. It is a mundane task sometimes because of the weakness of the one who prays, but always a glorious one because of the One who hears. He may respond; he may not respond. This isn’t the point. The challenge is to not let my weakness change (or accuse) his glory; to not let the former change the truth of the latter. Life is more than business. It cannot be measured with industrial methods. How much more is a life given in worship? It is sacred. Mysterious. Wild. However, it is none of these blessings when we are dead, separated from Christ, and awaiting destruction on the Day of Wrath (Rom 2:4-5).
I love my union with Christ. More than this, I love that the Church itself is in union with Christ, and because of this joy, and to enjoy that joy more, we pray. Look at how deeply effected Paul was by union with Christ, and how near to praise and worship were his thoughts when he reflected on these truths!
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love, he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and on earth (Eph 1:3-10).
Pray, Christian, pray. He has joined you to himself for just such dependence and joy.