Today RTB editor Maureen Moser and I conclude a discussion on prayer. (See part 1 here.)
C. S. Lewis is credited with saying, “I don’t pray to change God’s mind; I pray to change my mind.” What would you say is the purpose of prayer in Christian life?
That’s a great comment by Lewis. The purpose of prayer is carrying on our relationship with the God who loves us. I can’t imagine not spending a good amount of time talking with my wife, both privately and publicly.
I think Lewis even said prayer is like breathing. It’s a natural thing. Sometimes it’s crying out to God. Other times it’s joyful thankfulness. There’s even a place for going through a grocery list of requests.
Prayer also has a role in the confession of our sins. This is a time of reflecting on the depth of our sin and embracing God’s grace. It’s easy to believe God loves you when you’re having a good week—but let’s say you have a very bad week. I know a lot of Christians who think God’s ticked off with them most of the time. Incorporating good principles of theology into our own view of ourselves is beneficial to prayer. It guides our confessions and helps us to believe that God is faithful and just to forgive us.
Do you think regularity in prayer or the time of day you pray matters at all?
Historically there’s been a time in the morning that Christians would pray. In the medieval period, the church would ring the bell at times of prayer and all the people of the community would gather together. I know many people, mainly in the Reformed tradition, who have a Sunday lunch followed by a time of prayer. That’s their routine.
Is there a right time and a wrong time? I don’t think so. Anytime is a good time for prayer, but I do think that patterns and regularity are helpful because when we develop habits we tend to stick with them. Whether we have regular prayer in the morning, noon, or evening, we should be consistent. To cite Lewis again, faith is acting on what you know to be true regardless of the mood you’re in. If we only prayed when we were in the mood, it probably wouldn’t happen very often.
In a quiet time, how would prayer balance out with Bible study?
Somebody once asked the great Presbyterian theological Benjamin Warfield, what’s more important prayer or Bible study and he replied, “Prayerful Bible study.” Bible study can be academic and it can be devotional. The latter might be a time of reading and praying.
There’s a long, strong tradition within Christianity that the reading of the Scripture is to be accompanied by prayer. Of course, the more we know and understand about the text (author, context, etc.) I think the greater the opportunity for us to pray in a more thoughtful and intelligent way. So prayer and reading the Bible definitely go together.
We’ve talked about all kinds of prayer—silent, private, public. Would journaling or writing down prayers have any place in that list?
Yes, I think that could be a helpful practice. Sometimes we are not cognizant of God answering our prayers. Writing down our requests and concerns could help us recognize when He has answered them. There are also times in prayer when we simply talk to God as we would to a caring friend. Writing can be helpful in this process, too.
I often see prayer mentioned in connection with meditation. What does Christian meditation look like and how does it differ from the New Age/Eastern mysticism image that we commonly see?
That is a concern for many people. When we bring up meditation, the image is often of devotees of Krishna Consciousness or transcendental meditation. But Eastern meditation and Christian meditation are very different from one another.
Eastern meditation can be blanking out the mind or it can be repeating a mantra over and over. The Krishna Consciousness, for example, encourages people to repeat Krishna’s name 1,000 times a day. It’s believed the repetition will engender more love on the part of the devotee.
Biblical revelation and historic doctrine inform Christian meditation. The Bible talks about meditating on God’s Word and His goodness. This includes reflecting on God’s glory, power, and provision. We can also ponder the life of Christ. Christian meditation involves thinking carefully, in a quiet and constructive way. But I think it also involves silence. Prayers can become very busy things, but meditation can still the busyness and help us listen.
What advice would you give to a Christian wanting to cultivate a richer prayer life?
Study prayer. Look at what the Bible says about it (Psalms is a good place to start) or pick a really good book that lays out a theological foundation of prayer.
Reading a collection of the great formal prayers is helpful, too. I often find that reading the liturgy helps me to realize how big God is. The Anglican Church’s The Book of Common Prayer is an excellent resource. I often read it because I want the best Christian theology and thought on prayer to shape my mind.
Of course, none of this should take away from your own spontaneity. God doesn’t care whether you read The Book of Common Prayer or not. He’ll be attentive to what you say no matter what.
What about when God doesn’t answer a prayer the way we had hoped, for example, healing of a loved one? What does that say about the power of prayer?
That’s a challenging question. I don’t mind telling God what I think or what I hope will happen, but I definitely frame my prayers by recognizing God’s sovereignty. My approach is to say, “Lord, I don’t know what your sovereign will is in all these circumstances, but I know what the need is and I know the feeling and the hurt. If it be in accordance with your will, please bring healing or provision.”
When people pray for something specific like healing and it doesn’t happen, it can be a time of struggle and difficulty. But it can also be a time of great spiritual growth. In 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 Paul says we are to be joyful, prayerful, and thankful. You can be joyful when you’re not terribly happy. You can be prayerful at any time no matter what the circumstance may be. And then there’s gratitude. I think there are many people today writing about happiness being tied directly to gratitude (see here and here).
Perhaps, then, we should pray for God to reveal what purpose He has for us in our suffering. We can also pray to remind ourselves that we are confident that God can heal and provide even as we acknowledge that, if His will is otherwise, He still has something good for us along the way.