On personal intercessory prayer

August 11, 2011

About 25 years ago, I read an interview with Ray Charles in which he was asked about his faith in God. He was a believer, he said, but he didn’t think we should go to God with every little problem, “every time we stub our toe.” I’ve never met anyone, to my knowledge, who did pray to God when they stubbed their toe, although many—myself included—have used his name vainly when this happens. (What might an appropriate prayer upon stubbing one’s toe sound like? “Oh, God, please don’t let me curse”?)

Still, I get his point: We shouldn’t bother God with the small details of our lives. God has bigger things with which to concern himself, and our problems don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things.

But I don’t buy it. This objection to prayer is another way of saying that God is really too big for our small problems—the President of the United States, after all, shouldn’t be bothered to fix a pothole on your street.

But in saying God is too big for our problems, we’re really saying that God is too small for our problems. We’re reducing God down to our size—or at least down to a larger, more powerful, more perfect version of ourselves. And if that’s the case, then whatever attention God gives to us and our small problems is attention diverted from other, more pressing matters in the universe.

This is terrible theology, of course, but Ray Charles was hardly alone in buying into it. God is, in fact, “big enough”1 to care about even our smallest problems. Because God is something other than what we are, this means, among other things, that God is able to be closer to us than we are to ourselves—closer than our own thoughts, closer than our heartbeats. Whether we pray about it or not, God already knows when we stub our toes. And it’s no sweat for God to be concerned about it.

Another, more pious-sounding objection to praying for the “small stuff” of our lives is that we are being selfish. On this point, N.T. Wright says something very helpful in his commentary on Romans 8:18-30.

Intercession for the world that is groaning in travail is not, then, an optional extra for the Christian. Within this, intercession for the parts of one’s own life that are in trouble cannot be discounted either. There is a false humility about some protests against such intercession, discounting it as trivial or self-centered. To the contrary: the groanings of each individual, caught between redemption accomplished in Christ and redemption still awaited (8:23), are all part of the groaning of creation. As long as one does not imagine that the world, and the love of God, revolve around one’s own life and concerns—as long, in other words, as one is a mature and adult child of God and not still a spiritual baby—one’s own concerns have their proper place, and can indeed be the starting-point for awareness of, and hence prayer about, the wider groanings of the whole cosmos. Just because we must not be self-centered, that does not mean we should ignore the self and its concerns. If we are God’s beloved children, our small as well as our great concerns matter.2

Footnotes:

1. Since words like “big” and “small” only apply to things, and God is not a thing, to say that God is “big enough” only makes sense in a figurative way. Thus the scare quotes. Language will always necessarily reduce a transcendent God down to our size. But, apart from the groanings of the Holy Spirit, language is about all we’ve got.

2. N.T. Wright, “Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. X, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 607.

One Response to “On personal intercessory prayer”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree that God is “big enough” to be concerned about not only all the “big things” that go on but the “little ones” as well–since he is infinite in power, knowledge, and “expanse,” he can handle it all, AND HE WANTS TO, especially for his children.


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