By Johann Christoph Arnold
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More than ever before, people are alone. If not physically separated from others, they are certainly more isolated emotionally. This is one of the great curses of our time: people are lonely and disconnected, depression is rampant, more marriages than ever are dysfunctional, and a pervasive sense of aimlessness marks many lives. Why are we here on earth? I believe that the answer to this question can only be discovered when we begin to find each other—and, more than that, to find God.
Each of us needs to find God, since our “vertical” relationship with him is always a strong determinant of our “horizontal” human relationships. But what does it mean to find God?
Sometimes it seems that the word “prayer” carries too much religious baggage with it; it is worn out from too much handling by too many people. It has become a duty that people feel they must fulfill, and therefore even a burden to rebel against. Personally, I do not see prayer as a duty, but an opportunity to come before God and tell him my worries, my needs, my happiness, or my gratitude. In this sense, prayer is simply conversing with God—something anyone can do.
Prayer may be a rite that involves a written verse, a prayer book, a certain place and time of day, or even a specific position of the body. Or it may have no form at all, but simply be a posture of the heart.
For most of us, silence and solitude are the most natural starting points for finding God and communicating with him, since both entail laying aside external distractions and emptying our minds and hearts of trivial concerns. It is as if God has come into the room to talk with us, and we must first look up from whatever we are doing to acknowledge him before the conversation can begin. For others of us, the act of becoming silent before God is not only a preparation for prayer, it is prayer. Such conversation is like the unspoken dialogue between a couple, or any other two people who know each other so well that they can communicate without words.
Naturally a true conversation has both sound and silence, give and take, talking and listening. Yet it is clear that God does not desire self-centered prattling: he knows what we need even before we ask. And if we do not become inwardly quiet, how will we ever be able to hear anything but our own voice? Nor does he require long, wordy petitions. If our hearts are truly turned to him, a glance upward or a heartfelt sigh, a moment of silence or a joyous song, a tearful plea or anguished weeping will do just as well. Each of these can be just as much a prayer as any number of carefully chosen words. Indeed, they may be more.
There are many ways to pray. One woman I know told me that she envisioned herself in prayer “like a baby bird in a nest with my head stretched way up and my oversized mouth open and hungry to receive whatever my father would drop into it. Not questioning, not doubting, not worrying, just receiving and totally appreciative.”
Vemkatechwaram Thyaharaj, a friend from India, says:
I pray silently. All the same, though brought up as a Hindu Brahmin, I do not pray to an abstract being, but to the biblical Creator of the universe and of man—to God the Father. He is not distant from his creation, for Christ brought him down, close to man. It is to him I pray… Very often I resort to lonely places for prayer. In such times I experience the divine, unseen touch that imparts power and life to my body and soul. True, it is always an effort to get out of bed early, before dawn. But this has been my practice, to sit during the early morning in the presence of God when I meditate and pray. During such times my heart is filled with peace and unexplainable joy.
Vemkatechwaram touches on an important aspect of genuine prayer: insofar as it is a conversation, it is not a vague state of being, but something that moves or takes place between two or more people, even if without words.
According to the early church father Tertullian, praying is also more than directing emotions or feelings toward God. It means experiencing his reality as a power.
Prayer has power to transform the weak, to restore the sick, to free the demon-possessed, to open prison doors, and to untie the bonds that bind the innocent. Furthermore, it washes away faults and repels temptations. It extinguishes persecutions. It consoles the low in spirit, and cheers those in good spirits. It escorts travelers, calms waves, and makes robbers stand aghast. It feeds the poor and governs the rich. It raises those who have fallen, stops others from falling, and strengthens those who are standing.
Tertullian also refers to prayer as the “fortress of faith” and the “shield and weapon against the foe.” And Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, admonishes his fellow Christians to put on the “whole armor of God” and thereby enlist the aid of the Creator himself in times of trial.1
Valid as these metaphors may be, it is good to remember that even if God’s power can protect, shield, and comfort us, it is also a power before which we must sometimes quake. Especially after we have failed or done wrong, the act of coming to God in prayer and bringing our weaknesses to him means placing ourselves under his clear light, and seeing the wretchedness of our true state.
Our God is a consuming fire, and my filth crackles as he seizes hold of me; he is all light and my darkness shrivels under his blaze. It is this naked blaze of God that makes prayer so terrible. For most of the time, we can persuade ourselves we are good enough, as good as the next man, perhaps even better, who knows? Then we come to prayer—real prayer, unprotected prayer—and there is nothing left in us, no ground on which to stand.—Sr. Wendy Beckett
Given Sister Wendy’s recognition of the contrast between the Almighty and a puny human being, one might fairly ask, “Does God really answer me, or does my praying just get me used to the discomfort of my situation?” Indeed, there are skeptics who feel that prayer is simply a forum for working through our feelings, and those who say, “All I want is God’s will, and he can give that without my prayers.”
I have no simple answers to these riddles, but that doesn’t mean there are no answers. As I see it, it is a matter of relationships. If I claim God as my father, I need to be able to talk to him when I am in trouble. And before that, I need to be actively involved in my relationship with him—at least enough to know where I can find him.
Having given us free will, God does not force himself on any of us. He needs us to ask him to work in our lives before he intervenes. We must want his presence, be desperate for the inner food he can provide. Like the figures found on the walls of Roman catacombs, we must lift our eyes and arms to God, not merely waiting for him, but reaching upward to find him and to receive whatever he will give us.
In this sense, praying is much more than talking with God. Prayer gives us the opportunity to discern God’s will by coming into direct contact with him. It enables us to ask God for whatever we need, including judgment, mercy, and the grace to change our lives. It is even, as Henri Nouwen has written, “a revolutionary matter, because once you begin, you put your entire life in the balance.”
The one overwhelming message that stands at the center of the New Testament is love in action. And we have examples among his followers who, despite human failings, spread the gospel of love. The apostle Paul, who had earlier persecuted the Christians, became one of Christianity’s most powerful figures. In his prayers he rarely asks God for those things we most often pray for: safety, physical healing, material blessings. He is more concerned with strength of character, wisdom and discernment, love and sacrifice, personal knowledge of God and spiritual power, courage in spreading the gospel, endurance, and salvation. And unlike many modern Christians, his prayers are not selfish wishes uttered merely on behalf of himself or those dear to him. They are said for the whole earth.
Thousands of pages have been written about the Lord’s Prayer. I believe much of its power lies in its brevity and simplicity. When we have acted in haste or offended the Spirit of love, we need to ask for forgiveness. In hours of temptation, we need to ask to be led safely, and we need to be provided for and protected day by day. Above and beyond that, we need the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and change us from our very foundations. For this to happen we must ask, “Thy will be done.” And we must mean it.
Johann Christoph Arnold is a noted speaker and writer on the topics of marriage and family, education and conflict resolution. He is a senior pastor at the Bruderhof Communities and also serves as chaplain for the local sheriff's department. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages. © Copyright 2011 by The Plough Publishing House. Used with permission.
Published on Anchor September 2013. Read by Jon Marc.
1 Ephesians 6:11.