We’re not very good at praying, and other reflections

October 2, 2013

Last night, I offered the invocation at a city council meeting. My prayer, adapting and greatly expanding a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer (my go-to resource for making sure my public prayers aren’t terrible), was as follows:

O God, the fountain of wisdom, whose will is good and gracious, and whose law is truth: We thank you that you have blessed us with this city of Hampton and with these servants who make up the City Council. We thank you for all the dedicated citizens in our community, both elected and unelected, who strive continually to make our city an even better place to live.

We confess that in spite of our highest ideals, our best motives, our most selfless impulses, we often fall short of your standard of love and justice; we fall short of what you would have us to be and to do; we fall short of our own principles. For this we are sorry and we pray your forgiveness.

At the same time we are grateful, because we recognize that it isn’t up to us frail and fallible human beings to ensure our own success—because you are here with us. By your grace, you will make us equal to the task that lies before us.

So we ask you so to guide and bless the members of this assembled body, that they may govern our city with wisdom, that they may make decisions that please you, that they may truly love the people they serve, always placing the interests of others ahead of their own. And bless all of our citizens, that we would respond to their leadership in a spirit of love, humility, and graciousness. Amen.

Not bad, right?

Praying this prayer in a public, secular context reminded me of a prayer that I offered at a corporate shareholders’ meeting when I first entered the ministry nine years ago. (Come to think of it, I’ve done this sort of thing a lot.) It was a large gathering of people—probably a thousand or so. I prayed my prayer and left. Weeks later, I received a letter from a Baptist pastor in the area who was at the shareholders’ meeting.

He told me that my prayer was bad—scandalously so—and what business did I have calling myself a Christian minister?

Why did he say this? Because I hadn’t included the formula, “in Jesus’ name,” at the end. God, he said, won’t or can’t hear prayers that are not offered in Jesus’ name. With urgency, he asked me to repent and start praying properly for the sake of my soul and the souls in my congregation.

Today, I would have placed the letter in File 13 and gotten on with my life, but I was young and foolish then. I wrote him back, making the point (with which I still agree, surprisingly) that it’s only by grace that God hears and acts on our prayers. It’s not any human action that compels God to give us what we ask for. To say otherwise is to reduce prayer to a meritorious work that earns God’s love.

Besides—and this was the coup de grâce as far as I was concerned—in the Lord’s Prayer, the very prayer that Jesus gave his disciples as a model to emulate, there is no “in Jesus’ name” formula.

I’m hardly against using the formula in the doxology of my prayers. In fact, I love the Trinitarian formula—again, from the Book of Common Prayer—that concludes with words such as these: “we pray this in the name of your Son Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” But whether we say “in Jesus’ name” or not doesn’t change the fact that we Christians offer our prayers in or through his name and power, and on the basis of his atoning work on the cross and our new standing before God.

My Baptist pastor brother was, in a Christianized way, making the same mistake as the Gentiles Jesus mentions in Matthew 6:7-8: that there is a technique for prayer, a way of doing it “correctly,” which compels God’s response. Isn’t that the last thing we need? One obstacle to prayer, after all, is believing that we don’t know how to do it! To which I would say, “Of course we don’t know how to do it! What’s your point?”

If no less a saint than the apostle Paul can confess his inadequacy at prayer, then we can be sure that we’re not very good at it, either. In his masterful book on the subject, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster says—if memory serves—that we’re always beginners when it comes to prayer.

But we pray anyway! The Spirit will intercede with us to make sure that we “get it right,” regardless how poorly we do it.

In the days since I preached the sermon on Jesus’ Model Prayer, I’ve been intentionally following the outline of this prayer to guide my own words and petitions. So I spend the first part of my prayer focusing on God—who he is and what he wants for me and for the world. Then I turn the prayer to myself and my own needs and personal petitions.

In his sermon on the same text, Timothy Keller says that if we remember that what we’re praying for—before all else—is that God’s will will be done, then we’ll never be disappointed by a petition not granted. Why? Because, Keller says in so many words, our first and most important petition, “thy will be done,” will always come true. All of our personal petitions are subsumed under that first petition.

While I appreciate the logic of that statement, and it’s beautiful in its own way, I smell a rat—a big, fat Calvinist one—and I say that as someone who adores Timothy Keller. He’s simply one of the best and brightest Christian thinkers of our generation. But sooner or later his Reformed roots are bound to show through, as they do here.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Everything that happens in this world is not already God’s will. Yes, he permits evil, but evil is not required for God’s purposes. If we petition God to prevent evil from happening (as we often do), and evil happens anyway, we don’t say, “Well, it must have been God’s will.” No!

What sense would it make for Jesus to have us pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” unless God’s will often weren’t being done on earth? Am I missing something?

Besides, how would we know for sure whether or not God’s will were being done when our prayers seem to go unanswered? Keller implies that if what we pray for doesn’t come to pass, then we can be sure that God’s will is nevertheless accomplished. But on what basis does he say that?

Remember the Parable of the Unjust Judge? The widow pesters the judge day after day until she finally wears him down, and he gives her the justice she seeks. Her persistence pays off. If the widow had given up a moment earlier, however, and the judge didn’t relent, would that mean that the “right thing” had taken place? Of course not. The “right thing”—what we can interpret as God’s will—was that she keep on asking until the judge gave in.

With all that being said, even though he badly overstates his case, I still believe Keller is on to something. As much as it pains some of my fellow mainline Protestants to hear, God is sovereign. He’s in charge. He’s ultimately in control. If God wants to override what we want for what God wants, then by all means he can and will do so. I’m not praying for “my kingdom” to come—even though I usually live as if that’s what I really want!

4 Responses to “We’re not very good at praying, and other reflections”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree with what you are saying here. One way I look at it is, God makes the right decision given everything that is “on the table.” However, if we don’t pray, that is one less thing on the table, whereas if we DO pray, that is some new thing on the table, which God then takes into account along with everything else.

    (I don’t know if this is correct in that particular instance or not, but consider God’s discussions with Moses about wiping out rebellious Israel and starting over with Moses. Moses then remonstrates. Perhaps Moses’ remonstration is something then on the table which was not there when God said what he wanted to do, and that remonstration then had some impact in God’s changing what he said he was inclined to do.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      That makes sense. When prayer is on the table with God, God may then choose to honor our requests.

  2. shanyns Says:

    Food for thought here, and greatly appreciated. Bless you!


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