Chapter: 10 The Personal Devotion<I> </I>of the Christian

Christian Affirmations
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter: 10 The Personal Devotion<I> </I>of the Christian

The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews admonished his readers that they were not to forsake the "gathering of themselves" in Christian worship. But he did not intend to suggest that public gatherings, even for the purpose of the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, could altogether supplant the private and personal devotion of the Christian believer. The fact is that the worship of the Church as a social body is dependent for the richness which it may possess upon the continued and regular personal devotion of those who are its participants; and contrariwise, that the private prayer of a Christian will be given point and significance as it leads to and is itself enriched by regularity of attendance at the public services of the Church. Here is another instance of "both . . . and" rather than "either . . . or."

Precisely as Christian worship, in its social sense, has its own peculiar characteristics and is marked by a special religious quality, so the private devotion of the Christian is different from the life in prayer of other religious people. We shall seek to explore this difference a little later on. Here, however, we would make plain that prayer as such is a human trait which is found among all peoples. From the most primitive of savages to the sophisticated modern, the urge to "speak" to an Other not human would appear to be almost universal. Even when God is denied, the practice of meditation is often commended; Comte, who had no other deity than le grand Etre (which was the human race in its best representatives), still thought that contemplation and aspiration directed towards this "being" (if that word is not absurdly inappropriate) was necessary to a good life. And among those who have not taken such an atheistic view, prayer seems to spring naturally to the lips when one feels one’s sense of need or when one is overwhelmed with gratitude for the good things that life can provide. Whether it be naive and almost superstitious, or highly spiritual and morally developed, prayer is natural to man. As William James remarked, men pray because they cannot help praying.

Their prayer will be to a large degree the reflection of the kind of God in whom they believe. If their religion is primitive, their prayer will also be primitive. If their god is morally dubious, so will their prayer be. As they rise to a higher conception of deity, their praying will be more spiritual, purer, less concerned with the temporal goods that communion with deity may be thought to provide. Christian prayer is a reflection of the Christian conception of God; and here once again the maxim to which we referred earlier -- lex orandi lex credendi, the rule of praying and the rule of believing are the same -- is seen to be true. Prayer which is addressed to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is different in quality from prayer addressed to some primitive deity. On the other hand, there is a real continuity. For, in Professor James Bissett Pratt’s excellent phrase, all prayer is man’s attempt to enter into relationship with that which, or with him whom, man regards as the determiner of destiny. And we may say that, in fact, there is only one prayer, just as we have seen that there is only one religion and one way of worship -- starting in crude and simple ways and rising to higher and higher levels, until prayer becomes Christian prayer, informed by the Spirit of Christ and uttered in His name.

Prayer, like worship, is primarily man’s attempt at self-oblation to his god. It is the offering of self to the deity so that the praying person may be conformed to the will of the god; here it differs, as we have already seen, from magic -- which is the attempt to conform the nature of things to man’s desire. Much of our supposed praying must be seen as hovering between magic and real prayer; but such ambiguity is what one might expect in view of man’s own ambiguous nature, with the conflict in his personality between the higher and the lower self -- the lower concerned to put his own wishes at the center of things, the higher to commit himself to that which is in fact at the center of things. But when prayer falls to the level of attempts at coercing deity, it has stopped being prayer; and for the Christian, with his view of the right ordering of things in the light of God’s self-revelation in Christ, any thought of coercing God is an utter impossibility and can have no place in his prayer.

The classical definition of prayer, given by St. John of Damascus and taken over by St. Thomas Aquinas, is that prayer is "the elevation of the soul to God." It is the intentional and conscious placing of oneself in the presence of God, lifting one’s personality to Him and seeking to be in fellowship with Him. This is just another way of describing prayer as self-oblation, for the only fashion in which it is possible for man to be lifted to God is by his giving of himself in dedication to the God whom he would know. In other words, prayer is an "other-regarding" activity of the human personality. It is not concerned so much with oneself and one’s wishes, as it is with God and His purpose. Prayer, like worship, is a purifying of self, a disinfecting of human life from the germs of false self-centeredness.

The genius of Christian prayer is that it is "in the name of Christ." For primitive men, and for the fairly sophisticated Jew and Gentile of the times described in our Scriptures, there was power in "the name." For the "name" of a person was in some way conceived to be his revelation of himself; it was the giving-away of the secret of his life. And it was thought that if one knew the "name" of a god, one had been admitted in a real way into a knowledge of his true nature. Thus "the name of Christ" meant the inner, secret quality of his life. To pray "in Christ’s name" meant to share in the spirit of Christ’s life and in that spirit to utter one’s words of prayer. We might very well put this idea in the words that Jesus himself uttered in the Garden of Gethsemane: "Not my will, but thine, be done." To pray "in Christ’s name" is therefore to pray in such a fashion that one has given oneself to Christ and approaches God in terms of Christ, so that Christ’s purpose becomes our purpose and we address God as if we were speaking for Christ and Christ were speaking through us. Here is another illustration of the way in which Christian faith, with its total giving of self to one’s Lord, is linked with the whole context of the Christian life itself. As we believe, so we pray; as we pray, so we are.

It will be recalled that in describing the nature of worship, in its most general sense, we found that there were five elements which form the action of the believer in his cultic approach to deity: Adoration, or praise; thanksgiving; acknowledgement of failure or sin; prayer for others; prayer for oneself. These five are found in worship, in varying degrees of emphasis, and these are the elements that are found in prayer.

And they are found in that order, when prayer is at its best. For if prayer be other-regarding, then God must be given first place, and attention to self and its desires must come at the end. Let us try to analyze a little more in detail these five elements in advanced prayer.

First of all, adoration or praise. This is the initial step in Christian prayer, because it is the way in which we can most effectively be lifted to God. God is not to be adored and praised in the fulsome and vulgar way in which earthly rulers of an earlier day wished to be honored. It is not that He demands from us such adulation. Rather, the point of adoration and praise is that man must "needs love the highest when he sees it." In the presence of that which is altogether lovely, we are compelled to express our admiration. In the presence of Him who is high and lifted up, yet glorious in His holiness and in His mercy, we are drawn to speak out our wondering adoration. We might say that God permits this to take place, for the simple reason that He knows that man reaches his highest and best only as he loses himself in such wonder, such awe and praise. This is the way in which we are raised above self and delivered from our captivity to our own interests. So adoration of God can give nothing to Him that He does not already possess; but it can give to us a new dimension of life and a new view of the meaning of things, by putting God where He belongs, where indeed He really is, at the heart of existence.

The recognition of that truth is immediately reflected in thanksgiving. For gratitude is a characteristic of the human race when it is really at its best. The words in the Gloria in excelsis in which God is thanked for His "great glory" provide us a good place to begin our thought about thanksgiving. We have a human analogy for this. Sometimes, as we all know, we are moved to say (either outright, in words, or in our heart of hearts) that we are thankful that our friend exists; we are grateful simply that he is, quite apart from all that he may have done for us. In this way, adoration and praise lead to, and are expressed in, our thanksgiving for the fact that God exists, that He exists in all His majesty yet in His mercy, that the Creator of the world is the God of love. But from this, of course, we must go on gladly to recognize and gratefully to acknowledge all that God has done; as the words of the General Thanksgiving in Morning and Evening Prayer put it, "We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life." But more than this, because more directly related to our life as Christians, we give thanks "above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory." To have "a due sense" of God’s mercies, to be "unfeignedly thankful," is to be in the position of recognizing that it is "[God] who has made us and not we ourselves"; that we are dependent upon Him and His goodness; that all our hopes for ourselves and for our world rest not on our proud human imaginings and devisings but upon that which God can and will do.

In other words, by putting adoration of God and the attitude of thanksgiving in first place, we are enabled to assimilate the truth that men are derivative and limited beings, creatures of God, and that they can only live safely and well when this creatureliness runs as a leitmotiv through all their thoughts and actions. This does not for a moment imply a false passivity in human life, as if there were nothing whatever that we can do about anything. It simply asserts what is patently the fact, that all of our efforts are as a drop in the bucket, are indeed futile and stupid, when we seek to live as if the immediacies of our own actions were the ultimate governing principles of existence. The strange truth is that when men live in dependence on God, they are enabled to act with more vigor and courage and with less likelihood of despair and disappointment than when they falsely assume that they are lords of all they survey and act as if they were sovereign over the Creation.

In the sight of God, the generous Giver of good, an honest man must see that his own life is not very praiseworthy. That is, he must recognize that he is a sinner. We need not bother ourselves at this point with an analysis of the concept of sin, save to remark that he is a very blind man who can claim that his life is perfect by any standard that is at all rigorous and exacting. If, as Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living," it is surely the case that when we look at ourselves in the presence of the purity and the charity of God revealed in Christ and gratefully adored in prayer, we see only too well the blemishes which mark our selfish little existence. And if we see this, the part of honesty is to acknowledge the truth. In recent years we have learned from the depth psychologists how important it is that we shall both recognize and say what we know about ourselves; and that we be helped, by analysis if that is necessary, to penetrate as deeply as possible into our own past, so that we can both see and say these things. There is a therapeutic result from such honest self-understanding. The frank confession, in God’s presence, of that which is wrong about ourselves is the way to our securing the health of personality which God intends for us. The man who will not acknowledge that he is wrong cannot be helped, even by God Himself, to be made right. "An honest confession is good for the soul," says the old adage; conviction of sin, the evangelical preachers used to declare, is the necessary pre-condition for the experience of Salvation.

The two remaining elements in prayer are petitionary in nature. Up to this point, we have said nothing about asking; prayer has been concerned with looking at God and at ourselves in God’s presence. But intercession for others and for the causes which seem good to us, and petition for ourselves and that which we think is needful for us, are also part -- although not the first or primary part -- of prayer. In both intercession and personal petition, the Christian rule -- "not my will, but thine" -- must never be forgotten. God is the Sovereign Lord; His purpose is that which we must wish to be accomplished, confident as we are that His purpose is altogether good even though at a given moment we may not completely understand how this may be.

There are two important considerations here. In the first place, the fact of intercession and personal petition as part of prayer implies that there is a certain "open-ness" about the Creation, so that genuinely new and different things may be accomplished in it if human wills are aligned with the Will of God. How this may be done we are not able to see with any degree of clarity; that it is so is the condition of all effectual petition. On the one hand, this does not mean that "anything may happen" if only we pray for it; on the other hand, it does mean that God can and does use the strong desires of His children, in a fashion known only to Him, for the bringing to pass of that which He wills. As we might put it, God takes our praying into account in His governance of the world. As a parent will both consider and use the desires of his children in working out his plan for their best development, so God, without violating His own purpose, may use our strong desires for the good in such a way that richer ends are achieved than might otherwise be the case.

Nor need we fear that scientific thought has made such a view an impossibility. For this is no absolutely rigid, mechanistic universe in which we live; our best modern writers on the philosophy of science are constantly assuring us of the limited, yet genuine, openness in the scheme of things. And further, the so-called laws of science are at best nothing but a statement of the observed general sequences of behavior in those areas of the Creation with which they are concerned; they are, so to say, "statistical averages," and they do not cover everything. From the Christian point of view, there is indeed a real consistency in the universe; but this consistency does not lie in some arbitrarily imposed laws established by the human mind, but in the indeflectible purpose of God, changeless in its nature, yet adapting its expression to the contingencies which arise in a world to which God has given a real, although limited, freedom. The emergence of novelty is not merely not precluded by such a view; it is, on the contrary, demanded by it; and the fact of such novelty, such unexpected and unprecedented newnesses, is all about us if we have eyes to see.

Thus Christian intercession and prayer of petition are not only a possibility but provide a valuable insight into the nature of things. We can pray for others and for ourselves with assurance and vigor, always provided we submit our specific desires to the Will of God and recognize that it is His Will which is to be accomplished -- and accomplished, in part, through our strong desire that it shall be done.

The second consideration is that as the individual develops in his life of prayer, he will find that petition for material advantage is less and less a part of his asking, and that more and more he desires only that he may be conformed to God’s Will, so that as Christ’s Spirit is formed in him he is enabled to live as un autre Christ -- that fine phrase which was so often used by French devotional writers in the seventeenth century. And to be, in our derivative little way, "another Christ" means that we neither ask, nor expect, to be exempted from pain and suffering, but rather pray and hope that whatever material lack we may be called upon to endure in an unfinished and therefore imperfect world, may be used in such a way that others may be enriched, and that through us, as those who share in the Cross of Christ, the world may be brought closer to the love of God. Kierkegaard has a great passage, dealing with the place of those who are thus called upon to suffer. He calls it The Pinch of Spice:

As a skilful cook says of a dish in which there are already a great many ingredients: "It still needs just a little pinch of cinnamon" (and we perhaps could hardly tell by the taste that this little pinch of spice had been added, but she knew precisely why and precisely how it affected the taste of the whole mixture); as an artist says with a view to the color effect of a whole painting which is composed of many, many, colors: "There and there, at that little point, it needs a touch of red" (and we perhaps could hardly even discover the red, so carefully has the artist shaded it, although he knows exactly why it should be introduced). So it is with Providence.

O, the Providence of the world is a vast housekeeping, a grandiose painting. Yet he, the Master, God in heaven, behaves like the cook and the artist. He says: There must be a little touch of spice here, a little touch of red. We do not understand why, we are hardly aware of it, since that little bit is so thoroughly absorbed in the whole. But God knows why.

A little pinch of spice! That is to say: Here a man must be sacrificed, he is needed to impart a particular taste to the rest.

These are the correctives. It is a woeful error for the one who is used to apply the corrective to become impatient and try to make the corrective the norm for others. That is an attempt to bring everything to confusion.

A little pinch of spice! Humanly speaking, what a painful thing, thus to be sacrificed, to be the little pinch of spice! But on the other hand, God knows well the man he elects to use in this way, and then he knows also, in the inward understanding of it, how to make it a blessed thing for him to be sacrificed, that among the thousands of divers voices which express, each in its own way, the same thing, his will also be heard, and perhaps especially his, which is truly de profundis, proclaiming: God is love. The birds on the branches, the lilies in the field, the deer in the forest, the fish in the sea, countless hosts of happy men exultantly proclaim: God is love. But beneath all these sopranos, supporting them as it were, like the bass part, is audible the de profundis which issues from those who are sacrificed: God is love.

The personal devotion of a Christian, we may then say in conclusion, has for its goal precisely that which Christian worship, in the sense of the cult, has for its goal: the offering of self to God, even in our intercessions for others and for ourselves. For in our intercessions for others we are really offering them to God, so that His Will may be done in them; and in our prayer for ourselves, we are giving ourselves to God, so that in us and through us, His holy Will may more effectively be brought to pass. But it is all through Jesus Christ our Lord, in His name and by His spirit. We worship God and we pray to him, not as those who are ignorant of his true nature and his purpose m creating and sustaining us. We worship and we pray as those who are members of Christ, and by that token, children of God and inheritors of His heavenly Kingdom. It is as response to God’s movement towards us that we adore Him, praise Him, acknowledge our sin before Him, pray for others and for ourselves. Thus it is that the end for which we are seeking, both in our daily living and in our daily praying, in our acts of faith and in our participation in the communal worship of the Eucharist, is precisely that which, in the seventeenth chapter of his Gospel, the Writer of St. John sets before his readers as he represents our Lord Himself, praying in His great high-priestly prayer:

Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are... I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. . . Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gayest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou lovest me. Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me. And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.