Prayers are biblical. 1 Thessalonians 5.17 tells us to “Pray without ceasing.” In Jeremiah (29.12), 1 John (5.14), and 2 Chronicles 7.14, it says God hears us when we pray. Ephesians offers several models of praying for guidance and help (e.g., 1.18, 6.18). At his darkest, most trying hour, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14.32-42). James (5.13) says, “Is anyone in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.”
These are the days of praying. A friend of mine has cancer and it’s getting worse, so I keep telling her that I’m praying for her. Then, I turn around and say to God, “Help my friend.” Doesn’t God already know that?
A very close friend of mine named George Yeatman died on Friday. In addition to reminiscing with the boys about times we shared with our friend, I also prayed for his family. “God, be with them in their hour of need.” But God knows they are hurting, right?
We lift big issues up to God too. We pray for Afghanistan and try to imagine the future under the Taliban. “God, be with the women and girls who want to go to school and have equal rights.” God knows each one by name. God knows the path they take to get to school and the nearby Taliban fighters who might pose a threat. How’s my prayer (or yours) supposed to make a difference in that situation.
Hans Urs von Balthasar writes,
Most Christians are convinced that prayer is more than the outward performance of an obligation, in which we tell God things [God] already knows… although many Christians experience pain and regret that their prayer go no further than this lowly stage, they are sure, nonetheless, that there should be more to it. In this field there lies a hidden treasure, if only I could find it and dig it up. This seed has the power to become a mighty tree bearing blossoms and fruit, if only I would plant and tend it.[i]Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), Ch 1.
Rote prayers do nothing. Prayers that are a performative mean nothing. When I was a child, I always said the same blessing when it was my turn to say grace, “God is good. God is great. Let us thank him for our food. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” That prayer isn’t bad. It just struggles to find meaning.
Like Paul said in his great chapter on love in 1 Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13.11).
As an adult, I give thanks to God as a conversation partner. God is still good and great, and we don’t need to repeat that in every prayer. Instead, we can follow von Balthasar’s solution to vacuous, rote prayers. Our prayers are an answer to God speaking to us.
If we mistakenly remind God of something, we don’t need to chastise ourselves. It’s okay, and it’s part of the conversation. We speak to God from our hearts. We speak with responses to what God says to us. This means that prayer includes listening.
We might lift up the people of Haiti to God. There was political turmoil after a group of insurgents assassinated their president. There was another devastating earthquake last week. Earlier this week, Tropical Storm Grace passed the island. When we pray for the people by saying, “God be with the people of Haiti,” that’s not the end. That is not a complete prayer. We need to listen too.
Our prayers must include some iteration of the following phrase, “God, what are you saying to me about this?” Regarding Haiti, God might say, can you give money? Or, it could get radical. God could say, “Go to Haiti. Leave your job and nice comfy life. Go live among the poor and change someone’s world.”
Agnes Gonxha (Gon-ja) Bojaxhiu (Boy-ah-joo) felt called to be a missionary and took the name Sister Mary Teresa. We all know her as Mother Teresa. After she had been teaching in Kolkata for 20 years, she was on a train once, on her way to an annual spiritual retreat. She saw all of the poverty around her, and she didn’t just say, “God be with all of these poor people.” She listened and heard God say, “Leave your teaching position and start a new order.” The rest is history. The goal of her Missionaries of Charity was “to satiate the thirst of Jesus Christ on the Cross” by “laboring at the salvation and sanctification of the poorest of the poor.”
Listening to God changed everything. Still, listening is hard and there’s good precedence for speaking and thinking we’ve prayed. When we turn to biblical heroes, we often expect them to get everything right. It’s natural. They are in the Bible so they must be right, right?
In much of 2 Samuel, wars and violence plague David’s kingdom. 1 Kings opens with a struggle for succession. Eventually, Solomon becomes the king. We think of Solomon for his wisdom and building project. Yet, one of the biggest lessons we can learn from Solomon is this: no matter how big or successful we are, we are still not God. Solomon had it all. After the struggle to take over after David, his “reign was marked by prosperity and prestige, grandiose building projects, and a cultural transformation.” However, no matter how much prosperity, no matter how much prestige, no matter how big and glorious the temple was, he was not God.[ii] God hears human prayers and responds. That’s the whole nature of this dialogue. It’s not just our speech to God, like a wish list. Prayer is our engagement with God. Solomon’s prayer shows his hand. It contains personal, political, and social elements.
Solomon’s prayer is beautiful, but it reflects himself. He cannot step outside of the one who is praying. In this passage, we get insight into who Solomon is. Subtly, slightly beneath the surface, although not at all out of sight, we can see his agenda.
Likewise, our prayers expose things about us. “God, help my child” shows our love and care for our children. “God, help Haiti,” for me, reveals my relationship with people in Haiti. The prayer, “Lord, let me sink this putt,” suggests—I don’t know—that God intervenes in the minutiae of daily life.
I hope you see the point. Listen to the words you lift up to God and ask what they say about you. I do that. I used to often pray, “Lord, be with us as we _____ (fill in the blank).” One day, I thought, “That prayer suggests God is not omnipresent.”
Omnipresence is one of God’s characteristics, along with omnitemporal, omnipotent, and omniscient. If I have to ask for God to be here, then is God really omnipresent? My prayer wasn’t bad. It just suggested something that I don’t truly believe. So, I changed the way I pray. “Lord, help us be aware of your presence.”
The first step in praying is talking to God. The second step is listening. As Solomon found out, doing one part without the other falls short of complete engagement with God. We can grow deeper by including self-assessment in our prayers. We can look at what we say and ask what it reflects about us and our beliefs about God. With so much happening in our world, and so much happening in each of our lives, we must be a praying people. Don’t limit yourself to telling God things God already knows.
Talk with your Lord and listen. On a journey of divine dialogue, we can all grow together.
[i] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), Ch 1.
[ii] Choon-Leong Seow, “1 and 2 Kings,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Walter Brueggemann (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 46.