THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 56
Trying to pray
This is an article for all those who find it difficult to pray. If you find prayer a wonderful experience, always available to you and totally linking you to God, then pass by with a blessing – this is not for you.
But if you are someone who comes to a time of prayer and finds themselves tongue tied, or, as someone once said to me – I no sooner start to say my prayer than I fall asleep – then this is for you. My brief comment is going to be even more diffuse than usual, but that is the nature of the subject.
One of the first problems is not that we don’t want to pray but that we feel we ought to pray! Sometimes we have a sense of guilt about our failure to pray. We sense that somehow we are missing out on an important part of the Christian life. Other Christians seem to pray – why don’t we? And we don’t know how quite to move from where we are to where we feel we should be. How does one learn to pray and to value prayer?
We have to start with our relationship with God. If that is wrong then our prayers will continue to feel earthbound, and God will seem distant.
So what should be our relationship with our Father in Heaven? Well, there we go again - what should it be? No sooner do we start down this train of thought about God than we are beginning to assume guilt again, and that can make us feel burdened.
So let’s go back to the very beginning. Are you are Christian? Ah! That is a difficult question for some! How do you define a Christian? Well, for this exercise, I will define a Christian as someone who follows Jesus Christ. So what does ‘follow’ mean? I hear you say. Well, for me ‘follow’ means that we are trying to be the sort of people Jesus wants us to be, to live as Jesus wants us to live, and be as present to him as he is to us. Let’s look at these three.
Trying to be the sort of people that Jesus wants us to be:
We must start with reading the gospels – those are the only prime source on the life and teachings of Jesus. Millions of books have been written about Jesus –and very helpful they are too – some of them! But they are all people’s comments. Instead, we need to go back to the source documents. The gospels are not biographies of his life. They were written to show how he fulfilled the expectation of the Jews for a messiah. We must not bemoan the fact that they leave so many questions unanswered, because they tell us all that is vitally necessary to know.
For example, they give us a number of sublime stories which were told by Jesus. The story of the Prodigal Son, which shows us the heart of the Father. The story of the Good Samaritan, which shows us quite simply how our heart should lead us in dealing with anyone in any need. The story about the lost coin, showing us the purpose of God and speaking a wealth of meaning about the human condition. Simple stories, that go to the very crux of what being human really means.
After the gospels there are the letters of Paul. Here we are already at one remove from Jesus. Paul never met Jesus when he was alive, teaching and healing in Galilee. But Paul’s letters are sublime documents because they show how an expert in Jewish thinking was able to interpret Jesus as the Messiah, and then was able to go on to see beyond contemporary Jewish thought and see Christ as relevant to the whole world – to everyman. Paul sees Jesus as the Messiah who wants every person alive (Jew and Gentile) to come into his kingdom.
We struggle sometimes a bit with Paul. He is not always easy to read and understand. He twists himself in knots sometimes trying to explain exactly how a Jewish Rabbi was really the Son of God with good news for every person alive. But modern translations help unravel some of Paul’s more complicated passages, and I thoroughly recommend a translation such as The Message in addition to your standby bible. It can unravel some of the more complicated of Paul’s arguments.
The gospels and the rest of the New Testament show us the lifestyle of the Christian. We have to make some allowance for cultural differences, but the bones are there for us to recognize.
Trying to live as Jesus wants us to live:
Being a Christian implies, next, that we attempt to live a moral life, spiritually open to God (and each other). Now this is not easy. For one thing, the way of Jesus is not the way of the world.
Although one can find plenty of examples of unselfishness and self-sacrifice in the world, generally they are in short supply. In the Christian life unselfishness and self-sacrifice are absolutely integral to the way one lives. They are the base building blocks of the Christian life. If your life does not show the fruit of an unselfish life and if you do not enter into self-sacrifice in your life, then you are nowhere as a Christian. These become part of one’s outlook and part of one’s being, if one is a Christian. You can’t help it, because you have replaced the old motivation (‘Me first’) with a new one (God first, others second, myself last).
No one is suggesting that this is easy, or that we are all highly successful at it. Most of us struggle most of the time, because it means trying to redirect our natural selves into the way of life to which Christ points us. But we persist, and eventually, slowly, we change and become different people.
Jesus gives us the powerful starting impetus – a change in our whole being when we first accept his Lordship. He calls it being born again – and all sorts of people get tied in knots trying to explain what that means. But really it is very simple. We are reborn when the Lord Jesus comes into our hearts as Lord and Saviour. And thereafter he provides his Spirit to guide and empower us.
Being present to Jesus as he is present to us:
This phrase may sound a bit odd. How is Jesus present to us? A Christian believes that God through his Holy Spirit is present with each one of us all the time. In fact, a Christian believes that God is closer to us than breathing, nearer than the person with whom you are closest. All that this phrase means is that we try consciously to live like that – to be aware of the presence of Christ in our lives all the time, living constantly in his presence, although we cannot see, touch or hear him audibly. It gets easier and easier as we go on in the Christian life.
Now I am not saying that only Christians – defined as above – are the ones who pray. That is not the case at all! Everybody prays - even those who believe that there is no God! The instinct to pray is buried deep within each of us – so deep that in moments of crisis even the severest agnostic will call out for God’s help! We want to express that instinctive need at other times too – although it might have nothing to do with church. We might be in the middle of a walk over the mountaintops, or lying on a quiet beach somewhere in the Tropics – and we are moved to pray. We might be listening to a performance of Messiah or Beethoven’s seventh symphony. It is an inchoate desire to be in communication with a Higher Being. Christians think of it as the pull of God on each person’s heart.
To return to our theme – even when we are following the three ‘conditions’ outlined above we can still find prayer difficult. But if you are trying to follow Jesus Christ – trying to live the way he wants you to live and to realise his presence day by day - then there are a lot of consequences that assist you in your praying, and these consequences seem to build up over time.
One consequence will be that you have a foolproof way of dealing with the guilt and the sense of failure that dogs many people much of the time. When you sense that there is something that lies heavily on your conscience, then you simply turn to Jesus and ask his forgiveness, and you accept his forgiveness, and you start to live a little differently.
If you are committing adultery every Thursday evening on the way home from work you may (or may not) find that there are blockages to your prayer. But if you become aware that what you are doing is wrong, ask God to forgive you and receive his forgiveness, and then start to disentangle yourself from that relationship. That will give a real fillip to your prayer life!
Sometimes we get a sense of staleness in our praying. We feel that God has heard all we have to say before. He has heard our promises – broken yet again – and he surely does not want us to keep on going through the same old thing again and again? But this of course is where our image of God gets in the way of God’s loving presence in our lives.
If our picture of God is of him as a great big human, then of course we think he will be fatigued by our constant failure. The problem is not our failure (because failure is going to be a feature of our life on this planet, however long we live) but in our picture of God. We have to learn that God is much bigger than any picture we could possibly conceive.
This is a procedure that will be repeated again and again in our lives. It is part of the growth in spirituality that takes place in all of us as we constantly stumble and learn to pick ourselves up and start again by the grace of God.
What seems to happen with humans is that in time we grow accustomed to our picture of God, but of course that picture is always partial, incomplete, inadequate. God is always much bigger than our picture of him. As we painfully learn the lessons of life, so we have to add fresh dimensions to our picture of God. As we do that, so a new phase starts in our life and we are enabled to continue growing.
For example, it may be that a Christian teenager is filled at some stage with a sense of the holiness of God, over against their own sin and inadequacy. Then possibly their picture of God becomes arid and distant, but suddenly the sun breaks through and God is intimately present and is ‘experienced’. So our picture of God grows somewhat and we enter another phase of our life in which we see both the holiness of God, together with the personal love of God for us. We may still struggle to fight our own battles – until we learn perhaps that God is also able to empower us. When we see that as true, then we have to adjust our picture of God all over again. And this process is continuous all through everyone’s life – a constant learning to discard the picture of God that has sustained us hitherto but which is no longer valid for us, and to see that God is greater and more real than our understanding was.
Prayer is communication with God – and as our picture of him deepens and widens, so our prayer is able to go deeper and wider. It is like swimming in the sea. To start with, as little children, we just paddle along the edge of the sand, but as we grow and learn to swim we are able to venture into the breaking waves. Eventually we swim out and brave the open sea. But we will never swim across the Atlantic Ocean! Praying is learning to paddle, and then to swim in the open sea.
The five year old does not want to go swimming out to sea. He is quite content to paddle and to retreat when a big wave breaks near him. But gradually as he grows he gains confidence, experience and courage – and eventually he is able to swim way out of his depth.
If you want to deepen your prayer life there are all sorts of ways of doing it, apart from just spending more time praying. One way is to look at the main elements of prayer and to spend a little time on each of them every day thus broadening the scope of your prayers. This need not take long – and it can help you to discipline yourself to go deeper in prayer.
For example you might spend a few minutes on some of the following:
Praise - telling God how wonderful he is and how
highly you esteem him.
Thanksgiving - thanking God for the people, circumstances, gifts etc that have helped you – in fact for your whole life.
Confession - wanting to tell God where you recognise that you have gone wrong; getting it out into the open with him.
Worship - opening your heart to God in humble submission to his love
Petition - naming the people and situations you want to bring before God for his blessing
Meditation - try being quiet as you mull over an incident or story from the gospels, entering into it imaginatively
Supplication - asking God for his help and blessing in your own life.
The Lord’s - praying the family prayer as Christ has
Prayer told us to.
This is not an exhaustive list, and your prayers may be an amalgam of some of these. Eventually one learns the advantages of progressing through the various modes of prayer. Before you know it you are looking for half an hour or even an hour – and setting the alarm clock accordingly. And, of course, you can add or subtract as you want – if you think you want to just adore God for a few minutes of your prayer time, then do it. Bask in his presence. Listen to a worship CD. Never mind what anyone says - prayer is an intensely personal approach to God.
You might want to be quiet for five or ten minutes as part of your prayer time – perhaps with a pencil and notebook handy. In that time, when you quieten your mind, you might just catch a thought that, later, turns out to be inspired. Someone once said that thoughts from God glide through your mind and away like fish in the sea. It is as well to jot the thoughts down so as not to lose them. This also frees your mind to go on to the next thought.
All your prayer time – and especially any thoughts or guidance you receive – needs careful evaluation against what you know of God’s nature and purpose. If your thought is to go on committing adultery every Thursday night, then it is more than possible that it is your own desire that is talking, not the Holy Spirit!
Now it is perfectly possible to write a book about each of these various aspects of prayer – and we would still only have touched the fringe of this huge subject. Why is it so huge? Because we are talking about our relationship to God and God is bigger than anything we can imagine. Our concept of him and of his love and purpose for us just keeps on growing until the day we die. So it is hardly surprising that we never reach the point where we can say that we have conquered the subject of prayer. We are all learners and anyone who says otherwise has progressed even less than most of us.