Let me begin with a conclusion that may allay fears aroused by the title: keep right on praying for all the things you pray for.
But let us consider briefly what the nature of the God is who hears them, and see how, in a manner of speaking, we are not talking to him very well. As Martin Thornton puts it: “The health of our prayer depends upon the adequacy of our conception of God, especially as our conception of the Christian doctrine of God becomes absorbed …” (English Spirituality, 275).
To Thornton, a healthy prayer life grounded in the right conception of the Trinity is a three-fold rule of Eucharist, Office, and private devotion. We shall return to this. But first, a giant of twentieth-century theology puts our common misconception of God in context. Karl Rahner, describing the dilemma of a God who promises to be near and yet often seems distant or absent, argues:
Distant from you is only a God who does not exist: a tangible God, a God of human being’s small thoughts and his cheap, timid feelings, a God of earthly security, a God whose concern is that the children don’t cry and that philanthropy doesn’t fall into disillusion, a very venerable — idol! That is what has become distant (“God is far from us,” The Content of Faith, 217-218).
Distant, that is, from an authentic Christian with a properly ordered prayer life. But such Christians are rare even among those who frequent the Eucharist and perhaps even say Morning and Evening Prayer. Sincere, orthodox believers have been infected with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which puts each of us at the center of the universe when we offer our own private prayers. This is the realm of my god, my spiritual health, my prayer life. What we have “absorbed,” to borrow Thornton’s word, is simply not the God of the Bible and the Church.
In this context, petitionary prayer has run amok. We should, of course, be doing it, but to what end? We are implicitly trained now to think that the right combination of change in the vending machine will deliver the desired product. Prayer is a means to the end of achieving a need or want — and for most of us a last resort, or at best a companion activity to other options. Prayer helps us cover our bases. When our prayers seem unanswered, we only stick with it by striving for the right level of insight, involvement, or frequency that will one day get the job done. I, down here, will figure out how to harness the power of God up there. But I search the Bible in vain to find out how.
Contrast authentic prayer to the Father, in union with the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit: Our health, prosperity, and happiness must always be subsumed under the category of “thy will be done.” Praying for our friends is the same. Our hope for God’s aid is simply our desire to participate in “thy kingdom come.” In this sense, we cooperate with the silent God who lets grandma die instead of healing her. We share in the work of the God who doesn’t come through on our rent this month. We are united with the God who isn’t opening a door to a new job fast enough. And indeed, we glory in the God who shocks us with miracles — with healings in this world that signify perfect healing in the life to come. We are living faithfully in God’s presence precisely because we do not understand the day-to-day operation of His will. If we did, how small a god would we be praying to?
So how do we pray better?
First, we keep right on praying for whatever compels us, however weird, wonderful, or mundane. We cannot help it, and we should not resist praying for grandma’s recovery instead of her death. Sometimes we cannot help praying that our persecutors would receive justice (and then some). The Psalmist prayed that God would “break their teeth in their mouths” (58:6) and that his enemies children would be “waifs and beggars” (109:9). Likewise, he prayed for deliverance and blessings in specific circumstances. Did any of these things come to pass? Perhaps so; but more important is realizing that the Psalmist’s prayers reflect his own broken will, relying in the end on God’s perfect will, over and against his own petitions. Lament gives way to praise. Desire for immediate help gives way to thanksgiving. This is the underpinning of all real prayer, and we have forgotten it. Why? Because it is difficult to embrace real praise and thanksgiving in a prayer life that is mostly just God and me. We need more players in the drama to see the main character in sharper relief.
Following Thornton, a private prayer life must be third in the line of prayer activities in which we are engaged. First is the community’s sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in the Holy Eucharist. Second is daily corporate prayer in the offices of the Church (to Anglicans this means Morning and Evening Prayer). “My soul doth magnify the Lord” is Mary’s song for the Church. “I bend the knee of my heart” is Manasseh’s commitment that I share with fellow believers. “The gifts of God for the people of God” insists that Christ died and lives for me, inasmuch as I am one of a large number throughout time and space. My own private prayers flow out as a tributary of these two mighty streams.
With our conception of God adjusted, we kneel beside our own beds with more confidence in the effect of our prayers. We know that in this way we cannot ever really pray wrong. God hears us, and the distant god of our culture cowers in defeat.
The featured image is “Praying women in St Andrew’s church in Ramsowo” (2012). It is licensed under Creative Commons.