This article was created in partnership with InterVarsity Press.
Growing up in the church has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, from early on, I was immersed in Bible reading, prayer, and worship. It was just a way of life, one I didn’t know could be different. On the other hand, it has taken me a while to shake some of the more elementary explanations of the spiritual life. Refrains like “asking Jesus into my heart” and “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it,” while superficially true, often obscured for me the depths of the Christian theological heritage.
One especially tenacious thought pattern I inherited from my upbringing is a vision of prayer as petition—and only petition. We send our pleas up to God, asking for divine help for big and small things alike, and he always answers. Sometimes he answers yes. Sometimes he answers no. Sometimes he answers wait, wait, wait. You’re probably familiar with the song’s theological lesson: God always answers prayers.
And again, that may well be true, but such framing deeply reinforced in me the notion that prayer is all about asking for what we cannot make happen ourselves. It distorts both our understanding of God and our sense of spiritual formation. With such a view, God takes on a Santa Claus mystique, doling out goodies for his favorites if only we ask politely. Or perhaps he’s an Ebenezer Scrooge figure who can easily provide but is too stingy to do so.The pandemic may have slowed things down, but we still feel the crush of expectations and demands, perhaps more so while working from home and sensing internal and external pressure to prove that we’re pulling our weight.
This idea of God as the ultimate humanitarian or curmudgeonly miser has infected political discourse as well. For some, the offer of prayers during a crisis or in the aftermath of a tragedy comes across as flippant or insensitive. It makes a mockery of the pain and necessary work to heal and restore. Understandably so, as often this gesture serves for some as a shield against action or as an excuse not to get involved and improve the situation or take responsibility for whatever part one has in perpetuating a systemic injustice. “Thoughts and prayers” sadly has become for many a slogan, a mark of privilege, and nothing more than a meaningless gesture.
In both instances—my childish views of prayer and in its political manifestations—prayer has taken on a superficial veneer, devoid of any real power beyond wishful thinking. This defanging of the notion of prayer is regrettable because, as others have pointed out, prayer and action are not at odds. They in fact should work in tandem in the life of believers. For me as a teacher during this strange time, the pandemic has (counterintuitively) clarified this interconnection. My typical teaching routine, and that of countless others, was drastically disrupted mid-March, and I was forced to sit in front of a screen and lecture to students flung far across the country, sitting in front of their own screens. I couldn’t move around the room to keep students engaged, couldn’t rely on my body language and gestures to clarify my point, couldn’t have those unplanned personal conversations that matter so much in building rapport.
But, boy, did I pray. A lot. As I found myself stranded without my reliable practices and habits to rely on, I was forced back to prayer as my last resort. But there I discovered the folly of my self-reliance, as I drew strength and wisdom from the one who was always there to provide it. For all of us, what is needed is a renewed theology of prayer that plumbs its depths and recovers its power to transform hearts and minds, one that seems the internal life and external actions as woven together through the discipline of prayer. Henri Nouwen articulates this connection in his classic work, The Wounded Healer:
People of prayer are leaders precisely because through their articulation of God’s work within themselves they can lead others away from confusion and toward clarification; through their compassion they can guide others out of the closed circuits of in-groups and towards the wider world of humanity; and through their critical contemplation they can convert convulsive destructiveness into creative work for the new world to come.
For Nouwen, the mystical way of personal transformation undergirds and bolsters the revolutionary way of societal transformation. They are two sides of the same coin, and both are indispensable for Christians:
For the mystic as well as for the revolutionary, life means breaking through the veil covering our human existence and following the vision that has become manifest to us. Whatever we call this vision—“The Holy,” “The Noumenon,” “The Spirit,” or “Higher Power”—we still believe that conversion and revolution alike derive their power from a source beyond the limitations of our createdness.
Prayer is the means by which we access that source; it’s the path beyond our creaturely confines. It is, in fact, what must undergird our redemptive activities, our attempts to set the world aright. Without prayer, there is no power animating those tasks; and without prayer, our activism can easily get off track.
In his recent book, The Possibility of Prayer, John Starke describes the spiritual practice of prayer as a paradox where this-worldy activity ushers us into an other-worldly, divine experience, nothing less than communion with God himself. We carve out temporal time and inhabit a physical space that enables us to “come boldly to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16) and find stillness with God in our restless world, as Starke’s subtitle promises that prayer offers.
Paul charges Christians, in Romans 12, not to conform to the patterns of thought that govern this world; instead, our minds must be transformed—they must be renewed. Only then can we “test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” This passage calls us to recognize that, while we live in this world with its often selfish bent and painful consequences for our own and others’ sinful actions, we should not succumb to its mindset. There’s a deeper reality, Romans 12:2 affirms, that can shape our hearts and minds. How is such transformation possible? How can we become unstuck enough from our present situations to fix our eyes on those enduring truths?
In prayer is the point where the problems in the world and the problems in ourselves intersect; more importantly, here is where they can begin to be challenged. Only from something outside our system can change come, but a posture of prayer—individual and corporate—breaks us free from the bondage of our fallen world and prepares and positions us to usher in the kingdom of heaven even now. And our worlds are restless. The pandemic may have slowed things down, but we still feel the crush of expectations and demands, perhaps more so while working from home and sensing internal and external pressure to prove that we’re pulling our weight. Even when removed from the hecticness of our normal routine, we find the restlessness remains within us. We are riddled with anxieties, desires, emotions we can’t control. We are much in need of transformed minds.
It’s important to be reminded of just how needful an escape from the daily grind is, for us all. Capitulating to it isn’t an option, not if we want to have a life of value, to matter more than what we can produce. But breaking free from the demands enough to resist those ways of thinking requires supernatural resources. We believe we are made for more than the patterns of this present world tell us, or at least we want to believe. We fear the world might be right.
Here lies the catch-22: prayer will rescue us from this trap, but fear might hold us back from the step of faith required. Beyond the social stigma that prayer is meaningless or distractionary, we might face personal obstacles to developing a thriving prayer life. Even still, as Starke reminds us, overcoming those obstacles is possible and the outcomes well-worth the struggle: “It’s no overstatement to say that the most transformative thing you can do is spend unhurried time with God on a regular basis for the rest of your life.”
As I think about human limitations, needs, and foibles, I remember my own personal struggles with prayer through the years. If I’m honest, I confess that I sometimes still think of it as a means to an end, those childhood mottos still making themselves felt, a transactional activity where I put prayer coins in the God slot to get my requests fulfilled. That’s perhaps related to another challenge I often face, that I’m speaking into a void and am futilely waiting for a response that will never come.
On another level, I know that’s not the right stance; it’s a twisted vision of what prayer is and does. I’ve even experienced God’s presence in prayer and been filled with joy on those occasions, even without a request being granted. But this inconsistency provides its own challenge, one that’s difficult to maintain commitment to prayer life in the face of.
This invitation to relationship through prayer stems from God’s trinitarian nature: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in joyful, eternal communion, welcoming us into that fellowship. The possibility of prayer has nothing to do with our abilities—compromised as they are by the fall—and everything to do with who God is, what he has made us to be, and how he enables our redemption.
John Starke’s latest book, The Possibility of Prayer, published by InterVarsity Press, is now available.