Yesterday, I wrote about how I used to view prayer: as a way to get stuff done. This is a temptation for me, an engineer, and for people like me. But what happens when you place God at the center of prayer? This might not help, if we keep the idea of “doing things” central. If fact, we are in danger of treating God as our “heavenly valet.” (Ironically, this is a point where skeptics focus their questions. Christians sometimes talk about God as if he exists simply to do stuff for us, and skeptics rightly point out that God doesn’t seem to do what we ask.)
Putting God at the center of prayer corresponds to movements in many places in engineering that take “human factors” into account. From the raw materials to finished product, engineers are more aware that people are involved at every step of the way. It is not enough to know the math and properties of materials; you have to know how to help people make and use the products.
For prayer, there is one overriding “God factor”: relationship! Prayer points to the central fact that we are in relationship with God, always, at every point in our life, from birth to death. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, this fact is front and center. He tells us to pray, “Our father in heaven!” God is not simply a distant being who does not listen, but is ours.
Prayer is the warp and woof of our relationship. God loves us and wants to be with us. Getting stuff from God, or getting God to act on our behalf, are certainly valid things to ask for in prayer, but we miss out on the greater gift of just being with God if we move too fast to asking. There is a cliché that says, “Seek God’s face before you seek God’s hands.” The author P.D. James introduced me to the idea of “companionable silence” in which two people are just “with” each other. This is certainly possible in our relationship with God. (Other proper things, of course, are praise and worship.)
For many, it will take time to work out how the perspective of relationship with God applies to prayer, and the get-it-done mentality doesn’t go away, though it is transformed. After all, God is God, and we are not. He has everything we need. It is therefore completely proper that we who need everything should ask God for what we need; it is natural to ask God for things on the behalf of other.
Let me end with an analogy. Those of us from liturgical traditions center our worship on a meal. Here is prayer in perhaps its highest form: Eucharist (“thanksgiving”). One can think of liturgical life as preparation for the next meal, or as leaving to go out into the world after the meal.
Prayer “during the week” then is either pre- or post-dinner conversation. What does one talk about before dinner? Whatever needs discussing. And what do we say after dinner? Our thoughts return to the What’s next? of life. In the case of prayer, we speak with the one who said once in post-dinner conversation:
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. (John 14:12-14)
In our post-dinner conversation, it is proper to ask for all we will need. If fact, it is proper to pour out all that is in us — our hopes and fears — because in this relationship God is able to take all that from us (in these days, the prayer of lament is an especially precious thing).
I have been released from the pressure of treating prayer like an engineer getting stuff done. There is not the pressure to understand, and there is freedom to experience prayer in different ways. I am learning to live within the “God factor” of a relationship with God as his child.