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Prayer and the Common Life by Georgia Harkness


Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by Abingdon Press, New York, Nashville. Copyright by Stone & Pierce 1968. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 5: Prayer as Assurance and Ascription to Christ


We may now glance more rapidly at the concluding notes in what was outlined earlier as the natural movement of prayer.

Assurance

The expression of assurance of God’s presence, God’s deliverance, God’s victory does not necessarily come at the end of a prayer, though it does in the Lord’s Prayer in "thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory." It may come at the beginning mingled with our praise, as it is in many of the psalms. For example,

God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore will we not fear, though the earth do change,
And though the mountains be shaken into the heart of the seas.

It may be introduced at any point along the way, as one expresses confidence in God’s forgiveness, God’s strengthening and protection, God’s concern for those we love, God’s acceptance of our gifts of self and service. What assurance means is faith and trust. If it is not implicitly present everywhere, there is no use of introducing it verbally anywhere in the act of praying.

We stop, therefore, at this point not so much to ask how or when to voice words of assurance as with what assurance we pray at all.

At a number of points in our analysis questions have been raised which may trouble some readers. The prayers most commonly uttered by those who pray only occasionally are for protection in danger or for the recovery of health, whether of oneself or another. Doubts have been raised as to whether all such prayers, though uttered sincerely, can be sure of receiving an affirmative answer. Both the negative evidence in experience and the law-abiding, cause-and-effect nature of God’s world are against any such absolute certainty. But as I have tried to show, this does not mean that we should stop praying in this or any other area of deep desire and need.

Far more important than the question as to whether such occasional prayers can be answered as we wish is the basic need of all men to be sure that life has meaning. In spite of the amazing intellectual achievements of our time, there was probably never an age in which so many people were unhappy, frustrated, and in doubt as to whether their lives amount to anything or whether the world makes sense. In less dignified language, millions believe --or fear that if they were honest they must believe what Shakespeare makes one of his characters say:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act V, scene 5.)

The human mind must be sure that life has some stability beneath it, or no prayer for peace of mind will bring peace to him who prays. Again the question comes, "What assurance can we have?"

There are several grounds of assurance in Christian faith so impregnable that they give all the foundation we need. Each presupposes and reinforces the others, so that they must be understood together. At the risk of some repetition, let us look from this angle at certain great affirmations of our faith that were suggested from a more general standpoint in the first chapter.

It is the Christian faith that --

God is present in his world.
God cares about us and desires to help us.
God knows what is best for our lives.
God’s world is good and its goodness can be increased.
God’s plans may be thwarted, but his victory is sure.

To say that God is present in his world is to say that God is here, with us and within us, whether we realize his presence or not. Prayer, we have said, is the opening up of the human spirit to a conscious awareness of this divine Presence. However dark the night that surrounds us, God has not left us. Even if in times of "spiritual dryness," we seem unable to get across the barriers of our own consciousness to sense God’s presence, we still may know by faith that he is with us. Even when life seems meaningless and the future a blank, we can go forward and know we are not alone. Whittier expressed this assurance in matchless beauty when he wrote:

I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care. "The Eternal Goodness"

To say that God cares about us and desires to help us is to say that God hears and answers prayer even when no change is visible in the external situation. To assume that a prayer is unanswered because we do not get just what is asked for is to misunderstand both God and prayer. So fallible and foolish is our clamor for what we want that often our petitioning can best be answered by a loving God in the negative. Much that we pray for is right, and still no answer seems to come. But if in the process of praying new peace, new power, new light on the situation comes, that is the answer. This is not to say there can be no other answer, but such inner renewal and grounding are by far the most important answer that a loving God could give us.

To say that God knows what is best for our lives is to have the assurance that our feeble, fretful minds can rest back upon God’s infinite wisdom. There is much we do not know, and even with our best efforts never shall know. We are not absolved from using our minds to try to understand, to see the way ahead, to get wise human counsel, to plan with our best judgment in all decisions that must be made. But when we have done our best thinking there will still be areas of mystery. This need not confound us. To say "I know not, but he knows; I cannot, but he can," is to find rest from much futile and enervating strain.

To say that God’s world is good is to say that there is never a situation so evil but that there is some good in it, or some element that with God’s help can be turned to good. To say that its goodness can be increased is to say that there is no situation so perfect but that, with God’s help, new riches can be brought forth from it. A large element in prayer lies in the discovery that "in everything God works for good with those who love him." (Romans 8:28, Revised Standard Version.) With God to direct and support us, we can at the same time increase the good in every situation and discover the good already present but hidden from view. In any baffling or overwhelming problem --frustrated hopes, domestic tension, a vocational misfit, economic insecurity, a world at war or drifting toward it -- what prayer can do depends on what God stands ready to do. This is take the world with all its dark spots and us with all our deficiencies’ and use us to make things better.

Finally, to say that God’s plans may be thwarted, but his victory is sure is to say that God has long purposes, and his is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Not all that happens is God’s will. In keeping with his gift of freedom God permits us to mar many things by our sin, our ignorance, our folly, and to drag others along with us in disaster. One ought never to say that God wills the evil acts or attitudes of man, preventable human misery, premature or violent death, the colossal destructiveness of war. In much that God seeks to do for the human race, he too is frustrated. It must require infinite patience in God to direct the kind of human world this is.

Yet it lies at the heart of Christian faith that God’s victory is sure. This is the main, great note in the Easter message of Christ’s victory over sin and death. Whether God’s victory is thought of as coming within or beyond this world, God’s actual ultimate triumph over evil is a tenacious note which Christians refuse to surrender. Even when taunted with the charge that this is mere wishful thinking, the Christian knows otherwise and in this trust finds confidence to resist all manner of earthly tyranny and evil. It is significant that it was the apocalyptic hope of God’s triumph in another world that enabled the first Christians to triumph over Roman persecution, and during the recent hard years has put iron in the souls of European Christians to stand against "the powers of this world" with amazing fortitude.

In the great crises of life, such as the anguish and dangers of war, separation from loved ones by death, illness that sweeps away all one’s normal powers, it is sometimes easier to trust in God than during the ordinary tensions and strains of living. Minor clashes of personality with those about us, worry about money matters, plans that go awry, monotonous routine, distasteful duties, fatigue and low physical energy are "little foxes, that spoil the vineyards," until it becomes far from easy to rest in God. Such occasions, which we know ought to become occasions for prayer for the smoothing of ruffled tempers, seem often on the contrary to banish the mood of prayer. This fact we must accept with as little worry as possible, and keep on trusting God to understand our moods.

What trust in God means in the common life is that in great matters or in small, we can keep on working, hoping, praying. To know that in God’s keeping our lives are secure and in his care no good thing is ever lost is to find God’s greatest boon -- peace of mind and power for living.

In Christ’s Name

We come now to what is usually the final word in prayer, the ascription "in the name of Christ" or "through Jesus Christ our Lord." To many who have prayed from childhood up, this is but a bit of conventional verbiage, as if one were to say, "Goodnight, Lord. I’m leaving now." To others who take too literally the words, "Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do," it becomes almost a magical incantation. To assume that a prayer with this formula attached is more likely to be answered than one without these words is to forget that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."

Nevertheless, there is great reason for praying in the name of Christ. In keeping with both our own sense of fitness and the long traditional usage of the Church, it is well to use the words. But whether or not the words are spoken, what they stand for is indispensable to Christian prayer.

Many who quote the text just referred to forget its context. Right after the verse, "If ye shall ask anything in my name, that will I do," stands the searching requirement, "If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments." To ask verbally in the name of Christ without loving him and trying to obey his commandments is to evade the heart of his teaching. The attempt to do this is a major reason why Christian worship has not always made people better Christians. Again in the next chapter the promise and the requirement are driven home with a poignancy that would stab us if familiarity with the words had not dulled us to their power, "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you." (Italics mine.)

To pray in Christ’s name is to pray in Christ’s spirit. This means to pray in Christ’s spirit of trust in God, love for God, willing obedience to his call. It is to pray in his spirit of love for all men as sons of God, each of supreme worth in God’s sight. It is to pray with his sympathetic eagerness to heal, lift, and minister to all. It is to pray in his spirit of sincerity, humility, compassion, and all the other qualities of the blessed life that are set forth in the Beatitudes. It is to pray with his concern for the inner motive out of which all right acting proceeds. It is to pray with his confidence that God stands ready to give us everything we really need, provided we will put spiritual goods above material and attempt to "seek first his kingdom, and his righteousness."

If one wants really to pray "through Jesus Christ our Lord," the best preparation is to sit down and read’ thoughtfully and prayerfully, the Sermon on the Mount. Or one may, if he prefers, think through the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and note what its few, great phrases tell us of the spirit of our Lord. A great American preacher has told me that he never preaches on Sunday morning without taking time the evening before to go through the Lord’s Prayer slowly and thoughtfully to discover its bearing on his message to his people.

There is no blueprint for the art of praying, and there is no exact picture of Jesus in the New Testament. Yet these facts need not stop us from praying in his spirit. To the degree that one lets himself be captured by the portrait of Jesus’ personality and spirit that we have, unchristian praying will be purged and Christian prayer will take its place.

One cannot pray in the spirit of Christ and pray selfishly, or in petty spite, or in a vindictive desire that "the wrath of God" may strike one’s enemies. One will not pray that his nation may have military or political victory over another, but rather will pray that God’s victory may prevail in all nations. One will not pray that he or his family only may be blessed of God, but that through God and in service to him all families of the earth may be blessed.

A book written fifty years ago, which has possibly gone through more editions than any other outside the Bible, is Dr. Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps, subtitled "What Would Jesus Do?" (Appearing in 1896, its circulation is estimated at over 20,000,000. As it was published without copyright, there is no way of knowing exactly. It has been translated into many languages.) Though some things in the book may strike the reader as unrealistic, the question in which it centers is not only searching, but basic to a true perspective. The Christian gospel can save the world from its present confusion and chaos and can bring stability to the lives of distraught individuals, but only on God’s terms, not on ours. We are not left without knowledge of these terms, for God’s way has been made manifest in Jesus Christ. Confronted by any question requiring human decision or action, the most important first step is to throw upon it the searchlight of Christ. This means, concretely, that the most important question we can ask about any human problem is "What would Jesus do?"

Thus it appears that not in praying only, but in all of life, we are required to act "in the name of Christ." We must defer till later chapters a more specific discussion of the difference this makes in human affairs. It is enough to suggest here that if our prayer is to be Christian in its roots, and thus is to be used of God to bring forth fruits in his Kingdom of love, then to pray in Christ’s name requires far more than the words of a closing formula.

But are we done? The last word in prayer is not usually "in Christ’s name" but "Amen." (Since there is great indecision about the pronunciation of this word, it may be in order to state that it is good liturgical practice to say a-men when it is spoken, ä-men when it is sung.) This means, "So be it." To most of us the "Amen" has lost this significance, and means only that the prayer is over. But to say, "So be it," ought to mean, "Let it rest in the hands of God." Having prayed as well as we can, we are now ready in openness of spirit to let God act. If we say this with conviction and meaning, we too must act, but no longer with feverish self-concern.

Life is a continual alternation of rest and action, of the need of comfort and the need of power. A large part of the Christian life is the quest for the peace of mind that comes from having an ultimate ground of confidence, and this to the Christian means having one’s soul stayed upon God. Another large part, which we surrender only at our spiritual peril, is the divine discontent that will not let us be at ease until some works of good are done. In this chapter we have tried to show how the assurance that makes possible "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding" has its place alongside of the demand to act prayerfully under the banner of Christ.

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