Chapter 1: Prayer and Christian Belief

Prayer and the Common Life
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 1: Prayer and Christian Belief

Unless Prayer is grounded upon a sound structure of belief, it becomes magic, or wishful thinking, or at best a form of therapeutic meditation. There is no way of knowing how many people have given up the practice of prayer because it seemed to them hokum -- in plain language "the bunk"-- but the number must run into many millions. For these, whether intellectuals or persons who merely think a little, there is no possibility of prayer unless it can be seen to make sense. Our first task, therefore, is to ask how it fits in with the rest of Christian belief.

What is Prayer?

Before any headway can be made in understanding the foundations of prayer, we must know what we are talking about. A great many things commonly called prayer are of doubtful status. No mere repetition of words, whether "Now I lay me down to sleep" or the Lord’s Prayer or the great collects of the Prayer Book, can properly be so regarded. Prayer is not muscular exercise, and we are told on the highest authority that we shall not be heard for our much speaking. On the other hand, a vague mood of impulse toward goodness sometimes passes as prayer, as but usually soon dies away for lack of tangible expression. There is an unmistaken lift of spirit that comes from being in the presence of great beauty or challenged by invigorating ideas. These may be a stimulus to or an accompaniment of prayer, as they are in a beautiful and stirring church service. But of themselves they are not prayer, and may even exclude it by becoming a substitute.

The words of a familiar hymn have become an almost classic definition:

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,

Unuttered or expressed.

The statement is doubtless true. But does it mean that every sincere desire of the soul, such as a deep and ardent longing for another man’s wife or position or property, is a prayer? The person who has the desire may so regard it, but an objective judgment can hardly say so. Again, in the words of Henry van Dyke, "Honest toil is holy service; faithful work is praise and prayer." But many an honest day’s work is done with no thought of God or religion in it. If this is prayer at all, it requires a long stretching of the usual meaning of the word.

It becomes apparent that to define prayer is no simple matter. Yet this does not mean it is impossible. The best definition I have found is in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, "Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to His will." (Question 98. The entire statement reads, "Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.")

This statement puts the emphasis where it rightly belongs -- on God and his will. However sincere the desire, however devout the form of the words, a petition is not prayer unless God and the doing of his will are at the center of it. This rules out both the mechanical parroting of words, even great words like those of the Lord’s Prayer, and all clamor, however fervent, that one’s own will may be done by God. Nevertheless, in prayer there is a human as well as a divine side; for it is "our desires"-- the deep and compelling desires of the soul -- that we offer to God. Prayer is not a vague, general interest in goodness; it is positive and resolute desire that such goodness may as God’s gift become part of our lives. It is not aesthetic exaltation or vigorous thinking or honest work; it is the turning of the soul toward God with the desire that these and all other experiences may be enjoyed or engaged in by us as God would have them.

Prayer presupposes communication and response. It is an I-thou relation, a divine-human encounter. (Two important theological books bear these titles, I and Thou by Martin Buber and The Divine-Human Encounter by Emil Brunner.) Primarily and essentially, it is God who takes the initiative in this encounter by speaking to us. The Bible is full of how God has "visited and redeemed his people." On almost every page are reminders that God speaks -- and judges, blesses, calls, guides, restrains, saves, and delivers those who will hear his voice. So ever-present is the divine Spirit that the psalmist exclaims,

O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.

Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising;

Thou understandest my thought afar off . . . .

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?

Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence?

If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:

If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

If I take the wings of the morning,

And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;

Even there shall thy hand lead me,

And thy right hand shall hold me. (Ps. 139:1-2, 7-10)

On another occasion the worshiper, recognizing that he could not pray as he ought, voices a prayer that is still used in many thousands of church services:

O Lord, open thou my lips;

And my mouth shall show forth thy praise. (Ps.51:15. The usual form of the pronoun in public worship is in the plural.)

What this means for us is that to pray rightly we must let the Lord "open our lips." Prayer is not informing God of something he does not already know, or pleading with him to change his mind. Prayer is the opening of the soul to God so that he can speak to us. "Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance; it is laying hold of God’s willingness."

It is essential to any real understanding of prayer that we get this sequence straight. God speaks, and summons us to respond. But when we have recognized this, it is possible to look at the I-thou relation from the other end. There is also in prayer communication and response in which we speak and God responds. Prayer, as we said a moment ago, is "the offering up of our desires unto God." This means the voicing before God of whatever is deepest within the soul with the expectation that he will hear and answer. The answer comes in many ways -- in the strengthening of the inner life, in direction for action, in quieting of anxiety, in assurance of sin forgiven, in a sense of divine companionship that gives peace and power. It can come in the reshaping of events, though this raises problems of which we must speak later. The answer does not always come as the pray-er expects or desires. However, unless the person who prays believes that in some way God can, does, and will answer prayer, he stops praying. No intelligent person will continue to pray if he thinks he is merely talking into the air. J. B. Pratt has aptly remarked in this connection:

If the subjective value of prayer be all the value it has, we wise psychologists of religion had best keep the fact to ourselves: otherwise the game will soon be up and we shall have no religion to psychologize about. We shall have killed the goose that laid our golden egg. (The Religious Consciousness, p. 336.)

At this point prayer needs to be distinguished from worship. For many purposes the words may be used interchangeably. Prayer ought to include the worship of God, and a service of worship without prayer is barren. Nevertheless, the terms are not identical. Worship means an attitude of reverence toward God -- a sense of God’s worthship (From the Anglo-Saxon weorthscipe, a state of worth or worthiness) and the deity worshipped may be conceived impersonally with no expectation of response. There is worship in every religion, there is prayer only where it is believed that God -- or the gods -- can answer. In Christian worship prayer is a natural accompaniment because God is conceived as a personal being, a loving Father with whom communication and response are not only a possibility but an appropriate expectation.

The Christian Understanding of Man

We have noted that prayer depends for its existence on a two-way relationship between man and God. This means that if it is to be a consistent and intelligible part of our belief, we must understand the main lines of Christian thought regarding both God and man. From the standpoint of primacy the natural place to begin would be with God, since he "hath made us, and not we ourselves." However, it may help to understand what is meant by a personal God is we begin with a look at human personality.

Man is so many-sided a being that it would be impossible in a few pages to do more than give the barest sketch of our human nature. One may study a great deal of psychology, sociology, biology, and anthropology, and still not probe the depths of the complex creature that man is. All that can be learned from such studies ought to be put in conjunction with our theology, for in any field where truth is discovered, the various approaches to it must supplement and reinforce each other. However, the Christian understanding of man gives a basic point of view and perspective sometimes omitted from these more specialized fields, and it is with this that we are here mainly concerned.

The Christian idea of man can be stated in the form of five paradoxes, each uniting an apparent contradiction. It is the Christian faith that --

Man is both nature and spirit.

Man is both free and bound.

Man is both sinner and created in the divine image.

Man is both an individual and a member of society.

Man is made both for this world and for another.

Let us see what each of these statements means, and what bearing it has on prayer.

To say that man is both nature and spirit is to affirm what is evident enough -- though some types of psychology attempt to deny it -- that there are two sides to every human being. One of these is the body. This occupies space; it has a very complex physical structure which usually serves us well but sometimes gets out of order and eventually dies; it is subject both in health and disease to precise observation and measurement and a good deal of control. The other side of human nature, which in this life is inseparably linked with the body but without being identical with it, is variously called spirit, mind, consciousness, ego, psyche, soul, or personality. These terms are not identical, but they have in common a reference to the psychic side of our psychophysical nature. This is an intangible but real part of our existence. Its reality can be denied only by obscuring the fact that ideas and attitudes determine the decisions by which the greater part of life is regulated, and exercise much control over bodily acts. It too can be studied and its course in some measure charted, but it is far less open to observation from without than is our bodily behavior.

According to Christian faith, this inner life of the spirit is more vital to human nature than the body because it is here that our desires, hopes, aspirations, joys and sorrows, motives, and ideals are located. Christianity does not deny the reality of the body, its influence upon the spirit, or the importance of its claims; it does deny that these ought to eliminate or overrule the claims of the spirit. This was stated in immortal terms by Jesus when he said:

Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment? . . . Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

The bearing upon prayer of the fact that man is both nature and spirit is twofold. In the first place, most of our prayers ought to be for the enrichment and control of the spirit so that motives, desires, and the spirit’s use of bodily powers will be in harmony with the will of God. If prayer did only this, it would do for us the most important thing that could be done. But prayer has also an important relation to the body, not only for making it a more effective vehicle of the spirit, but for the release in it of curative forces when it becomes disordered. Of this we shall say more when we discuss the relation of prayer to physical and mental health.

To say that man is both free and bound is to say that, within limits, man can make real choices, act with responsibility for the outcome, control his destiny, and affect that of others. But always within limits; there is no complete freedom for anybody, It is important to affirm man’s freedom of will, or as it was put in the older diction, to say that man "is a free moral agent," for otherwise all idea of morality and of sin collapses. We are responsible only for those acts and attitudes in which we are free enough to do or to think otherwise if we choose to. But it is equally important not to make extravagant claims or hold groundless hopes on the assumption of more freedom than we have. In a multitude of ways our freedom is limited -- by the state of our bodies, by the world of space and time in which they are placed, by our native talent, by our previous education or by the lack of it, by our own past choices, by our present social environment, by an enormously intricate set of national, racial, vocational, and family forces which play upon us and hedge us in. Every normal individual beyond infancy has enough freedom to make choices of right and wrong; no individual has enough freedom to do everything he wants to do. The good life can be lived only with due recognition of such restraints as well as of the great possibilities of the human will.

Prayer would be meaningless apart from the existence of human freedom. God has not made us mechanical robots or puppets, and because he has not, he expects us to use our freedom in co-operation with him to "seek . . . first his kingdom and his righteousness." On the other hand, prayer which, too naively confident, defies the restraints which surround us is likely to end in frustration and despair. Though it is true that

More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of,

it is not true that by prayer the fundamental forces of the universe time, space, physical order, and social connectedness -- will be set aside. We must pray wisely if we would pray well.

To say, in the third place, that man is both sinner and created in the divine image is to affirm what anybody who either looks around him or looks honestly within himself must discover -- the ever-present fact of sin. If a person thinks he does not sin, this is either because he deludes himself or has too simple an idea of what sin is. Sin is not merely overt transgressions against society such as murder, theft, or adultery; it appears more often in the subtler forms of the killing of personality by anger and unkindness; the stealing of reputation by gossip or of opportunities by self-seeking; the marring of thoughts by attention to the lustful or the obscene. Sin centers in self-love, and there is no one who does not at some points love himself more than God or his fellow men.

But what of the image of God? This means that man, with all his sin and frailty, is the child of God, made in God’s spiritual likeness. We are made for goodness, not for evil, and for fellowship with God. However much sin may infest our lives, we cannot be content to let it go on without protest if we know we are created for something better. Our chief resource for the overcoming of sin and the achievement of this higher destiny is fellowship with God in prayer.

To say that man is both an individual and a member of society is to make a statement not likely to be challenged from the standpoint of our ordinary relations. Into a society we are born; by it we are fed, educated, protected, restrained, directed in a multitude of ways; in it we do our work; and from it we eventually pass in death. Or do we? According to Christian faith, society is not limited to human individuals upon earth. Man is in fellowship with God, and beyond the portals of death lies fellowship with those who have gone before. Prayer ought to make us better and more useful members of the earthly society through the recognition of this wider context with God at its center.

So, finally, the faith that man is made both for this world and for another has its bearing on our theme. Prayer is not dependent on belief in immortality, and it ought not to be directed solely, or even chiefly, towards getting souls ready for heaven. If our relation to God is what it should be here, we may trust him to take care of what lies beyond. Nevertheless, the Christian faith in immortality has an important connection with the idea of man’s dignity and worth, for according to the Christian outlook every human soul has a value great enough to be appropriately thought imperishable. What we pray for, as what we work for, may well be determined by whether we believe that a human soul is precious enough in God’s eyes to be everlasting.

The Christian Idea of God

Already in discussing the meaning of prayer and the Christian idea of man, we have said some things about God. Since all prayer rests back upon our understanding of the nature of God and his relation to the world, we must now look at this more directly.

We shall not attempt to survey all the ideas of God that have been or can be held. The place for this is in the study of comparative religions or the philosophy of religion. However, what we are mainly concerned with here is the Christian view. What are its principal notes? It is the Christian faith that --

God is a personal, supremely righteous and loving Spirit.

He is the all-wise and ever-present Creator and Ruler of

the world.

Like a father he loves and cares for his human children.

He has a good purpose and destiny for our lives.

When we sin and thwart his will, he not only judges but

seeks in mercy to save and deliver us.

This is not all that can be said about God. But if these things are true, they have important consequences for an understanding of prayer.

First, to say that God is personal is not to say that God is in all respects just like ourselves. If he were, we should not think of praying to him. But if he were not enough like us to speak in ways to which we can respond, there would also be no ground for prayer. Prayer, we saw, always centers in an I-thou relation, not in merely thinking about an impersonal Principle that might be referred to as "It."

God’s personality is that of infinite spirit. We are finite creatures, weak, sinful, functioning through physical bodies, and limited in time and space. We must not attribute to God our limitations, but we must guard equally against supposing he is of some other -- and if impersonal, some lower -- order of being. To say that we are made in his image is both to affirm the divineness and dignity of man and to assert the personality of God.

We said in the previous section that man is made in the spiritual image of God. It is important, on the one hand, not to suppose that God has a body like ours. In a sense the whole universe is his vehicle of expression, comparable to our bodies as the vehicle of spirit. In a special way, so Christian faith holds, the divine Spirit came to concrete human expression in Jesus, but God needs for his existence no psychophysical organism. And on the other hand, man’s true selfhood, however closely related to a body in this life, is not physical substance. Personality, whether in God or man, is intangible, invisible spirit.

The bearing of this on prayer is obvious. As we are told in John’s Gospel, "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." At the center of all true prayer lies spiritual communion with God. To envisage God in physical form, though it may be a useful step in childhood or for the beginner, if persisted in encourages a false idea of God and is a deterrent to inner spiritual fellowship.

Second, to say that God is the all-wise and ever-present Creator and Ruler of the world is to assert that God who made the world does not abandon it or withdraw to let it run by itself. Continually he creates it anew, orders, and sustains it. There is in God’s world beauty, power, and nourishing sustenance. There is also a remarkable regularity on which our lives depend, and which we describe as the "laws of nature." This ordered dependability can be explored and used by human wills, but as far as we can observe, it is not set aside upon request.

This conviction of the regularity and order within God’s world is very important to a true understanding of prayer. On the one hand, it interposes a caution. We ought not to pray supposing that if only we pray hard enough we shall get whatever we ask for. Most of the bitterness of unanswered prayer comes from the assumption that God will juggle his universe to give us what we plead for if we plead long enough. On the other hand, many things can happen, both within and outside of the individual, in response to prayer without any setting aside of God’s orderly processes. Of this we shall say more when we discuss the various kinds of petition.

Another aspect of God’s relation to the world as Creator and ever-present Ruler is vital to the issue. Since God is present throughout his universe, he is near, and within us -- literally "nearer than hands and feet." Everything around us is God’s world; all the energy of our physical bodies is God’s energy. It is as true for us as for Paul, or for the Greek poet Cleanthes whom he quoted, that in God "we live, and move, and have our being." When we pray, we do not then have to call God down from heaven. We have only to open the soul to an awareness of the God who is already here.

Third, to say that God like a father loves and cares for his human children is to say that he who made us continues to watch over and try to help us. This means, furthermore, that God is concerned not merely in some impersonal fashion with the human race, but with individuals. He would be acting in a quite unfatherly manner if he simply established some general rules and turned us loose with no further interest in what happened. Such a detached Supreme Being, if we called him God at all, would certainly not be the God of Jesus.

If God loves and cares for individuals, we have reason to expect personal direction and support. It is not irrational to assume such intimacy of relationship in prayer. On the contrary, if God is the loving Father Jesus held him to be, it is irrational to doubt God’s ability or willingness to deal with individuals. To assume, as some do, that God could not possibly give heed to as many people as there are in the world is to place upon him very human limitations.

Fourth, to say that God has a good purpose and destiny for our lives is to find meaning in what might otherwise seem a chaotic and meaningless set of circumstances. We are not to suppose that God wills everything to happen just as it does. To say of every trouble "God wills it," is to blind one’s eyes to the evilness of some things that God, like man, must wish to see changed. Nevertheless, it is the will of God for us to find beauty and value in the midst of trouble, strength and mastery in experiences of frustration and pain. A person drifting aimlessly, pushed this way and that by the stronger pressure or the more attractive lure, can in no surer way find direction and stability than by seeking to know and do the will of God.

It is the major business of all of us to find and follow God’s will for our lives. If there is such a purpose, life can be greatly enriched by alignment with it. It is here that prayer has its most insistent claim and its most undisputed value. Whatever may or may not be believed about other consequences of prayer, there is not the slightest doubt that in giving direction and meaning to life, prayer matters.

Finally, to say that when we sin God judges and seeks to save us is to declare the central message of Christian faith. Throughout the Bible the belief in God’s supreme goodness and holiness carries with it the note of divine judgment upon sin. But judgment is not the last word, for God in mercy forgives and saves his erring children when in repentance they turn to him. In all that Jesus said and did, in his death on the cross and in the living presence of Christ, a promise of victory over sin through the forgiving love of God is brought to us. It is not by accident that John 3:16 has been more often quoted than any other verse in the Bible.

Here, too, prayer has a central place. By it we are led through self-examination to recognize our sin and seek deliverance. The prayer of confession leads on to petition for cleansing and renewal, and a sense of God’s forgiving mercy brings newness of life and deeper commitment to his service. Prayer is not all there is of the process of finding spiritual victory over temptation and sin, but without it our best efforts thresh the air.

If what has been said in this chapter is true, it is evident that not only is prayer reasonable, but that through it the central structures of life are fashioned. Many questions remain which will receive attention later. We must next inquire further what prayer is by examining its elements and component parts.