“The potency of prayer hath subdued the strength of fire; it hath bridled the rage of lions, hushed anarchy to rest, extinguished wars, appeased the elements, burst the chains of death, expanded the gates of heaven, subdued evil instincts, assuaged diseases, repelled frauds, rescued cities from destruction, stayed the sun in its course, and arrested the progress of the thunderbolt. Prayer is an all-sufficient panoply, a treasure undiminished, a mine which is never exhausted, a sky unobscured by the clouds, a heaven unruffled by the storm. It is the root, the fountain, and the mother of a thousand blessings.” – John Chrysostom
I apologize for having written an essay on the subject of prayer for two reasons. First, I do not consider myself to be an expert on the subject. I do not even consider myself particularly good at it. It is quite possible that at some point I might have made an error in judgment. If that is the case, I implore my seniors to point it out. The comments are open. Having said that, I’m driven to write this because what I see around me seems to suggest that there are some misconceptions about prayer right within the christian community.
The second reason is a more practical concern about how this essay can be misinterpreted. As you will see later, I have criticized and remarked upon certain practices I have seen regarding prayer. In this, my intention here is not to put anyone down. It is to share what I’ve learned about prayer over the years. So that it may serve to edify others.
My first assumption is that the Bible, the word of God, is true in its meaning. More specifically, I’m assuming that when Jesus says you are my friend, he means exactly that. When he calls us as his bride, he is referring to a what we (or at least Hebrews) mean when we (or they) say bride. When God calls us as his children, he is referring to the relationship between a father and a child that we all know. There is only one difference. When God refers to our relationship with him by comparing it to a human relationship, he is referring the ideal instance of that relationship. Not a flawed and watered down relationship that is tainted by sin and the fallen nature of the world.
The second assumption is that people’s prayer in private is very similar to their prayer in public. I will expound upon this in the next section.
These are the two assumption on which the rest of the essay is based on.
Now, as for the certain practices that I mentioned earlier, it can simply be summed up in a simple phrase. Ritualization of prayer. I have to admit that this deduction is based purely upon what I have seen of prayers in public meetings. I haven’t seen anyone praying in private for the simple reason of my seeing them pray no longer keeps it private. So, in a way, it is possible that my deduction is completely false, but my observations lead me to believe otherwise.
I also agree that this doesn’t apply to everyone. In our journey towards Christ-likeness, we all are in different places. Some are far ahead, and some have just begun the journey. I’m certain that there are people to who know better than to ritualize prayer. However, I also know that there are many others who are not as informed. Because, I have seen people praying the same prayer over and over, with same words. As if they were chanting some mantra. As if the potency of prayer depended on the length of prayer or repetition of words.
Then, there are others who speak a completely different language when they pray. Does the potency of prayer depend upon the perceived grandeur of words used? Others remind God who he is and his promises to them in EVERY SINGLE PRAYER. Do they really think that the God who writes the number of hair on their head in his strange little book would forget the promises he has made to them? Many more have a habit of belittling themselves. Do they realize that they are belittling the image of living God?
I understand that some of these criticisms are quite superficial and only a consequence of a much deeper problem. But in any situation, a problem can occur only for two reasons.
- Believing some kind of lie or half-truth. Misunderstanding, or a partial understating of a situation.
In this case I think it’s because of the second reason. I can speculate further upon the origin of the misunderstanding, but it will only lengthen the essay without contributing anything to the solution. So, suffice it to say that it can be anything from a shallow understanding of the word of God to borrowing idioms from the surrounding culture or religions.
Humility and Honesty
I have tried it before and I tried it again but it seems that there is no way to separate the two. Because one inevitably leads to other. And since I’ve written about humility earlier, I won’t go into much depth. However, there is one overarching point that needs to be made.
Humility and honesty are two qualities required to pray. Psalm 24:3-4 says: Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
What does it mean to have clean hands? Or a pure heart? A person who has not sworn deceitfully. Is it not talking about honesty? What does it mean to lift one’s soul up to vanity? Is it not the very definition of pride? So, the passage simply says, a person who is humble and honest, only he, will be able to ascend into the hill of the Lord.
Even taking into consideration the Crucifixion of Christ for the sin of all mankind, the principle remains true. For salvation is a gift. And to receive that gift, one must have the humility to accept that he has been wrong all along. That he is a sinner. And to repent of his sins, he must be honest. He must turn away from all that he recognizes as sin. Not only in word but in deed.
(You should also read the humility in prayer subsection of the previous essay specifically.)
Patience, although not a requirement of prayer, is a good quality to have. Because, it’s not a good thing to force God’s hand. (Yes, I believe it is possible to force God’s hand. If you want details, ask in comments.) I do not mean to say that he will punish you in some way for forcing his hand. Because your only punishment will be, you will get exactly what you ask for. And what you ask for might not be the best thing for you.
I will illustrate this in a very simple manner. For instance, take this statement: Little kids shouldn’t run around the living room with scissors. Why? For two reasons:
- They will make a great mess out of a perfectly fine living room.
- They might hurt themselves. (An inquisitive toddler’s mind can come up with a quite innocent question like: What do scissors taste like?)
For quite similar reasons, God might withhold some blessing from you. The reason for him not answering your prayer is not that he doesn’t care about you but it’s that he cares a great deal more about you to give you what you ask for. He will bless you at the very moment when you become capable of handling that blessing. So, be patient.
Now that I’ve dealt with some of the continual aspects of prayer, I’d like to focus on the more immediate elements. But as far as we have come, there is one question that is yet to be answered. Even though the essay is titled “On Prayer”, I’m very doubtful that any of you even noticed that I haven’t defined prayer. It is because deep down we already know what prayer is.
But if a meaningful discussion is to be had about any subject, the necessary terms must be defined. Thus, a definition for prayer is required. Prayer can be defined simply as a conversation or a communication with God. Here, I must clear up a very subtle difference. Prayer is NOT a way to communicate with God. It is, communication with God. If it was one of the way (or even the only way) to communicate with God, it would be ritualized and commercialized (as it happens in many temples/mosques/religious sites). But for us Christians, it itself is, a communication. A conversation with God.
Now that we have a definition for prayer, I would like to go back and draw from the first assumption. In summary, it states that God is our friend, father and lover. Although God’s roles in our life is not limited to only these, for the purposes of this discussion, these three would suffice.
If prayer is really a conversation with God, the one who is our friend, father and lover, shouldn’t we be expectant of a reply? But we have made a monologue out of a dialogue. We have made a habit of speaking our piece and then goofing off without paying heed to what God might have to say. Somehow we have developed a subconscious misconception that God’s only way of responding is either by approval or denial of the requests we make to him. Do we think him not capable of an elaborate answer? But we all know that it’s a false belief. Why then do we continue to behave as if it were true?
For a dialogue to be meaningful and even pleasurable, both the parties must have ample opportunities to speak. It must be plain and not pompous. It must be varied and not monotonous. There must be mutual respect between the participants. Both the participants must be honest in their speaking and humble enough to listen to the other person. We all know these axioms are true regarding conversation. We apply and obey each one of them in our conversations with our friends and family. But not in our prayers. Why?
Although this section is a reiteration of an aspect of the previous section, I think it needs to be clarified. Because in our age of technology and instant gratification, we have become alienated and even somewhat allergic to idleness (there is a difference between being lazy and being idle) and silence. So, let me phrase it out clearly. In prayer, we need to be silent. Silent not only verbally or in activity but also in thought. Silent until God responds in some way.
Before God responds, one needs to be ready to listen to him. Sometimes, we tell God that we are ready to listen to him, but all we are ready to listen from him is what we want to listen. We have already made up our mind and all we want is God’s endorsement for our plans. So that we can go on doing what we please while parading as if we are doing exactly what God wants. We need to subdue our own will in order for God’s will to be revealed.
In such situations, there is a struggle. A silent struggle of who will submit to the other person’s request. C. S. Lewis said, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “All right, then, have it your way”.” And saying, “Thy will be done” to God is not easy even if we know that it is in our best interest. Submission doesn’t happen instantly. It is a struggle in the battlefield of our mind. It requires time. A time without distractions. A time of silence. Because real conversation happens in silence.
Humor and Poetry
I have a feeling that to really get the point across, to really make you understand how serious I am about prayer being a conversation, a conversation between friends/lovers or father and a child, I must mention jokes. Because I consider humor to be one of the hallmarks of intimacy.
In our times, there is a certain idea about the character of God parading around as truism. The idea states that God is some kind of a very serious, bureaucratic businessman. That he is so formal and mechanical that if you make a joke in his presence, he’ll sentence you to a thousand flaming deaths! It is simply not true. I’m alive is the proof.
You see, God invented humor. He is not the grumpy headmaster with a rod that so many of us have grown up believing him to be. To the contrary, he is quite the character. He teaches via parables and talks in riddles. He loves poetry and paradoxes. In scriptures, I find certain remarks by Jesus that make me giggle whenever I read them. “The last will be the first and the first will be the last” or “Whoever wants to save his life will loose it, but whoever looses his life for my sake will save it” or “He who is least among all of you is the one who is greatest”. Even while teaching the deepest truths, he somehow manages to find space to be poetic. To speak the plain truth and still leave a mystery. Trust me, when you are really with him, there isn’t a single dull moment.
I must admit that a danger also lies here. It’s a danger of taking God too lightly. The danger manifests itself when a person assumes too much too early in his relationship with God. However, when one really comes to know God, it’s mostly nullified. So, my simple advice is, do not assume too much about the character of God and do not take God lightly. He is God and he is to be revered. The only reason for us being able to make jokes or speak lightly in his presence lies in who he is and not in who we are.
Tears and Burdens
Not everytime we pray, we are happy or in the mood of cracking jokes. No, most of the times, there are pressing matters, urgent problems in our lives that we need God’s help with. Sometimes we are so desperate that we begin to weep in prayer. Crying to God to fulfill our needs.
Other times, we feel so overwhelmed by his blessings that we are overcome with tears of joy. Crying in exultation because we can’t find words to express our joy and thanks.
However, in both these cases, the cries originate in our hearts. But there are another kind of tears that originate somewhere else. They originate in the heart of God. And these tears are not of want or need, or even thanksgiving. They are of love. Tears of love.
As I’ve been emphasizing all along, prayer is a conversation. But it’s not a conversation that’s only about you. There are times of deep and delicate intimacy when God shares his own heart with you. He shares his passion and love for all humanity. A passion and love that is so intense that I don’t think there is any human response possible other than a complete breakdown in tears. In these little episodes of intense intimacy, he shows what he sees and shares what he feels with you. When you really see though the eyes of God, the eyes in which there is no judgment but grace, no criticism but love, no discrimination but eagerness, eagerness to find all his children in his arms, when you look through those jealous eyes, the life we live, the requests of material blessings that we continue to make look so insignificant and petty. It is at these times that he transforms you from the core of your being. He makes you more like him.
So, prayer is instrumental in our growth as Christians. It is during prayer that our heart becomes one with God. It is during prayers that our will gets united with God’s. And when that happens, we can no longer be who we were.
Prayer is situational
Like any conversation, prayer is also situational. You do not go to your friend’s dad’s funeral and then crack jokes. You do not go to a party and start talking about the poverty in Africa or poor work conditions in china (although it is not out of the scope of possibilities). In every conversation, you have to grasp the context.
It is quite obvious that not every single element that I’ve mentioned in this essay will be present in every prayer. Not in every prayer do I admire the beauty of stars or poke fun at the weird shape of trees behind our home. Not every time do we discuss the parable of artificial and natural light sources. Not every day is my heart burdened with the intense love and passion of God. Not everything happens every time. It can, but it doesn’t need to.
There is a certain question that goes around in christian circles. “How’s your prayer life?” While the intent behind the question, the show of concern about one’s spiritual state from one’s seniors is good and even encouraging. There seems to be one simple problem with the question. Nobody has ever told me what exactly do they mean by “prayer life”.
Also, if all the people asking this question were asking for the same thing, I would’ve figured out the meaning long ago. But every time I answer the question, the follow up discussion seems to suggest that each person was asking for quite different things. It is as if the question depends less upon itself, but more upon who is asking the question.
In my earlier days as a believer this caused me a lot of unnecessary confusion. Because I never understood the true meaning behind “Prayer life”. Because one person suggested that the quality of prayer life depended upon how much time does one spend in prayer. Other person suggested that it is the sum of all the “spiritual” activities. Others yet suggested that it meant if the totality of your life was in accordance with the word of God.
Since those early days as christian, I have learned much. And even though I know that I have a long way to go, one thing I am certain of. And that one thing is the meaning of “Prayer life”. If I had to define it, I would define it as, “Intimacy with God”. In my opinion, those three words sum up the whole purpose of Christendom. Individually or collectively, that is the purpose.
If we take that as the definition of prayer life, then the question becomes, “How intimate are you with God?”. That is a question we all can answer. Also, the follow up discussion is also much more meaningful than adjusting the schedule to make space for more prayer time or the endless classification of spiritual and non-spiritual things. Instead of wandering around superficial topics, the question directly gives us access to the core of the issue. It is, “How should one develop intimacy with God?” To answer this question, I provide 3 pointers.
- Know him.
The primary way of knowing God is through the word of God. Read the bible. Study it. Meditate upon it. Question it. Through studying and scrutinizing the word of God, you will come to know God.
- Pursue him.
Once you know him, pursue him. Pursue him through prayer. Try to become like him. Talk to him. Ask him to share his heart with you. Ask him to teach the deepest truths and hidden mysteries of the world. If you take nothing else from this essay, take this statement: Prayer is primary means for developing an intimate relationship with God.
- Walk with him.
Apply the word of God in your own life. At your workplace. Among your friends. Not only in word and deed but also in your thoughts. There is so much we know but do not practice. Learn to walk the talk. There is a saying that goes “A praying man will stop sinning and a sinning man will stop praying.” I have found it true in my own life.
There are few final thoughts that would like to mention. First of these is faith. Faith is indispensable. Bible says “And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.” I have taken this statement as an implicit assumption for anyone who is reading this.
Second, just like Paul, I do not say that I have achieved everything I have mentioned in this essay. Far from it. I’m still trying. However, the spirit of God doesn’t lead us down a path blindfolded. He shows everything very clearly. What I have described here is the landscape of prayer as I can see through my young eyes. My seniors are welcome to criticize and contradict it through scripture.