Haven't Got a Prayer?
By Audrey Stallsmith
Let’s pretend I’m a child again and hiding out in the lilac thicket with a mystery novel. (We farm kids learn early to keep a low profile when idle!) Although it’s a sunny summer day, I am happily immersed in the chill fog of Victorian London when I hear one of my parents calling my name.
As this is before the days of “quality time,” I have to conclude that I am either in trouble or needed to perform some—probably disagreeable--chore. So, although I love my parents, I drag myself back from the world of hansoms and handsome aristocrats with the utmost reluctance. But drag I do, as this was also before the days when corporal punishment was considered detrimental to a child’s developing nature!
We Christians often react with the same grudging slowness when we hear God calling. Why are we also so reluctant to come into His presence? Why is it that, as C. S. Lewis asserts in The Screwtape Letters, "All humans at nearly all times have some reluctance to think about God?" Much less draw near to Him!
Can it be that, like immature me, we are afraid our heavenly Parent is going to chastise us--or want us to do something we would much rather not? It never seems to occur to us that parents often just want to make sure that their children are all right. Especially if they haven’t seen those children for quite some time! Or they could be calling their otherwise occupied offspring in to dinner.
I’m afraid we also avoid conversation with God because we think we aren’t good at it. We have somehow fallen under the delusion that He only gives us what we want when He is impressed by our eloquence and/or stockpile of faith.
So prayer feels too much like the disagreeable sort of chore from which I was hiding in the lilac bushes. Somewhat, no doubt, like Adam and Eve hiding from their Parent among the garden trees! But, as Dallas Willard asserts in The Spirit of the Disciplines, "The disciplines we need to practice are precisely the ones we are not good at, and hence do not enjoy."
Besides, all our flowery and formal "prayer language" is often the equivalent of Adam and Eve's fig leaves. Words used, as Frederick Buechner puts it "not so much as a way of revealing, but, rather, as a way of concealing who [we] really are."
E. B. Phillips complains in Your God Is Too Small that we also encourage an "'old-fashioned' concept of God by reading the Bible in old-fashioned language" and "addressing our prayers in the archaic second person singular." So our prayers often seem to distance us from God, rather than bring us closer to Him.
In reality, faith is simply trusting a Person whom we have found to be trustworthy. "When you say you have no faith," Hannah Whitall Smith points out in The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, "you mean that you have no faith in God, since you are not asked to have faith in yourself." Or in your own prayerful efforts! After all, "it is not the strength of your faith," Timothy Keller reminds us in The Reason for God, "but the object of your faith that actually saves you."
Those of us with good earthly parents never even had to think about whether or not we had faith in them. Meals always appeared when we needed them, almost as if we owned one of those magic, fairy-tale tables! Granted, we didn’t always get all the extra servings or luxuries we wanted, but we never doubted that the next meal would be there. "A child," as Smith concludes, "lives in the present moment and receives its life unquestioningly from its father's hands."
Now that I look back on it, I realize that my parents must have been quite poor when I was growing up. But although we kids griped about secondhand toys and clothes, we remained largely unconscious of that poverty. Because all our needs were provided for and we never doubted that our parents loved us, we felt secure.
A large part of our problem with prayer may be that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, we aren’t really convinced that God does love us. We can’t see Him providing for us, as I could see my father working the fields or my mother hoeing the garden. And God seems--in the Old Testament, at least--awfully critical and vindictive towards His straying children! Perhaps we subconsciously assume that such a God only accepts us reluctantly because of His more loving Son's sacrifice.
In reality of course, there is nothing in Jesus’ spirit that is not also in His Father's. And--since God is the source of all love--if we don’t have enough for Him, we should simply ask for it.
This, admittedly, would be much like a childish me saying, “Daddy I need money to buy you a birthday present.” This will make any father smile, because there is something ironic about a person having to pay for his own gift. But he will also smile because his daughter cares enough to want to give him something. Even if it's something she got from him to begin with!
We also feel hesitant to bother God about the trivia of everyday life. But most of the matters in our lives are unimportant ones. If we only approach him when something goes drastically wrong, our relationship will be more like patient to surgeon or victim to policeman than child to parent. A deferential approach, in other words, to a remote higher power. A scared, last-minute attempt to enlist that power on our side.
"I worked to get Him to love me, but I did not love Him." Doug Manning admits in With God on Your Side. And too many of us are, as Helmut Thielicke points out in The Freedom of the Christian Man, "not seeking the Savior, but only salvation." In How the World Began he contends that, "Fundamentally, they [the people in bomb shelters] were not talking to God at all; they were talking to the bombs."
This becomes a vicious circle of sorts. We seldom talk to God because we are afraid of Him, and we don’t learn His true character because we never talk to Him. But "the fear of the Lord," as G. K. Chesterton points out in one of his Daily News columns, "is the beginning of wisdom--not the end." It's a good place to start, but a poor place to stop!
A living relationship," Thielicke asserts in Our Heavenly Father, "requires. . .interchange." Or, as Buechner put it, "Prayer is. . .the need to be known and the need to know." Perhaps that's why we are so afraid of it. We fear that, if God gets too familiar with us, he won't love us anymore!
But can his love be any smaller than that of our earthly parents, who continue to care about us no matter how often we disappoint them? And we aren’t nearly so formal, after all, with those earthly parents as we are with our heavenly One. Those of us who have good "folks" share everything with them. Our problems, of course. But also that interesting story in the paper this morning, the latest good joke we heard, memories we have in common.
There’s not much point to most of this, except the joy of communicating with people who understand us. Because we are genetically disposed to have certain traits in common with our parents, and because they have been around since the beginning, they know us like nobody else does.
But, since God made us in His own image, He has been around even longer than our parents. And He knows us even better than they do. As there is nothing we can hide from Him, we might as well share it all instead.
In fact, some of it we should probably share only with God, as He never gets bored. "When we 'little people' are permitted to talk to Him about such 'little things,'" Thielicke reassures us in Our Heavenly Father, "this does not dishonor His divinity, but it does transfigure the trivialities."
Not to mention that a more constant communication will remind us that God is always present. As Willard puts it in The Spirit of the Disciplines, "The more we pray, the more we think to pray. . ."
And we don't actually have to talk the whole time. As in any conversation, we need to do some listening too. "Silence," as Richard Foster states in Celebration of Discipline, "is intimately related to trust."
We are usually most comfortable being quiet with those we know the best. Because we are confident they love us despite our faults, we don't feel the necessity to put on a show for them, or to be constantly justifying ourselves. Their acceptance allows us to relax and just enjoy the togetherness.
Prayer, Eugenia Price holds, is similarly "the pure privilege of being consciously with God." Although He is always with us, we frequently forget that fact, and ignore Him for hours--or days--at a time. So, although we don't need to constantly babble at Him, we do need to attune ourselves to feel His presence.
When I see something beautiful, for example, I can be conscious that its Creator is right there to receive the gratitude that wells up in me. Even though I may not express that thanks in actual words, it is still prayer. "All enjoyment," C. S. Lewis insists in Miracles, "spontaneously overflows into praise unless checked deliberately." So maybe we just need to stop suppressing it--and start aiming it in the right direction!
The better we get to know God, the more likely we are to turn to Him first rather than treating Him as a last resort. And He can read our motives, so He won’t misinterpret what we say.
It can be disconcerting to realize that God listens to our intent, not our actual words. I may be praying in pious phrases for my latest book to be published, "so Your name will be glorified." When, deep down, what I'm really feeling is, "I want honor. I want recognition. I want to be seen as somebody important!"
That is what God hears, rather than my pretense. And, like any good parent, He will see my "acting out" as a plea for acknowledgement and attention. But He knows fame will never fill that particular vacuum.
"The Father knows what you need," Thielicke assures us in Our Heavenly Father, "even contrary to what you ask. . .our prayer does not depend on our expressing the correct desires. . .on our making the correct 'diagnosis' of our needs. . ." So, in response to my demand for attention, God will attempt to give me what really will assuage that hunger--more of Himself. Like any good father, he often responds not so much to the literal request as to the need behind it.
"The hard part," as Thielicke continues, "is that we can't find any connection between what we ask for and what God actually does in our life." So a frustrated me will probably gripe, "God doesn't love me. He isn't giving me what I want." When the truth is, of course, that He isn't giving me what I want because he does love me.
"Man finds it hard to get what he wants," George MacDonald writes, "because he does not want the best; God finds it hard to give, because He would give the best, and man will not take it." So I am, as Paul puts it in one of his epistles, like the child who still insists on milk when she could be getting ice cream. (Well, okay, Paul didn't actually say ice cream, but it is the solid form of milk!)
Must I only ask then for the spiritual stuff I should be desiring rather than what I really crave? Of course not. God always prefers honesty. "We must lay before Him what is in us," C. S. Lewis cautions in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, "not what ought to be in us."
In Alarms and Discursions, G. K. Chesterton insists that "a brave man ought to ask for what he wants, not what he expects to get." In Unspoken Sermons, MacDonald agrees that "The danger lies, not in asking from God what is not good, nor even in hoping to receive it from him, but in not asking him. . ." Thielicke contends in Christ and The Meaning of Life that, "Anybody who, right from the start. . .says, 'Thy will be done,' no longer has any real trust in God at all. He is really saying in his heart, 'Fate still runs its course. . .'"
In other words, that pious little phrase we Christians are so fond of is often pure pagan fatalism! The idea that the gods (or--in our case--God) control(s) everything, and we have no say in anything. But our Father has made it quite clear that he allows Himself to be influenced by the requests of his children.
And, from the people whom God approves in scripture, we can deduce that our Father prefers the offspring who whine, argue--and even wrestle--with Him over those who don't ask for anything at all. His main complaint about the Israelites wasn't their demanding too much, after all.
On the contrary, He deplored the fact that they always addressed their petitions to false gods and ignored the true One until they got into serious trouble. But the sad fact is that, as Thielicke points out in How the World Began, "when God is not the first, the primary thing in our life, he vanishes altogether."
We may not literally bow down to golden images these days. But we are often much too preoccupied with what this world considers important: money, power, prestige. When affording those things all of our energy and attention, we may even neglect our earthly parents. But they are usually the first people we run to when we want comforting. Just as we reluctantly slink back to God when nothing else proves ultimately satisfying.
Of course, parents can frequently annoy us like no one else can too. They know our weaknesses much too well. And, in defense against that knowledge, we claim that those weaknesses can be attributed to all that they denied us! We frequently find God frustrating too, because we can’t understand why He deprives us of certain things that He must know full well we need.
I plagued my earthly father for a horse for years before I finally got one. But he realized that I would first have to be mature enough to look after such an animal.
That’s the reason God sometimes makes us wait too. Because we just aren’t ready. Or what we want may be something that will never be right for us.
A good father always tries to prevent his children from getting hurt any more than necessary. Some difficulties are necessary to our growth process, but some we plunge ourselves into from sheer folly. I can heartily agree with country singer Garth Brooks' assertion that "some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers."
Fortunately, as Jeff Foxworthy, writing about kids in Parade Magazine, points out, “You cannot not love them . . .And I kind of think that’s how God looks at us, like, “Oh, good grief, you’re so stupid, you’re driving me crazy, but I still love you.”
Just as we mistakenly consider his silences to be indifference, we sometimes don’t correctly interpret the replies he does make either. When Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsie were imprisoned by the Nazis in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, Betsie said that God had promised her both of them would be free by the New Year. They were, but Betsie’s freedom was that she had gone home to God by then. A much greater freedom than the one she had requested.
Years ago I read a very old book called The Practice of the Presence of God. Although I can't remember much about the content now, the title says it all. We need to practice reminding ourselves of God's presence, in hopes that we can one day speak to Him as easily and naturally as we do to our other loved ones.
Is that fully possible in this world? I don't know. But it's a lovely goal. And, as heaven will mean constant contact with God, we had better learn to start liking that conversation now!