What happens when you thank someone? Think back to the last time you thanked a bank teller, the cook in your home, a child who cleaned up his Lego set, a grandparent who recalled a bit of her history, or the greeter who held the door open for you at Walmart. Try to describe what took place when you thanked that person.
Alternatively, what happens when you ask for someone for help, for a favour, for a hug? How does this description compare to the first?
Last winter, I asked a university class to divide into small groups, and consider these two questions. When the class regrouped, the students explained that when they thank someone or ask something of someone, they humble themselves, and elevate the person they are addressing. In effect, whenever we address someone with a word of thanks or request, we acknowledge or create a hierarchical disparity between ourselves and the person we are addressing. In effect, we communicate, “You are my superior, my better. I was in need; and you provided for me. Or: I am in need; and you’re able to meet my need.” (I suspect that people respond to “thank you” with another “thank you” instead of with “you’re welcome” because they’re uncomfortable with the hierarchy created by having been thanked.)
The class also noticed that when we ask someone for something, we enter into an uncertain future. A young woman explained it something like this. “If I ask my longtime boyfriend to marry me, I enter into the uncertainty of what he will say. By asking, I approach the threshold of marvelous happiness or heart-wrenching disappointment. Awaiting either possibility, my question has brought me into an uncertain space” (also called a liminal space, since limen is the Latin word threshold; ‘lintel’ has the same Latin origin).
These two results of asking and thanking—namely, that I humble myself by elevating the person I’m addressing; and by asking I enter an uncertain future—describe the first reason why I believe that Christians pray.
Last month, I gave answers that I’ve heard people give to the question, “Why do Christians pray?” (Click here to read that post.) I also identified my difficulties with these answers. I would now like to offer four other reasons for why Christians pray—reasons that I find more compelling, and that complete the insufficient answers I listed last month.
The first reason that I believe Christians pray is that praying makes explicit that their relationship with God is always a relationship of dependency. We humans are in no way God’s equals. Instead, we rely on God’s graces. And so we both thank God and ask God for favours—even though the simple act of asking brings us into a place of uncertainty, since we don’t know how God will respond (more on that later).
The second reason Christians pray, is that praying places them in a host of relationships, not only a relationship with God. A few years ago, a Benedictine brother gave me a tour of the beautiful chapel
at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. As he pointed out the chapel’s various features, he said, “We never pray alone.” Whenever we who are Christians pray, we are praying with all of nature, which is praising God. We are praying with those monks and nuns (both Catholic and Protestant) who have devoted their lives to praying day and night—as the Psalmist wrote, “seven times a day I praise you” (Psalm 119:164). We join Christians all around the globe who are praying in prisons, churches, ghettos, fields, cities, and more. We also join believers of all the ages, who are now praying and praising at the throne of God (Revelation 5:8, 6:9-10, 7:13-15, 8:3-4). And above all, we are praying with God. According to Romans 8:26-27, 34, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are interceding or praying for us when we don’t know how to pray. In other words, as Simon Tugwell emphasizes in Prayer: Living With God, God is praying to God for us. We never pray alone because prayer is an intrinsically relational activity. Even the uncertainty that results from asking God, is the uncertainty appropriate to being in a relationship. Christians risk living in the uncertainty of not knowing how God will respond, because they trust that God is love. Christians pray because prayer is an act of fellowship with God’s world, with God’s people, and with God.
Entering into these many relationships changes those who pray. This is a third reason that Christians pray. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, for instance, he did not teach them, “My Father who is in heaven…give me today my daily bread, forgive me my sins…lead me not into temptation…deliver me from evil.” No, he taught “Our Father…give us…forgive us…lead us…deliver us.” The plurals matter. Relationships train us in virtues and vices. For Christians, it is the church that trains them in the three greatest virtues: faith in place of sight, love in place of aimlessness, hope in place of immobility. Similarly, God rescues humans by a relationship: God saves us by loving us so much that he chose to be with us (John 3:16). Prayer is indeed linked to power, but not the power of a vending machine that dispenses merchandise for a fee, or the power of a magic formula that promises control over the world’s problems. Instead, as Jesus demonstrated, prayer is a relational training program for maturity; I believe that Jesus spent time in prayer so that he would do only what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19). Christians pray because through prayer’s fellowship they are changed; their character is renewed. And in this way the world is changed.
Finally, Christians pray because God is praying. Prayer is not just about us (as my first three reasons might suggest). Prayer is more than psychological growth, maturation of character, or getting God to act. Prayer is participating in the very life, activity, desires, and mission of God. Long before any person existed, God was creating and loving. In the poem “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” Those who pray, join the eternally hovering purposes of God to gather and reconcile everything and everyone in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:10, Colossian 2:20). To pray in Jesus’ name, is to join the prayer and desires of God. No wonder, then, that Paul teaches Christians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Christians pray in order to extend and participate in the loving purposes of God.
Christians pray in many ways. They ask, thank, praise, listen, complain, lament, demand, wait, rant, plead, cry, assert, confess, forgive, and become still. But however disparate these prayers seem, they are all ways of showing up before the Almighty; they are all ways of entering life-changing relationships; they are all occasions for being joined to the purposes of God. I believe this is why Christians pray.
If you want to learn to pray for any or all of these reasons, I encourage you to pray daily the prayer that Jesus taught (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4). Here is Dallas Willard’s paraphrase of that prayer from his book The Divine Conspiracy (p. 269).
Dear Father always near us,
may your name be treasured and loved,
may your rule be completed in us —
may your will be done here on earth
in just the way it is done in heaven.
Give us today the things we need today,
and forgive us our sins and impositions on you
as we are forgiving all who in any way offend us.
Please don’t put us through trials,
but deliver us from everything bad.
Because you are the one in charge,
and you have all the power,
and the glory too is all yours — forever —
which is just the way we want it!