December 2020 Credo
It seems to be a common refrain among religious people that prayer is a human instinct. If that is so, then why is it apparent that so many Christians still struggle to pray – and pray well?
As we pause to ponder, we might agree that the subject of prayer has the element of mystery about it so much so that while, at times, we think we know how to pray yet, at other times, we feel that we still do not know how to pray.
That seems to be the disciples’ predicament as they ask Jesus to teach them how to pray (Luke 11). Did they not all grow up in a religious environment of prayer? Might not at least several of them have prayed regularly in their homes and at the temple? Why then did they ask Jesus to teach them to pray?
I wonder what your prior experience of prayer is but I grew up in a church environment and was taught the Lord’s Prayer from an early age. Then, shortly after, I learnt about the ACTS way to pray. That is, begin with Adoration, then Confession, followed by Thanksgiving and then move on to Supplication. It was a formula for prayer – and a good one. But sometimes, it became mechanically, merely a way to transact with God. After all, that was the point of my supplication wasn’t it? For some, that formula for prayer became a PIN for an on-demand transaction with God, akin to the pressing of the panic button in pressurizing moments.
But is that what prayer is to be? What do you bring to the act you call prayer?
Retrieving an Old Understanding of Prayer
Perhaps we might need a renewed understanding of prayer in order to truly pray. However, it is not a new understanding we seek but an old one we retrieve –indeed a very old one. Yet it is never outdated but ever life-giving.
In this article, I hope to retrieve the understanding that prayer is fundamentally conversation with God. This conversation expresses the life we have in God, first brought about through the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, now sustained by the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit. It evinces a lived reality that emerges from a living relationship with the triune God.
This proposed theme, however, is not without difficulties. Unfortunately, too many conversations break down today. So we struggle to understand how prayer can be conversation with God. Then, there is the concern that treating prayer as conversation with God might render communications with God as casual and too egalitarian. I hear these concerns and propose that when we have a right understanding of our life in God and prayer that ensues from it, these concerns will be addressed. What I can do now is to do my best to describe prayer as that permeating communion with God right in the midst of our everyday living.
To do so, I will draw from a Church Father and from John Calvin for they ground us in that understanding of prayer. Also, given the limits of this brief article, I will attempt to write in simple, contemporary terms without the theological jargon that some find difficult to grasp.
To begin with, John Chrysostom, the fourth-century early Church Father, in his homily on Prayer as the light of the soul remarked that ‘the highest good is prayer and conversation with God, because it means that we are in God’s company and in union with him.’
John Calvin echoes this perspective when he describes the practice of prayer as “a communion of men with God by which, having entered the heavenly sanctuary, they appeal to him in person concerning his promises in order to experience, where necessity so demands, that what they believed was not in vain, although he had promised it in word alone” (3.20.2).
Prayer as conversation with God rests upon a right understanding of God and the spiritual union we have with God through Jesus Christ. Rather than presumption, it rests upon profound doctrinal truths about God and the relationship we now have with God in Christ.
Indeed, against the frightful backdrop of a morbid fear of God at the time of the Reformation, Calvin urged the believers to quite a drastically different way to approach God! He urged them, by prayer, to spiritually enter the heavenly sanctuary to speak with their heavenly Father in person!
Confidence to Converse with God
The confidence to do so rests in Calvin’s understanding of our life in God. It is the spiritual union that we share with God when he put us right with himself by uniting us to Jesus through the faith-engendering help of the Holy Spirit, so that the life of God becomes operative in us (see Institutes 3.2; 3.11). In other words, we who previously were in enmity with God because of sin are now restored to communion with God through the saving grace that came through Jesus Christ.
Prayer is therefore the expression of this (restored) communion with God. This reality gives us confidence to approach God. We now relate to God not as frightened strangers from afar but as freed children from within the home.
As conversation with God, prayer understands the act to be one that brings us to greater heights of the knowledge of God or deeper depths of discerning the heart of God. Rather than surface conversation, it draws us into deeper communion with God our Father.
It is liken to the restored relationship of the father and the prodigal son. The son who is now returned to the home of the father goes on to be in communication and communion with the father – within the home, as a son would.
Can you imagine what it would be like if the restored son never resumed his communication with his father despite being restored to his home? Or that he would speak to the father only in times of great distress or only at certain fixed points of family contact? It would be very strange, wouldn’t it? Yet this is the picture some among us live with!
That is why we must re-picture the practice of prayer as family communication with God, not something we do only in desperate moments or out of duty. For this reason, Chrysostom goes on to explain that prayer is something ‘that comes from the heart and not from routine: not the prayer that is assigned to particular days or particular moments in time, but the prayer that happens continuously by day and by night.’
It is this same understanding that moved Calvin to describe prayer as the chief exercise of faith. For Calvin, the life we embrace from God by faith must be sustained by the same faith that God gave to birth it. The exercise that does that is called prayer. In other words, when we pray, we exercise our faith and begin to live into the life that we have in God – like the prodigal restoring the conversation with his father. By faith, we go into conversation and communion with God.
Faith and Prayer
This might explain why Calvin dedicated the two longest chapters in the Institutes of the Christian Religion to faith (3.2) and prayer (3.20). It is because of their intimate connection. Calvin defined faith as: “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (3.2.7).
From this perspective, prayer is an exercise in faith when we speak to God about the given promise in Christ. Our confidence rests in the fact of God’s benevolence. And it is a confidence which the Holy Spirit seals upon our minds and hearts. As such, we learn to speak to God with confidence about all that pertains to life. Like confident children would with their parents.
Prayer as conversation with God therefore plumbs the riches of a living relationship with God as informed by Scripture.
The point is that prayer is the real-time expression of a real and thriving relationship with God – called into existence by God himself, entered into by faith through the grace God supplies, and sustained by these same dynamics. Prayer, therefore, is the on-going practice of these realities. In other words, prayer is not only called upon in emergencies nor entered into only in ‘religious moments’ but is the very ‘spiritual bio-sphere’ of a real and living relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Put once more in familial terms, it is liken to the communion a family shares that comes from deep, and deepening, family relationships. They are founded on love, illumined by communication, and deepened through communion, which is the shared presence and purpose in a home – sometimes without the use of words.
The Contemplative Atmosphere for Communion with God
Consequently, for Calvin, prayer as conversation with God is not casual speech but the contemplative atmosphere in which we deepen our life in God. Just as conversation involves speaking and listening, the practice of prayer implies that we learn to speak as well as listen to God–both with and without words.
But we lament that many fractured and fragmented contemporary families do not know nor experience this. Hence it is so difficult for many to perceive or even believe that prayer can be an expression of a living relationship with God. Perhaps the same is true of the church gathering when we speak only in clichés, on the surface, and relate to each other only on a transactional level. When that happens, we remain so far removed from the life-giving communication and relationships that we so long for in a faith community.
What then might prayer as conversation with God do for us – or to us? It can return us to the true communion that we long to have with God, from which we discern the very heart of God, and from which we live with purpose in the world. Practicing prayer as conversation with God also helps to restore us to authentic relationships with each other – for that are the outcome of an authentic relationship with God.
There is much more to be said about prayer as conversation with God. Nevertheless, I hope that this brief article has given you a glimpse of what our life in God in prayer can be. Hopefully, it will spur you on to begin to converse with God.
Rev Dr Jimmy Tan is lecturer of Pastoral and Practical Theology at Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in Singapore.