The theme at church this morning was prayer. In response to that, I will respond to three quotes that I read recently about this subject.
1. Yesterday, I was reading a post by unkleE (Eric Hatfield) about his experiences in various churches. He was in a Presbyterian church, and later he was in a Pentecostal church. He said that they differed in their approach to prayer:
“The biggest lesson we learnt [in the Pentecostal church] was to pray. The Presbyterians are not so strong on prayer, because why would a sovereign God need our advice on what he should do? But with the Pentecostals, we learnt that God doesn’t always exercise his sovereignty, and has delegated some of his work to us. If we want him to be active on our behalf, we need to ask him.”
As my Presbyterian pastor said this morning, Jesus saturated his ministry with prayer. Some of that, as my pastor noted, was so that Jesus could gain strength, especially before he was about to be misunderstood and forsaken by his disciples, tortured, and shamefully put to death. Often, Jesus needed to be spiritually centered, to demonstrate concretely his dependance on God, and to go to God for guidance (as when Jesus prayed before selecting his disciples), and prayer was a place where he could do that. I definitely see value in prayer for those reasons.
But there is something about the Pentecostal approach that resonates with me, for I also believe that Jesus was praying so that his ministry would bear fruit. Jesus was going up against opposing spiritual powers, who were oppressing people spiritually and physically, and he needed God’s help to make any headway. Would God have acted had Jesus not prayed, out of concern for the people who were oppressed? I cannot say, but I do believe that God often acts with people rather than completely on his own, and prayer is one way that we can indicate that we are open to what God wants to do. In short, God may act according to our readiness for him to act.
I don’t take this in the direction of saying that God is more likely to answer prayers made by a bunch of people than he is to only one prayer. Or it depends. If we’re talking about healing, God may be impressed if a bunch of people care so much for a sick person that they pray for his healing. God can manifest his goodness to more people by answering that prayer. But I also believe that God may choose to answer the prayer of healing of a few people, or even just one person who does not have many friends, to show his care to that person. When it comes to great causes, though, God may choose to respond when a significant number of people are ready for God to act. And yet, even that can start with one person, as when Moses went out to pray at the Tent of Meeting by himself. For a great cause to have success, more people may need to be on the same page. Still, if you are one person with a vision, pray, and see what happens!
2. I read a book a while back, Ordinary, by Tony Merida (see my review here). Merida talked about the International Justice Mission, which helps people in the Third World, such as a woman who was seeking justice and had to walk miles to court. This group emphasizes prayer a lot.
But I wondered: Why does God have to be asked to help the people? Couldn’t God just do so without people asking? Wouldn’t one expect that of a God who is loving, generous, and kind?
I just finished Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel (which I will review tomorrow). On page 190, Pope Francis states: “We can say that God’s heart is touched by our intercession [for others], yet in reality he is always there first. What our intercession achieves is that his power, his love and his faithfulness are shown ever more clearly in the midst of his people.”
Is Pope Francis saying that God is already at work, but prayer makes evident where and how God is at work? Perhaps prayer can do so. It can highlight to us God’s priorities. But I also pray because I want God to act, in a world where enough people suffer and enough injustice occurs that one can legitimately question if God even is acting. Like the IJM, I want for that woman in the Third World to get justice. But I fear that she might not get that justice if neither she nor others are praying for it. What makes me say that? Because there are plenty of people in the world who do not get justice and who suffer.
3. At church this morning, the Prayer of Invocation in our bulletin said the following: “You watch over us: to pluck up and break down our errant ways, to build up and plant new possibilities for life in your Spirit.”
New possibilities. It makes me feel good to get something new, as when I get a new book from the library, or a new review book in the mail. What do I want that is new in my life? Well, maybe a romantic relationship, or popularity, or more ways to earn money. Are those things new possibilities for life in God’s spirit? Well, that depends. They can coincide with my selfishness. But they can also be carried in redemptive directions: a romantic relationship that draws me closer to God, inspires me to be a better person, and provides opportunities for me to show love; people who encourage me spiritually and whom I can encourage; and money for good uses (though, in my case, it would be to pay off my student loans). There’s nothing wrong with new possibilities, yet I remember the words of James: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” (James 4:3 KJV).
Those are some ramblings. They are far from perfect. An atheist or someone who questions the idea that God is active in the world can easily poke holes in what I am saying. Still, I believe that what I am saying contains a grain of truth, or is part of a broader picture of truth.