Prayer (Matthew 6:7–15; Psalms)
I was raised in Churches of Christ, and one of the notable differences between Churches of Christ and many other expressions of Christian faith is that we didn’t talk about prayer very much. We prayed a lot, but we didn’t talk about prayer. We didn’t explore prayer or the meaning of prayer or the uses of prayer, and prayer was often one-dimensional.
Prayer was almost always about thanksgiving and solicitation. I say that’s one-dimensional because the solicitation and the thanksgiving were often related. The thanksgiving was usually for a request that people felt had been answered and then a new request was offered, for which we would be thankful later, when it was answered. In that sense, it was one-dimensional; it was really all about solicitation.
That’s not to say that people didn’t mention other things from time to time — general praise or the classic “we lift up our thoughts and worries,” for example. It just wasn’t the MO.
I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with those kinds of prayers, although I’m not sure they fit as neatly into my current theology. The problem comes when prayers of thanksgiving and solicitation become just about getting something from God. When prayer is merely transactional, it teaches us that God is merely a service provider. That undercuts our relationship with God; rather than reflecting an intimate relationship, it actually distances us from God, like a customer from a customer support rep.
I submit that there’s a better core posture toward prayer, which can do several things:
- Accommodate many different ways of praying so that we can have a rich repertoire of prayers to fit the needs of ourselves and our communities.
- Reposition prayer within our relationship with God rather than treating it as an “external” supplement.
- Reframe prayer as a liturgical practice (i.e. a practice of personal and communal formation) rather than a transactional practice.
Prayer as Transformation
As I said, I want to offer a posture toward prayer that’s more than just asking God for something: prayer is a formative practice, a way of participating in the transformative work that God is doing in our lives.
In every life-coaching context I know of, there’s some kind of practice intended to self-form. Sometimes, this involves literally talking to ourselves, often in front of a mirror; affirm things about yourself that are positive and empowering as part of visualizing the person you want to be/become. Making the practice active through seeing ourselves and actually speaking words engages more parts of our brains and can actually shape how we view ourselves. That process of formation through embodied action is what religious circles often refer to as “liturgy.” It’s a regular, repetitious participation in something that actually shapes/forms/transforms who we are.
Many expressions of Christianity teach that the Holy Spirit transforms us into the likeness of Christ, and Spiritual transformation is part of the salvific work of God in us. I’m suggesting that prayer as a formative process of reminder is part of that trans formative work of the Spirit. Prayer is one of many “exercises” that strengthen certain aspects of our “spiritual self,” and similar to the way that physical exercise contributes to self-transformation, prayer contributes to self-transformation. That sort of transformative work ripples out into all of life and creation.
This is why I said that prayer is a way of participating in the work that God is doing in our own lives, which then helps us to participate in the work God is doing in all of creation. Participation is a big part of my theology; we participate with God in the creative work of love from moment to moment. Prayer is a way of being mindful of, and attentive to, the Spirit’s creative work in ourselves, which prepares us for the creative work outside ourselves.
The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:7–15)
Let’s apply this posture to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 and see how it changes the prayer from solicitation to a more intentional participation in transformation.
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Matthew 6:7–15, NRSV
The temptation is to come to passages like this and say that because there are requests in the prayer, it’s therefore designed to request something from God. For example: because he says things like “give us our daily bread,” the prayer is primarily about asking God for “daily bread.” Because he says “may your kingdom come and your will be done,” the prayer is primarily about a petition that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Etc.
It’s a logical flow of thought. There is a petition; there are several petitions. Therefore, the prayer is a prayer of petition, but what we may be missing as pragmatic, Western thinkers is the idea that prayer might not be primarily about petitions. As I suggested above, a posture of prayer as formation changes the function of petitions, even in the Lord’s Prayer. Rather than asking for something, we are first and foremost engaging in becoming something.
Prayer Within Relationship
I think this makes more sense when we view prayer as something within our relationship with God, as opposed to viewing prayer as a bridge that connects us to God. I’ll explain this as best I can, and I hope it makes sense.
American Christians often approach God with a posture of separation; God is “there,” and we are “here.” God as king on a throne might be a good analogy; we approach God’s throne through prayer, but there is always an inherent distance between the king and those who present their cases to the king. That posture places prayer “outside” of the relationship. Prayer is functionally external, because our relationship with God is a distant one, like king and subject, judge and defendant, lawyer and client, etc.
The posture I’m proposing begins, instead, with a close relationship with God, like what we might expect to find between spouses or between parents and their children. People who are attempting to be mindful in their relationships and attentive to one another understand that communication is participation. Even the way we petition others is practice for ourselves — a practice of vulnerability, trust, honesty, humility, love, etc. Such practices are nurtured within the relationship; the relationship precedes the requests.
Similarly, prayer is a practice of participating in those same things within our relationship with God. The relationship precedes our petitions, and our petitions are never just self-seeking. Rather, they’re always built on the understanding that we are loved by God, that we love God, and that we and God, together, are going to address the petitions as part of our relationship. God isn’t merely providing us with a service; we’re not customers waiting for our order to be filled.
Petition Is Secondary
Petition is secondary when asking God for things while we pray even in the Lord’s Prayer.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Matthew 6:14–15, NRSV
When we assume a formative posture and then consider this passage, the request is not about God forgiving us. The request is a reminder to us that as we forgive others, God also forgives us. We’re not just asking God to forgive us, because we know that God’s forgiveness, given freely, is also about a transformation in our life that leads to the forgiveness of others.
The request is unnecessary, as he says in verse 8: “for your father knows what you need before you ask him.” The request is irrelevant, so far as an actual petition to God. God knows we need to be forgiven, God knows we want to be forgiven, God already knows that God’s willing to forgive, and through Christ, God has already forgiven, so the request for forgiveness is not about a solicitation. The request is about transforming ourselves into the kind of people who forgive others by reminding ourselves of God’s forgiveness.
That sort of interpersonal dynamic doesn’t come out if we only see these prayers as solicitations. What does that mean, then, for other parts of the prayer? What does that mean when we pray to God, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” or “give us our daily bread” or “deliver us from the evil one?”
When petitions are seen as secondary — when our primary posture toward prayer is that it’s a liturgical practice, a formative practice — all of the requests become primarily reminders that we are part of God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. We remind ourselves that we have entered into that desire with God, and in order to pray that way, we have to commit to actually desiring the thing for which we pray.
Do we actually desire that God’s kingdom should come on earth as it is in heaven? Do we actually desire that God’s will should be done on earth as it is in heaven? Do we actually desire that God’s presence be felt and perceived in the world? If the answer is yes, then as we pray this, we commit ourselves and recommit ourselves to that reality. That’s part of how we live into that reality of being forgiven because we have forgiven others.
“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one” reminds us that we’re actually part of a kingdom that is “of deliverance.” We’re part of a dominion of grace in which Jesus Christ has already conquered the evil one. Why should we pray that God will deliver us from the evil one and not lead us into temptation when we’re already walking in the light with Jesus and living the way that Jesus lived. His blood purifies us of our sins (1 John 1); we have no fear of the evil one. This prayer isn’t actually a prayer of petition or solicitation from God. Instead, it’s a formative prayer — a reminder of who we are and how we actually live.
It’s the same with the daily bread. This isn’t necessarily a petition that God should actually provide us with our daily bread, because we already believe God is attempting to do that very thing for us. Instead, in the same way that we forgive others because we are forgiven and so that we will be forgiven (a mutual cycle of forgiveness), we enter into the provision of daily bread for others, as much as our resources will allow, because we already believe that God is providing us with our daily bread and will continue to do so (a mutual cycle of providence). The prayer is a reminder that forms us into people who participate in the daily lives of others.
From this posture, these prayers of petition are actually reminders of our relationship with God, who we are as children of God, and the process of transformation that is taking place in us because of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s break it down by removing requests altogether and working our way back to the Lord’s Prayer. The Psalms are a great place for this. The entire book of Psalms is written by people whose relationships with God are more than just asking and receiving. Their relationships with God are so open and intimate that they can be completely vulnerable with God about who they are, what they feel, and what they perceive God to be doing in their lives. Take, for example, Psalm 23, which is a popular one that people actually pray.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff-
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Psalm 23:1–6, NRSV
There’s no petition in here. He doesn’t even make the attempt for a petition. Instead, this prayer is entirely an expression of the author’s perception of his relationship with God.
- Who is the Lord in relation to me? The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord refreshes my soul. The Lord guides me in right paths.
- What is the impact of that on me? I fear no evil, even though I walk through the darkest valley, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
- What are results of this relationship? You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, and my cup overflows — goodness and mercy all the days of my life. I dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This is as much a prayer as the Lord’s Prayer or any prayer of petition, but when we remove requests, we have to work a bit harder to identify the “usefulness” of the prayer (at least, if you’re coming from traditions similar to mine). If we’re not asking God for something, what good is the prayer; what function does it actually serve?
Simply put, it’s formative. It shapes us when we say it, practice it, and meditate on it, and I think that speaks more deeply to the core of what prayer is than the solicitation-thanksgiving model with which I was raised. Even just the act of saying the prayer is formative in that it provides an example and practice of how to be present with God without always wanting something from God. That is, the act of praying without requests is a more personally relational way of being present.
Psalm 42 is similar in that 1) it doesn’t request anything directly from God, and 2) it invites God to be present. Psalm 23 started as a personal reflection and transitioned to a direct conversation with God, and Psalm 42 begins by including God in the conversation and then transitioning into personal reflection.
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
Psalm 42:1–11, NRSV
If you’re coming from the kinds of traditions that I’m coming from, Psalm 42 might not sound like a prayer because the writer doesn’t seem to be talking to God, but remember how he opens the psalm: “as a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” He begins by addressing God, directly. The writer’s posture is that God is present during this reflection.
The writer then has a conversation with his own soul: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” While the reflection is internal, it shows what I’ve been talking about: the prayer comes from within the writer’s relationship with God. God’s presence is integral to the writer’s posture.
I think the way the author reasons with himself supports this, as well. He calls upon his past experiences with God and his relationship with God to remind his soul of why it hopes in God. He then encourages his soul to do so again. In other words, the prayer isn’t bridging a gap between the writer and God. Instead, the prayer is reinforcing the relationship that already exists, reminding the psalmist who he is in that relationship, and therefore functioning as a formative practice.
We see another example of a psalmist inviting the presence of God into other spaces when we look at Psalm 4.
Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
You gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?
But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.
When you are disturbed, do not sin;
ponder it on your beds, and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the Lord.
There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”
You have put gladness in my heart
more than when their grain and wine abound.
I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.
Psalm 4:1–8, NRSV
The psalmist begins by calling upon God, shifts to talking to his oppressors, addresses himself and/or his community, addresses others who call upon the Lord, and then addresses the Lord again. In other words, the prayer shows how the psalmist’s relationship with God permeates all these different relationships in the psalmist’s life.
There’s one request at the beginning: be gracious to me and hear my prayer. The thing that might seem odd for Christians who are used to prayers of solicitation is that no other requests come after “hear my prayer.” When prayers are all about asking for things, “hear my prayer” can only mean one thing: I’m about to ask you for something, so please listen to my request and respond accordingly. In Psalm 4, it doesn’t seem to mean that, at all.
I believe Psalm 4, like the ones above, is exemplifying the posture I’m proposing — that prayer is born from within an existing relationship with God and is more about what happens because of that relationship than about what we can solicit from God. The psalmist’s relationship acknowledges God, invites God into other relationships, and is more a practice speaking transformation into existence than about requesting things. Hear our prayer, Lord — our concerns about our enemies, our delights about those who call upon you, our reminders to ourselves that you’re present with us, etc.
I believe that the more we engage prayer with a liturgical posture, the more the Lord’s prayer begins to change. The requests become less about soliciting results and more about being attentive to, and present with, the Holy Spirit. We begin to invest less in transactional expectations and more in transformative participation.
Summing Up Prayer
Prayer is a deep, meditative, relational, interpersonal dialogue with God, with ourselves, and with others. Prayer is more than just petition and thanksgiving for petitions. Prayer is more than just coming and saying that God is good. Prayer is more than just coming and saying this is what I need. Prayer is more than just coming and reminding other people who might be listening about who God is.
The way that we pray can take on many forms, and taking up a core posture toward prayer can help us understand which forms of prayer might be helpful for us. When we realize that prayer is a formative process — a liturgical practice of participating in the Spirit’s transformative work in our lives — we can more intentionally pray without needing to ask God for things all the time.
Remember: prayer is not for God. God doesn’t need our prayers. The act of praying for the sake of praying means nothing, and if God already knows what we need then the act of praying just to petition God also means nothing.
Isn’t that the whole point of Jesus on the cross? God the Son didn’t come because the world asked him to. Quite the opposite: he came to what was his own and his own rejected him. It’s the declaration on the cross: forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing. The world didn’t ask for God’s love. God loved the world, and so God gave God’s only begotten son. All of creation comes into being through the Word, and the Word is with God and is God, and what comes into being through the Word is life, and all of that because God loved in the beginning.
Our prayers, then, are liturgies. Prayer is a practice that forms us into a certain kind of person, and if, when we pray, the only thing going through our mind is “what can I ask for, and what has God already given me that I should thank God for,” then we do ourselves a disservice. Prayer is about making space to be attentive to our own spirit and to God’s Spirit and to the Mission of God in our lives and in our communities. It’s about taking time to be present with God in a way that forms us into the kind of people we desire to be.
For many Christians, the claim is like the claim from David and the claim in the New Testament: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness — who desire after God like the deer pants for the water. We want to be with God. We want to participate with God. We want to go where God goes and do what God does.
Prayer, just like any other part of worship, is a part of forming ourselves into that kind of a person/community.
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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on December 4, 2021.