Prayer: safety, humility and honesty

Christ Pantocrator as seen in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople. Icons are often misunderstood but hold a precious place in the prayer lives of many Christians around the world.

Prayer is a huge topic and not one I plan on covering in full now; there are also a large number of books, speakers, preachers, and structures that suggest that they know the best/easiest/most effective way to pray. Some of them have some good ideas but very rarely do they grasp the whole beautiful picture, quite simply because it’s just too great (in every sense).

There are also a number of denominations which will stick predominantly to a particular kind of prayer, a favourite of sorts, or perhaps just a comfort zone of choice. You may walk into a church full of people praying loudly, shouting to the Lord, and others where even the hint of a whisper would be deafening in the silence. There are private devotionals, sung prayers, written prayer, continuous, overlapping, prompted, planned out, intercessionary, those who use iconography, and I am not here to tell you that any of them have it wrong. With prayer there is diversity because of it’s beautiful nature.

I have however always found the speakers who proclaim a 3-, 4-, whatever-step program of prayer to be somewhat frustrating. Mainly because they seem to go at it like a shopping or to-do list, as if the aim was to cover everything and get it done in as little time as possible. This seems to miss so much and focus on so little of God that it can hardly be called a prayer at all.

We also often have questions about prayer: people ask if it “works”, or who is listening, if there is anyone listening, and even why. We often struggle in life when a prayer that seemed so heartfelt and ardent receives no answer, instruction or comfort that we can see. I have often felt alone in times of prayer but of course I cannot assume an answer or superior knowledge of the reasons behind it. In regards to this there are some much better writers, one being Pete Grieg, who wrote God on Mute, in which he points out the issues we must accept in relation to prayer. We might be asking for something that in a world of natural law and common sense can simply not happen without some pretty big issues; we might end up praying in contradiction to another’s prayer (e.g. for a football teams victory) and we can’t possibly expect God to really grant us the request without also ignoring our opponent; we also always need to concentrate on God’s will, not simply assume that what we ask for he will grant like wishes from a genie.

“Phenomenal cosmic power… itty bitty living space”

I am not going to attempt to set out a plan for you, but instead suggest three pieces about prayer that I have tried to remember in order to keep myself on track. These are that prayer is about safety, humility, and honesty. Of course first you need to accept that prayer in its most basic form is just communication.

Prayer as a place of safety is important for anyone to realise: God has opened up this channel of communication in which He is waiting to listen, answer, comfort, safeguard, and teach. We can run to this place in whatever way we like, whether it be in a 24/7 prayer room at 3am, or in a morning devotional with friends by our side, or in the inner wanderings whilst singing in worship. Prayer is that boundless place which we can go to God and know that we can say anything, we can be anyone, and hide nothing. In such a place God is King and in control of every part of the kingdom in which He loves you; He is a mother hen shading you from the sun, the rain and the storm. He is the warrior and the lover and the friend and the Father who will stand with you through it all. This releases you to speak, and listen, or just be in His presence.

“Outwardly I tried to give an impression of stoic endurance, and there were times when I felt very calm. But I was also scared that Sammie might die if I didn’t pray enough, or if I didn’t have enough faith, or if I didn’t fast enough, or if I didn’t bind some disembodied principality, or if I didn’t repent of some root sin, or if I didn’t strap her body on a stretcher bound for Lourdes, or if I didn’t agree with Benny Hinn.”

Pete Grieg, God on Mute

Prayer is also a place of humility. I have just listed a long number of amazing parts of God and yet there is an eternity more. He is greater than we could imagine and we are always going to have the sense of our miniscule nature beside Him. However, this is important too because in acknowledging all the mystery of God we can come to Him, bow to Him, and allow Him to do what is needed. It is in this frame of mind that communication can be full of meaning, and not just treat God like the checkout assistant or online blog. We are safe with Him, but He is still the Lion and we would be silly to forget it. It is in this way that prayer can change us and not just the worldly situation.

Prayer is a place of truth. Once you have come to Him, bowed to Him, prayer become the place where, whether you speak or not, He will know you. This place is one where you can speak, and listen, and just let everything flow freely. There is no hiding from God, but there is also no need to hide from God. It is here you are allowed to scream to the heavens, cry in His arms, beg for forgiveness, or request assistance. The reason this comes last is because it is affected by your safety and your humility. It is not like speaking to a friend, relative or colleague, it is not even based on the anonymity of a chatroom or therapy room. You are speaking to your creator and He is ready for anything you have to say. There is also the chance to say nothing at all and to sit calmly at His feet, exactly as you are, and wait for Him to speak into you, or just be with Him. Communication comes in many forms and not much of it is audible.

“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

~*~

As an aside I also want to make some little things clear about prayer when it is for someone. Safety, humility and honesty are still an important thing to remember because when we intercede for someone else we also need to be their brother/sister and look out for their safety, and our humility and honesty. I am not trying to be patronising but I do feel it is valuable to add if it helps protect even one person who may have, or may in the future, come to harm through prayer at no fault of their own. These are some things that you should avoid in prayer:

  • Do NOT physically push, pull, or pressure anyone into prayer or into reacting a specific way. If anything this will push them away from God, away from you, and away from this experience. It is not up to you to see a reaction, it is between them and God – let it be.
  • Do NOT share advice or opinion (no matter how tempting) and credit it to God without an extremely strong push from Him. Even if you do share, giving a way out and explaining you are human and may indeed be wrong is important: again it is about God and you are not God.
  • Do NOT assume you are right. There are many Christians who will be annoyed at me for suggesting this, but sometimes what God suggests is right for you, may not automatically create a general rule for humanity, and therefore not right for someone else no matter how similar the situation. If one person is told to be celibate that does not mean humanity should begin to head towards extinction.
  • Do NOT feel you have to speak. You don’t. You can silently pray to God on their behalf, you can ask and wait for God Himself to answer, you can concur and support others’ prayers. If someone prompts you, you and God alone can determine if that is something you should do.
  • Do NOT assume God is not listening/has other plans/disagrees/or has abandoned you if it looks like the prayer “hasn’t worked”. We cannot know what God is doing without Him first making it clear and although there are times to keep pushing, there are also times when the prayer and the pray-er must change first. An unseen answer does not imply a lack of faith, an unworthy cause, but neither will prayer always go in your favour. We should trust in God.
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