by Ben Keyes
At L’Abri we occasionally set aside a day to fast and pray. These days have often been in response to particular concerns and needs in our community, but increasingly we have felt called to make it a more regular practice. Whether we experience our needs as pressing or not, our complete dependence on God is an ever present reality and we want our lives to reflect it. Tim Keller’s book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Dutton, 2014), has offered a healthy challenge to us. Of the many good things that Keller says, two points have seemed particularly relevant recently. First, Keller argues for the necessity of prayer. Chapter 1 concludes with these words:
“Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change-the reordering of our loves. Prayer is how God gives us so many of the unimaginable things he has for us. Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we most desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life. We must learn to pray. We have to” (p. 18)
This is not a description of an optional accessory to the Christian life; something that we can take or leave. Neither is prayer a practice reserved for people who are especially gifted at it. Without prayer we all wither spiritually. We neither know ourselves, nor see God for who He is, nor make ourselves available for transformation, nor make ourselves open to guidance. Without actively seeking God in prayer, we are naïve to expect any of these good things. This is a humbling fact.
The second (and equally humbling) point is that all prayer is a response to a conversation that God has initiated. Keller makes the point strongly that God has already communicated to us and anything we say to Him is a reply.
“All prayer is responding to God. In all cases God is the initiator- “hearing” always precedes asking. God comes to us first or we would never reach out to him…. Prayer as a spiritual gift is a genuine, personal conversation in reply to God’s specific, verbal revelation.” (p. 46)
So we need to pray and all prayer is God-initiated. These two points are a challenge to me because I often view prayer in precisely the opposite way. I turn to prayer most fervently when I have a pressing need and I also view it as something that I initiate in order to get a response from God. Prayer is like a flare that I fire into the air when I am in distress. People use flares when they are in trouble to get the attention of someone far away, someone who hasn’t yet taken notice of them, or their plight. There is no doubt that God does respond to these kinds of prayers and it is not wrong to ask him to intervene in concrete ways. However, if the flare is our only paradigm for what prayer is, than we are in danger of viewing it (and God himself) instrumentally; something we use to get what we want. When I view prayer as a means to meeting a need, it never crosses my mind that connection with the living God is itself my most pressing need. To be in conversation with God is the truly essential thing. It is the only place of spiritual health as my daily felt needs come and go. Prayer is a way of life and an end in itself.
Neither do I naturally think of prayer as something initiated by God. At the level of my daily experience, prayer usually feels like hard work that I initiate, rather than a conversation that has already started. But this is usually because I do a poor job of listening for God’s words. I have a weak memory for all the ways that God has communicated to me and so I miss the thread of the conversation. When we come to God in prayer, it might be helpful to acknowledge Keller’s second point by posing some questions to ourselves. What words has God spoken to me already, to which my prayer is merely a reply? What is the conversation that has already been going on? The more time we spend trying to answer these questions, the more answers we are likely to find. Here are a few thoughts:
God has begun the conversation by giving us life. This is a moment to moment sustaining gift. As Paul said to the Athenians, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Nothing is automatic. Everything is given. When I take a deep breath it is because God has seen fit to give it to me. In light of this, ‘prayer as a response’ should include gratitude for the most basic provisions.
God has begun the conversation through scripture. Studying and meditating on scripture is the only way we will know who we are talking to when we pray. It will remind us who He is and what He has done, as well as rein in our false perceptions. All prayer should be a response, shaped by what we know of God’s character through the bible.
God has begun the conversation in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word. He has made the ultimate first move by becoming a comprehensible person. Jesus himself is God’s clearest communication to us; revealing the Father’s power, his self-emptying nature and his relentless determination to get us back. When we turn to prayer, do we think of it as a response to the Word himself?
God has begun the conversation by planting in us the desire to pray in the first place. The Holy Spirit is the one who prompts us to speak to God. If we have any inclination to turn to God and seek Him (however weak), it is a sign that God himself is at work. If we call on God at all it is because He is calling us.
For many people the reluctance to pray comes from a perception that God is distant and an accompanying fear that we are only talking to ourselves when we pray. We need to challenge these attitudes in ourselves by remembering what God has already said to us. Prayer is a response to God, and given all the ways in which He has spoken to us, it is a response that we need to make. As the hymn How Firm a Foundation puts it: “What more can He say than to you he hath said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”