Chapter 3: Praying in Words

Praying Today: Practical Thoughts on Prayer
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 3: Praying in Words

Through conscious and intentional action and consent, prayer makes possible a working of the divine Charity that otherwise might have been impeded or even prevented. This does not mean that God is "finite"; but it does mean that he wills not to work in spite of us so much as in us and through us, by our own freely made decisions. This is the inevitable corollary of our faith that God is Love and that his activity in the world is primarily in and by love. Too often, alas, this faith has been obscured if not denied by the introduction into our thought about God of notions that, as we have seen, are more appropriate to imperial Caesar or a despotic tyrant than to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As we turn to the actual practice of prayer, we should observe that there have been two broad main categories into which the great teachers of prayer have divided this enterprise. One is prayer in words, vocal prayer; the other is prayer in thought, often called "mental prayer." In the former, we pray (so to speak) aloud, using words to address God; in the latter, we are not so much concerned to use words as to think about God, his revelation, his will, his character, his relationship with us. The former is more like speaking, the latter more like reflection or meditation -- and that word, meditation, has often been used to describe much of "mental prayer."

In this chapter our attention will be focused on vocal prayer, praying in words. Yet it is obvious that the distinction is somewhat arbitrary, since often when we are "saying" our prayers a moment may come when words are forgotten and we simply look with wonder or think with reverence. To try to make sharp distinctions would be like asking a lover to provide a neatly divided report indicating in detail the various ways in which he has been with and delighted in his beloved. This would be so highly artificial that it would be absurd. Yet the distinction does have its value; certainly it is convenient at least for purposes of discussion.

Praying with words is commonly taken to include petition and intercession, confession of sin, thanksgiving, and adoration. Praying in thought begins with the sort of reflection that is often styled meditation; and then having begun with a period devoted to meditation, it goes on to contemplation, and may sometimes end in the experience that the great mystics have called "union with God." "Mental" prayer in its first step is relatively easy for anybody; when it comes to the contemplative or mystical stages things are different. A great deal of harm has been done by the suggestion that everybody is really capable of those ranges of contemplative and mystical prayer, since many people find, after much effort, that they cannot engage in them. In any event, the saints have known that "union," in the supreme sense intended by the mystics, is not attained by human effort but is (as they say) always a "gift" of God; while contemplation, in the strictest meaning of that term, is only possible for the few who are called to it -- although there is an element of contemplation in all prayer, not least in "vocal" prayer, as we shall see. But meditation is something that we do every day, in secular interests, and the move to religious meditation is open to anybody who will take the trouble.

In the area commonly known as "vocal" prayer, we shall find it simplest to begin with petition and intercession. This is because most people seem to think that prayer is nothing but "asking"; we might as well start where they are, even if we reject the false idea that petition and intercession are all there is to praying.

Petition has to do with prayer for ourselves and our needs; intercession has to do with prayer for others and their needs. In both cases, however, the prayer is concerned with that which seems, to the one who is praying, desirable or necessary either to himself or for others. The first thing that we ought to see is that if God is Love, bringing before him desires and needs is not in and of itself wrong. The divine Lover wants his human children to say honestly and frankly what they think and feel, without subterfuge or hypocrisy. That should be taken for granted. The difficulty arises when we assume that the purpose of such frank and honest statement is to coerce God into granting what we believe is thus desirable or necessary. Such a view reduces prayer to magic; it is nothing more than the attempt to conform the world and everything in it to human ideas. Several anthropologists, studying the difference between magic and religion in primitive peoples, have indicated that the latter (religion) is much more an intended conformity of things human with the divine, whereas the former (magic) is the effort, by use of formulae or rites, to bring the divine into conformity with things human. Unhappily, a good deal of petitionary prayer as well as intercession seems to be based on the "magical" premise rather than the "religious" one.

Petitionary and intercessory prayer will usually begin in a rather naive way. The one who is praying will "tell God," as we say, what he thinks he needs or what another needs. But if he is a Christian he will add the proviso that any granting of such requests must be in accordance with God’s will as revealed in Jesus Christ. The child soon learns that most petitionary and intercessory prayers are not "answered," as the saying goes. He finds that what he wants is not always what he gets. The stage is then set for him to learn that prayer is not "answered" in the obvious and superficial meaning of that word. What does happen is that the desires and wishes of the praying person are gradually purged of self-centered and selfish elements; he comes slowly to see that he should pray, for his own condition and for others, for "an increase of faith, hope, and charity" -- as the Prayer Book collect for Trinity XIV puts it -- and in consequence come to conform his own desires and wishes to the ongoing purposes of God. In this given world, the thing most necessary for God’s children is a relationship to the divine Love that will bring their own lives to fulfillment, in community with their fellows. That means a growth in the capacity to commit oneself to God’s love, which is faith; in the openness to and expectation of great and good things that will augment our relationship to him and to each other, which is hope; and in a self-giving and readiness to receive from others, which is love. Whatever else we may think we require or want is secondary; and the person who is growing in prayer soon comes to understand this. The quotations in the last chapter from the teachers of prayer should have made this plain.

Yet there is nothing wrong in saying what we think, at the moment, would help toward our growth and contribute to the making of our personalities. Not only is there nothing wrong about this; it is a natural thing to do. Nor is it presumptuous on our part. One might even say that God loves us enough to wish us to tell him these things although he also loves us enough to have ordered the world in such a way that many of these things will not be ours because they are not really good for us.

The addition that our petition and intercession make to the force for good in the world, once our praying is delivered from sheer selfishness, is very important. It augments the general drive for good; it contributes, as we may dare to say, to the energies of love that are at God’s disposal in his ordering of the onward movement of creative advance in the universe. We have already urged that every human decision makes a difference, since it affects all occasions or occurrences -- nobody lives "to himself" alone. Hence we should not discount the contribution that our petition or intercession may make. But again, not in a magical way. That is, the contribution is the giving of our own desire for good, whether expressed through our personal growth or through the growth of others. Often enough, so far as others are concerned, that is all we can do. So far as we are concerned, the point is that we desire such "growth in grace" as shall make us fit instruments for the divine Love; and in our ignorance or with our limited knowledge we ask also for whatever may help toward that end. We learn, then, that the child’s prayer for this or that is harmless; but the adult’s prayer must be childlike, not childish -- it will be the acceptance of God’s will, humbly and gladly, as we come to see that in and through everything "God is working towards a good end for those that love him." Our immediate impulse is to want what is not for our own good, harmful perhaps to others, and quite possibly not in accordance with God’s will for good. The developed type of petition and intercession is more profound; it is the urgent yearning, expressed in word, that we shall be what Whitehead called "co-creators" with God and what Paul styled "fellow-workers" with him.

Intercession is basically the remembering before God, or the holding before him by conscious intention, of those who are (as we think) in need of his particular help. When we intercede, we bring others within the ambit of our own willed relationship to God; we also add, as we have said, our bit of goodwill to the cosmic thrust for good in the world. Intercession is not an attempt to force God to do something that otherwise he would not do. To think in this way is to be faithless, for it suggests that we do not really believe in and commit ourselves to the Love "that will not let us" (or anybody else) fall outside the loving purposes with which he works in his world.

But how can petition or intercession really make any difference? The answer to this natural question depends on the sort of world view we entertain. If we think of everything as "laid on the line," with no possibility of openness in the creation, obviously it can make no difference for us to pray in these ways. On the other hand, if (as we have just said) our decisions make a difference, if the future is not a "closed future" but is open even for God, then we can see that there are possibilities that cannot be realized until and unless there is human consent to that realization. Theologically speaking, this entails the view that God is not utterly atemporal, as "eternity" is usually taken to suggest; he is supremely temporal, in that he is in time more deeply than any finite creature could be, knowing possibilities as possibilities but not determining them instead of the creature. He waits for and counts on human response; only in this way could he guarantee both the freedom of decision and the responsibility for decision that are an integral element in the created order. If this demands a revision of some popular notions, all the better; our theology at this point could very well undergo a considerable shaking up and a radical rethinking.

All petition and intercession ought to take their rise from actual concrete situations in which people find themselves. It is only when we are wrestling with problems that desperately bother us, only when we are involved with others in such a way that their troubles become our own, that our petitions for ourselves and our intercessions for others can have much reality. Thus prayer of this sort springs from our deep involvement in life, its sorrows, its difficulties, its demand for significant decision. I am going to meet somebody; my petition is that I shall so understand his situation that I shall be able to serve for him as a channel of the divine compassion. I face some overwhelmingly hard decision; my petition is that I shall be enabled so to choose that the divine love may be more effectively released through me. A friend is seriously ill; my intercession is that, in part through my concern for him but more especially through God’s faithful love for him, he may both know and reflect the goodness that through his life can be shown and expressed.

Yet petition and intercession are only the beginning of prayer. Even in respect to "vocal" prayer they are but first steps. Hence we must go on to speak of prayer as the confession of our human failings, imperfections, distortions of the divine goodness, and unwillingness to let ourselves be used as channels for that goodness in the decisions we make and the acts we do. The man who thinks that there is nothing wrong with himself or that the human situation is entirely satisfactory will have nothing to confess. But such a man is a very shallow person. He can hardly have looked seriously at himself and he is extremely unobservant of the sadly alienated and estranged condition in which the human race finds itself. Or perhaps he is so self-satisfied and so content with the way things are going that he is unable to recognize what is wrong. He needs confrontation with the love of God in so striking a way that he is forced to judge himself and the situation in terms of that love. Then he will be driven to an examination of his own life and a more serious consideration of the world of human affairs.

Prayer as confession presupposes, then, that there is something to confess. Hence if there is to be any reality in confession there must be an understanding of the self, its wrong decisions and the consequences of those decisions, and the involvement of each of us in the total human situation. This demands that confession should be preceded by some sort of self-examination. Yet here we run into a very serious difficulty, since there is always the danger of becoming overly introspective and of falling into the error of "scrupulosity," against which all masters of the Christian life of discipleship have warned. There can be, often there is, a going over one’s past with a "fine-tooth comb," so that all attention is centered on what is wrong and little time is left for the comparison of one’s own decisions and actions with the exemplar to which every Christian must turn: Jesus Christ as incarnate Love in action. Furthermore, there is nothing whatever to be said for a groveling attitude before God, as if he were a rigorous moralist or a tyrannical master. Bonhoeffer rightly remarked that some Christian teaching has tried to take man at his worst, even to make him feel worse than he is, simply in order to make him a supposedly receptive hearer of the gospel of forgiveness. Such teaching is worse than perverse; it is definitely and plainly unchristian and should be condemned as such.

Many if not most of our particular sins, as we call them, do not really matter very much. That may seem a startling statement; but what I am trying to say is that the specific acts that we do are not nearly so significant as the main trend or direction of our whole personality. What we ought to be concerned about in self-examination is not this or that supposed sin -- although sometimes these will be obvious and serious enough to require attention -- but rather whether we are becoming more open to the Love that is God, more readily concerned to be instruments of that Love, and more willing to share that Love with others, in whatever ways are possible for us in our given place and time. What is the matter with human affairs is that there is an accumulation of wrong decisions and actions that inevitably has produced a state in which right decisions and actions are more and more difficult. This manifests itself in specific sins, of which we need to be aware, both in ourselves and others; but the real problem for us is whether or not we are "growing" toward our intended goal and whether or not society is becoming a more just and fair society.

Any minister who, like the writer, has heard many "confessions" of sin, made formally or informally by parishioners and friends, will be able to testify to the danger just noted. And I hope that many will agree that my own advice to these people is reasonably sound: "Throw away the ‘little books’ which contain lists of sins about which one should examine oneself. Forget the ‘rules,’ with all their complications. Instead, look at Jesus Christ. See him on the Cross, loving the world with utter passion. Then ask yourself how you measure up to that stark reality." The result of self-examination in that fashion will be devastating enough. We shall see clearly how terribly we have failed, how seriously we have shown our lovelessness, how wrong have been our choices time and time again. As Whitehead said, Jesus Christ is the disclosure or revelation of "the divine nature and agency in the world." In the light of that disclosure, we know both how things are intended to go and where we have been guilty of failure to cooperate with that "going."

Still another suggestion is to read carefully and prayerfully the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians or the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. Having done this, we can then ask ourselves how much of that teaching is reflected in our own decisions and deeds, as well as in the attitudes we take toward others. Again, the result will be searching enough to shame any honest man or woman.

Having done something of this sort, we may then in our prayer state simply and directly how and where we have been following the wrong path, distorting or denying the creative advance of Love-in-act, and failing to cooperate with others in their efforts to live in accordance with that standard. That is all that is required. There is no need to spend an enormous amount of time in this exercise. An honest confession of this sort ought, for the Christian, to be enough; and when he has finished, he should grasp hold of what the older evangelicals used to call "the gospel promises": the assurance of God’s forgiveness that we need. As a matter of fact, the forgiveness of God is prior to our confession of sin. God has already forgiven us even before we have acknowledged our mistakes and defects. It is the confidence that God is Love, hence always forgiving, that awakens in us the sense of our own failure. That is why it is right to begin with the Love that is declared to us in Christ -- if God forgives us like that, what must there be in us that needs such forgiveness? That is the right approach, unless the whole Christian faith is a mistake.

One last point needs to be made here. This is to distinguish between "attrition," or emotional anguish over sin, and "contrition," or intention not to continue in sin once recognized as such. Obviously a condition for forgiveness, whether from God or from another man, is that we shall purpose to serve more fully in the future by avoiding those paths which deny love. But God himself has already forgiven us in the confidence, as we may phrase it, that we have a good intention in the future; his forgiveness will awaken that intention, bring it to life, so to speak. There is no need for acute emotional disturbance over wrongs done, although some people may be temperamentally of the sort that feels such disturbance. What matters is the intention to serve God; this is true contrition. And with it goes a forgiving attitude to other persons, for unless we ourselves are ready to forgive we are in no position to receive into ourselves the prevenient forgiveness that God already has extended to us.

We now turn to the two final aspects of "vocal" prayer, thanksgiving and praise or adoration; and we shall discuss them together, as we have just discussed petition and intercession together under one heading.

Both thanksgiving and praise have as their basis the wonder of the divine nature as Love, the ceaseless activity of God in love, and the good things that are made available for men in this world-process where that Love is at work. The two are related, in that God’s "nature and property is always to have mercy and to forgive," to labor unceasingly for increase of good in the world, and to receive into himself whatever good is achieved there. Several times already we have quoted Wesley’s fine words about "pure, unbounded love": never was there a more apt description of the reality of God, although in Wesley’s hymn the words are in fact applied to Christ -- and appropriately, since in Christ (if Christian faith is right) the "pure, unbounded love" that is seen humanly expressed is the manifestation, reflection, and participation in human terms of the divine Lover whom Jesus called "my Father in heaven."

It has always seemed odd to me that whereas we are often ready to examine ourselves for what we have done or are, we almost never think of examining our lives to see what God has done in them and for us. If we did so, we should find that thanksgiving would be natural and inevitable. Not only "our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life" come ultimately through God’s working in the world -- even when they come by way of other men or from nature, the chief (not the only, since created occasions have freedom to be causative agents) causal agency is the divine Love. But also the sheer marvel of love, wherever found and enjoyed, above all the marvel of God himself as Love, provides occasion for thanksgiving. Many of us hardly seem aware of how thankful we should be. I recall, however, a true tale about an old and impoverished woman living in a mean flat in a slum, who told a visitor that she spent most of her day in giving thanks to God. "For what?" the imperceptive visitor asked. And the reply was simply this, "Because he is and because I am." A small child, too, is an example of thankfulness, receiving gladly and responding joyously to what is given him, even though he has not yet learned to articulate in words his sense of gratitude. Ex ore infantium, the Latin saying has it; and sometimes, when a young boy or girl says a heartfelt "Thank you," one sees an attitude to life that may put an adult to shame.

God is the chief provider, in this sense -- which does not suggest that men are not to provide for one another, in a society as just as possible and with "fair shares" all around. But God is also the chief recipient of all good. What process theologians call "the divine memory" receives the good that is achieved in the creation; it counts not only for God but in God. As he suffers in our sadness, so he delights and rejoices in our happiness. All that we do is a contribution made to God; it is silly, destructive of practical religion, and denigratory of human existence, to assume that we cannot give anything to God. Classical theology has sometimes talked as if we could not; but there it has departed from "working" religion, as well as from common sense. We can give to God ourselves, our wills, our cooperation, our hearts, as well as whatever we may do, either singly or as a race, to advance his purpose of love in the world. And all this is kept and treasured and used by God for further good and wider sharing in love.

Adoration or praise to God, so closely linked to thanksgiving, is the highest reach of "vocal" prayer. It is not something unnatural and difficult, although occasionally writers on Christian prayer have made it seem so. But the human analogy of lover and beloved helps us to see their error. When one deeply loves another, he wants sometimes simply to be with the other, while sometimes he wants to tell the other how much he loves him, how much the other means to him, to praise or adore the other (although doubtless we do not normally use just those words to say what we wish to do). From one point of view, an observer might comment on the absurdity of a lover’s doing this; nothing seems to be "gained" by it and it might appear just a murmuring of "silly nothings." The lover knows differently, however. He knows how natural and right it is for him to do just these things. So also with the Christian as he thinks about God and recognizes God’s goodness for what it is. There are long passages in the beautiful book by Ramon Lull called The Lover and His Beloved (which for Lull meant God the Lover and man the beloved), in which the beloved simply adores the Lover, asking for nothing, wanting nothing, only loving.

Most of us may not be able to reach such an intensity of devotion; but at least the start of it is possible for all of us. And it is good for us thus to adore. We have quoted the Scots theologian Chalmers who spoke of "the expulsive power of a new affection" as a means of purifying and ennobling human existence; and the historian of French spirituality, Henri Bremond, has written about the way in which prayer, at its best, is "a purification of the self." Nowhere is this so clearly seen as in adoration and praise. It extraverts us; it focuses our attention on a reality outside ourselves; it liberates us from the mire of self-concern that so often impedes our making any progress in discipleship.

A friend once remarked to me that he could not understand the business of adoration since to him it suggested that God enjoyed being lauded -- and such a picture of God, he said, was unpleasant and must be untrue. To which the reply was only this: "Doubtless God himself does not ‘enjoy’ continual praise, but he ‘puts up with it’ because he knows it is good for his human children." Yet I could have said more that would have been much to the point: "If God really is a Lover, he must delight in having those whom he loves respond to him in love and want to be with him and tell him their love." Is this reply too anthropomorphic, too much a making of God after our human image? I think not, for the simple reason that it is we who are "made in the image of God," as Genesis puts it, we who are being created to become lovers of our fellow men and of God himself. Therefore it is proper to use that image of love-in-the-making when we think of God himself.

Sometimes theologians and philosophers spend their time either "paying God metaphysical compliments," as Whitehead once phrased it, or in assuming that for his greater glory they must make him utterly alien to everything that we know and experience and care for. But Jesus did not take that line at all; he used quite ordinary human analogies, drew upon quite humdrum and common human experiences, and called God by the most human of loved names, "Father" -- Abba, which some experts tell us can be translated "Dad" or "Papa." Need a Christian try to be more "spiritual," more "heavenly," or more cautious in speech, than he whom we call our Lord and Master?