The Call For God

by Theodore W. Jennings

Dr. Jennings is assistant professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 15, 1981, pp. 410-414. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Insofar as prayer is rooted in our situation and in our sensibility, it is rooted not in our sense of God’s presence but in our sense of God’s absence. The greatest obstacle to prayer is that it is too often addressed not to the One whom Jesus called Abba but to ourselves or to an idol of our fantasy.

Despite an overabundance of words about prayer, it is not easy to give voice to our prayers. A steady stream of talk about prayer threatens to silence us. All the talk about the necessity of prayer, the power of prayer, the "value" of prayer, the importance of a "spiritual life," can have the effect of making it all the more clear that we cannot pray. Yet, of course, we do pray. When we come together in the worship of the community, we pray. We say the Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps we do this absentmindedly, halfheartedly, dispiritedly -- but we do it. What is it we are doing when, in spite of ourselves, we do in fact pray, out loud and in public? What is prayer after all?

A Sense of God’s Absence

The most astonishing aspect of prayer, though the one most likely to be forgotten, is that it is speaking to God. Prayer is not giving ourselves a "pep talk," nor is it a liturgical form for talking to ourselves. I cannot count the number of times I have sat in a pew and have heard a "pastoral prayer" addressed to the congregation, one that made "announcements" and told me what I ought to feel, think, believe and do. Is it any wonder we forget that prayer is speaking not to ourselves but to God? Is it any wonder that our prayers don’t seem to "go anywhere"? If we speak only to ourselves, we hear only echoes. Prayer has nothing to do with this echo chamber. It is speaking to, calling for God; it is focused not upon ourselves but upon God.

But which God? Are our prayers directed to some private deity or to the Lord of creation? To some passive god or to the God who acts? To some distant alien being or to our Father? To some anonymous supreme being or to the Father of Jesus Christ? To the grantor of our wishes or to the Savior of the world? To the great magician or to the One who for our sakes became poor, weak and mortal, even to death upon the cross? We have no reason to complain that our prayers are empty when they are directed to an idol.

The greatest obstacle to prayer is that it is too often addressed not to the One whom Jesus called Abba but to ourselves or to an idol of our fantasy. The second obstacle comes from the same source. It is the supposition that we must be pious, religious or "spiritual" in order to pray. We often think of prayer as based upon a keen sense of the presence of God. Thus, when folks do not feel this strong sense of presence, they may excuse themselves from praying. This notion is a complete misunderstanding. Insofar as prayer is rooted in our situation and in our sensibility, it is rooted not in our sense of God’s presence, but in our sense of God’s absence. Prayer brings to expression our need, our lack, our emptiness, and directs this emptiness to God. We pray not because we are strong but because we are needy.

This "neediness" is the basic character of human existence. In the Old Testament the word nephesh, often translated "soul," really means "throat" and designated the need to take in food, air, life. Prayer is the turning of this neediness and lacking toward God. It is the cry of the heart which protests the absence, the distance, the silence of God. It is precisely out of our godlessness, our godforsakenness that we pray (not our religiosity or our piety). It is this that we offer God. What else, indeed, do we have to give? In bringing to expression our godlessness and godforsakenness, in protesting the absence of God, our prayer joins with the prayer of Jesus: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34).

Holding God to His Word

Jesus, who cried out for God in his death, also taught us to pray -- for the coming of God, the reign of God, the Kingdom of God. What is this Kingdom of God for which we pray? Nothing else than God in person, nothing other than what God has promised, nothing less than the total transformation of the conditions of our life: the new heaven and the new earth. To the extent that we have become satisfied and settled down, we cannot pray for this radical transformation of the conditions of our life. But to the extent that we do pray, we identify ourselves as those who are fundamentally dissatisfied with "the way things are," with the brokenness of our world and our lives, with the absence of God and the delay of the Parousia.

The basis for this prayer is God’s promise. Our prayer is the audacious cry out of our godlessness for God, really God, to come to us. The basis for this audacity, this demand, is that God has promised himself to us, and promised us to himself. The character of prayer, then, is this: that we hold God to his word. We insist that God be true to himself, that God be God. God’s word of promise is the basis for what Calvin called the presumptuousness of prayer, as well as for Tertullian’s talk of prayer "vanquishing God." More recently Jacques Ellul has rightly spoken of prayer as "combat with God."

But how is it possible to take this word of promise in our godlessness as the basis for an appeal to God? The answer is provided by Paul, when he speaks of the Spirit in our prayer (Rom. 8:26). What he says is this: that of and by ourselves we cannot pray. It is in our incapacity for prayer that the Spirit comes to our aid -- the Spirit as the presence of that for which we pray. In the final analysis, only God can address God. Our incapacity for prayer is not a temporary impediment. It is a permanent part of our condition. Thus Augustine can rightly maintain that the simple and inarticulate desire to pray is the true prayer of the Christian: for the Spirit intercedes for us.

A final thing that needs to be said about prayer, is that it is always corporate. We often distinguish between private and public prayer, and to an extent this distinction is valid. But whether private or public, Christian prayer is always common, communal, corporate. All ‘Christian prayer is to our Father. In prayer we are united with our sisters and brothers, whether we are alone in our closet or together in our community; we are united to the whole church. The prayer of the community is not a collection of individual prayers; it is common prayer out of our common plight to our common Lord in our common hope. We pray as part of the communion of saints, joining the whole people of God in all of history and around the globe.

The expression of this dimension of prayer, that we pray together with the whole people of God, is brought to articulation in the liturgy, in the public prayer of the gathered community. This, liturgical prayer enables us all to pray together as one people, though separated in time and space. The form expresses our unity, our community, and reminds us that we are called not into chaos but into solidarity.

The Forms of Prayer

Such is the structure of our corporate prayer. Now a word about three forms of prayer -- invocation, petition and intercession -- which describe both the words of prayer and the life formed by prayer.

In an invocation we call upon God to be present to us. This is indeed the whole sum and substance of all our prayer. We call upon God to be God for us, as he has promised to be -- God with us, Emmanuel. At the heart of our prayer, at its beginning, we turn to God and direct to him our need. Whatever we may pray for, at bottom, we are praying for nothing else than this: for God to come to us. And this means that we pray for the Kingdom, for the reign of God, for the transformation of all things, for the new heaven and the new earth. We call for, long for the God who is absent to us. We need not have some special sense of God’s presence to call out. On the contrary, it is because of our need, our lack, our godlessness, that we call upon God. There is no pious or religious presupposition of prayer. Our prayer of invocation is prayer for the Spirit of God. We pray for the One who can give our prayer meaning, for in our godlessness we do not know how to pray as we ought.

It is in and through our petitions that our prayer takes on concrete and actual form. God promises to us to be no abstract God in general, but God specifically, concretely and in particular. It is in our concrete, actual and particular need" and neediness that God comes to us. This must not be interpreted in some spooky religious or pseudo-spiritual sense. It is for the resurrection of the body that we wait, not like the Gnostics for some ghostly liberation from body and world. It is, therefore, in our bodiliness that we turn to God, recognizing, in every particular need, our need above all for God.

Thus, we are taught to pray not only for the coming of the Kingdom but for our daily bread as well -- and if for our daily bread, then for all things else that we need. For in all the forms that the brokenness and neediness of our lives take, we turn to God, who promises us himself and thus fullness and wholeness of life.

It is at this point that the question of the answering of prayer most frequently arises. I fear that in this respect, partly because of this question, our prayers have become timid, showing that we no longer expect God to answer them. We may suppose this to be a sort of maturity, of growing up. We know that God will not give us a bicycle or cure our cold, and so we no longer ask. It doesn’t stop there. Haven’t we also forgotten to expect God, God’s reign, God’s transformation of heaven and earth, the resurrection of the dead, the abolition of dark and death and sorrow? And if we no longer expect these, then do we any longer expect anything? Are we then even afraid to name our need, our longing, our aching? And do we not then become unconscious of these things, merely irritable, impatient, no longer sure of what we need or want? Is this maturity, or is it senility?

Or perhaps we have determined to be wiser than God -- God is for our spiritual needs. So we exchange the resurrection of the body for the immortality of the soul. Instead of a new heaven and a new earth, we ask only for transport from the old earth to the old heaven. Or perhaps we give up both earth and heaven and seek in prayer only a soporific for our troubled spirit. What is the advantage of this over a beer and a TV set?

No, prayer has nothing to do with rendering us unconscious of our need, our pain, our longing. It is the articulation of this need, not just generally; but concretely, as we actually experience it, even if the occasion for it is the absence of a bicycle. We articulate our need and longing to the one who for our sakes became needy, became godforsaken, to the one who promises to us himself. So we pray for what we need, not because God is the great candy machine in the sky, but because God has entered into our need and has become needy for our sakes. Shall we then cover up that need?

Intercessory Prayer

We pray not only for our own needs but in intercession for the needs of our neighbors, our sisters, our brothers, our earth. In this act we give voice to the cry of our world for God, not only in general but also in particular. We do this because we know that what we need at heart is no different from the need of our neighbor and our world, and because we know we can never get what we need alone or apart from our neighbor’s crying and groaning. For what we need is not the salvation of our own soul but the new heaven and new earth, the reign and rule of God.

So the neighbor’s need is our need as well. The One to whom I turn in prayer is not only my Father but our Father, not my guardian angel but the Lord of heaven and earth, not the lover of my soul but the one "who so loved the world that he gave his only Son"; we pray not for my daily bread but for our daily bread.

Thus in intercession I turn my neighbor’s actual need to God. This means that I see my neighbor, my sister, my brother, my world from the standpoint of what God has promised to and for us. I see my neighbor in the light of God’s promise. I also see my neighbor in the light of my neighbor’s actual need and yearning. I cannot turn a deaf ear to his or her cry, for in prayer I myself utter that cry as though it were my own. So on behalf of the other and in the place of the other I give voice to the other’s need for God, both generally and concretely. It is here that for the first time we begin to bear one another’s burdens.

But here we need to heed a word of warning: I have no right to substitute my desire for my neighbor’s need. The terminally ill patient may desire healing and health. We may not believe this to be possible and may desire instead a peaceful and painless, or at any rate courageous or edifying, death. If we pray for and with the neighbor, we must give voice to the neighbor’s need -- not to our own halfhearted wishes. We may believe that the prayers will not be answered. This is none of our business. For 2,000 years we have prayed for the coming of God’s Kingdom. Shall we then balk at praying for life from the one who promises us life, at praying for healing in the name of Jesus who healed the sick? Shall we offer the stone of consolation to one who cries for wholeness and life? And if we then together confront the hard reality of God’s silence and absence, do we then cease to pray, and instead offer explanations and excuses for God? Or do we then for the first time pray in the name of him who prayed: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" and who taught us to pray "lead us not into temptation"?

Existing in Prayer

What does it mean then to exist in prayer? The oddest word the Scripture addresses to us about prayer is this: pray without ceasing. What is referred to here is a form or style of living which is itself formed as a prayer. Prayer forms our existence. It is the very skeleton of our existence -- not a part but our whole life, not only our life alone but our life in community, not only our life in the church but our life in the world, not our soul but our body. When our life in the world is formed by prayer, so will be our life in the church; when our life in relationship is formed by prayer, so will be our life alone. A word of caution: that our life is to be structured as a prayer cannot become another new and all the more intrusive form of law. Instead, it must be understood as a positive encouragement to the vocations of freedom.

What is the form and style of life in the world that is formed as a continuous prayer? Such an existence is, in the first place, formed by hope. It is an expectant existence, turned to the future, God’s future, the coming of God. It is, therefore, not unconsciously immersed in the everyday and day-to-day, but is a waiting for, expecting, yearning for, God, and thus for the transformation of all things.

An existence in prayer is also an existence without illusion. To live a life of prayer (contrary to the way we pray) is not to live with our eyes shut. A life formed by prayer is a life without blinders. This needs to be heard again and again: prayer is no refuge for wishful thinking, no flight from reality, no refuge from the truth. In prayer our eyes are open to ourselves as we are: to our neediness and brokenness, to our godlessness and to the world as it is. A life formed by prayer, then, is a life formed by the sober truth. It is a life which is an abiding in the truth, a doing of the truth. It is a life able to attend to things, just as they are, undistorted by fear or wishful thinking. Barth speaks of Christian existence as "seeing clearly"; it is thus attentive existence.

It is therefore a life without defenses. Most of us, especially those of us who are clergy, live in hiding. We hide behind our defenses, our pretenses. We pretend to be wiser than we are, stronger than we are, better than we are. But in prayer we come to see ourselves as we are: needy, lacking, yearning. Our secrets are discovered. The cat is out of the bag. How shall we exhaust ourselves in trying to rebuild those defenses, trying to be invulnerable? If we cannot hide from God, what is the point of hiding from one another? A life formed by prayer is a life in which pretense and posturing are no longer possible, because they are no longer worth the trouble.

A life formed by prayer is an open and honest life, a life of vulnerability to the other. It is on this basis that there can no longer be any separation of ourselves from the other, no longer any discrimination between rich and poor, pious and impious, moral and immoral. For in prayer "we are all beggars" (Luther).

Solidarity with the Neighbor

This means, fourth, that a life formed by prayer is a life of solidarity. It is as we know that we are sinners, and only then, that we know that we are sisters and brothers (Barth). The grace of God which justifies the ungodly can give us no vantage point from which we are in the right while others are in the wrong. If in prayer we address our godlessness to God, then we can have no ground for saying: "I thank God that I am not as other folk are." Our prayer can only be, "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner." If that is our prayer, then it informs existence as solidarity.

The rule of a life governed by prayer is this: there is nothing human which is alien to me. I who am myself in need of God cannot separate myself from the ungodly, the needy. This solidarity is all the more apparent in intercession. In intercession I identify with the pain and brokenness of my neighbor and my world and offer these up to God. If I offer up this prayer, how can I live in contradiction with this prayer -- to flee my neighbor, to flee my neighbor’s wretchedness? When I learn to pray for my neighbor, to utter his or her cry, how can I flee my neighbor by escaping into a religious, pious, "churchy," moralizing ghetto?

The brokenness of my neighbor takes concrete form. This means that it also takes social, political and economic form. Insofar as I identify with my neighbor’s cry, I protest with my neighbor against a godless world, a world of suffering, a world of imprisonment, a world that enforces hunger and injustice. This I can do only concretely, not abstractly, because I articulate my neighbor’s need just as the need it is -- the need for justice and therefore for God. Just because the articulation of our need is a yearning for God’s rule to become concrete, so with the oppressed I protest the structures of oppression. If I do not do so, it is an open question as to whether I have interceded for my neighbor.

In our prayer we pray, "Forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us." We ask that God deal with us as we deal with our neighbor. Our life in the world, in solidarity with the oppressed, with those who cry out for companionship, for healing, for justice, is a life of prayer. We may also turn this around in order to ask of our life: For what are we really asking when we ask God to deal with us as we deal with our neighbor? How do we deal with our neighbor? It is a dangerous thing to pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Also, I pray for the earth itself. For the earth’s very groaning, Paul tells us, is a groaning for salvation. The earth itself must be renewed. In our prayer we articulate the cry of an inarticulate earth. For we know that we are not saved apart from the transformation of the earth. The need of the earth is also our need. Can the earth then exist for us only as a storehouse of resources for transient needs?

In all of these ways, an existence formed by prayer is an existence that is worldly -- one that is fully in the world, in solidarity with the world’s cry, longing and need. It is not a particularly religious life, but a life before God in the world; in prayer we turn the need of the world to God and. claim God’s rule. This is what Bonhoeffer had in mind when he spoke of "religionless Christianity" -- that is, a Christianity that is no longer preoccupied only with the pious individual, or with a metaphysical, abstract, general God, but with a God who for our sakes became poor, who suffered the cross for the sake of the godless.

What shall we say then about a style of existence? The temptation is to separate our solidarity with the oppressed from a life of contemplation. A life style formed by prayer can never be content only with solidarity or only with contemplation but is able to put together these apparently contradictory ways of being. It is the juxtaposition or movement between prayer and involvement, between waiting and acting. This acting, involvement and solidarity are based upon and formed by our solidarity with the godlessness and godforsakenness of the world before God.

Learning to Pray

When we come together, we come to be taught to pray. But this teaching does not consist of instruction in the right attitude or right words. Instruction in prayer consists in this: that we pray. In the act of praying and only in the act of praying do we learn to pray. The gathering in prayer focuses and forms the praying of the people. If the praying done here is badly done, then the likelihood is that I will never know how to pray. If our people do not know how to pray, is this not perhaps because our praying in the congregation has become empty or distorted or formless?

Let me be clear here. People learn to be atheists not from too much contact with the world, but from too much contact with the church. No number of closely reasoned proofs for the existence of God will ever overcome the impression gained Sunday after Sunday that our prayers are addressed to ourselves. How often do we exhort ourselves when we pray: help us to know, help us to understand, help us to remember, help us to do? How vague, ephemeral, unreal must the God be who is addressed in this way. How often do the words we use in "pastoral prayer" in the congregation, the home, the hospital strangle both faith and hope? How often do our words silence the wild longing of the human heart for wholeness, for life, for justice, for peace, for those things which we can never give ourselves? How often do the words of our public prayer direct folk away from the crucified God to an anonymous Supreme Being, to the tribal deity of our institution or our nation, to the totem of our status quo? To what God do we pray when we pray for God to "defend, maintain and cause to prosper" institutions, statuses, and ways of life built upon the bleeding backs of those whom Jesus calls to his messianic banquet?

These questions indicate some of the ways in which our public prayers may deform or silence our prayer in general. It is in public prayer that we learn to pray -- or discover to our sorrow that we cannot pray.

Thus we may and must also ask of our prayer what style of life it forms. Are our prayers diffuse and amorphous and so incapable of forming a coherent way of life? Do they turn our attention upon ourselves or toward the One who delivers us from bondage to ourselves? Do they summon us to anxiety and busyness or do they cry out for God, the God who promises to come to us and has come to us in the cross and resurrection of Jesus? Do the prayers we pray summon us to the illusions of self-congratulation and ephemeral piety, or do they unmask our aching, our yearning, our call to God? Do the prayers we pray join us in solidarity with the groaning of our sisters and brothers and the whole of creation, or do they leave us finally alone in the echo chamber of our self-preoccupation? All of these questions are finally only one question: Do we know what it is to pray for the reign of God, on earth as in heaven, in the name of Jesus who cried out for God upon his cross?

When we lead the people of God in prayer, we demonstrate what it is to pray. And if it is not demonstrated publicly, how shall we know what it is to pray? And if we have not learned to pray, we have not learned what it is to live in the world before God.

We are confronted here with theological questions. They cannot be answered by a recipe for writing prayers. In the worship of the community, by the hospital bed, in the home of the neighbor we are confronted by our responsibility as priest-theologians. As we learn to take this responsibility seriously, we may learn the truth of Paul’s word, that we do not know how to pray. We may also learn to pray again the prayer of the disciples: Lord, teach us to pray. And that is the beginning of prayer.