A Meditation on Prayer

This meditation is the first of two on Luke 11:1-13. Here is the second.

A Reformed View

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
—Luke 11:1

The cosmology described in the Hebrew Bible
The authors of the books of the Bible—both Hebrew and Christian—had a very different cosmology than we have. If you were to ask any of them what the center of the universe was, they would tell you without question that it was the earth. They would also have had no doubt about the fact that the pinnacle of all creation—indeed the purpose of creation itself—was the human being.

By the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century of our era, that view had changed somewhat. The universe had grown, and the earth was no longer its center—the sun was (though this would still have been contested by some “conservatives”). But there was still no question that the highpoint and goal of creation itself was the human being.

Think about what this cosmology might tell us about prayer—its purpose and the way it might work.
During the formative years of Hebrew religion, of Christianity in general, and of Protestantism in particular, people believed without question in an all-powerful God who created over time in order to make humankind the pinnacle of all that was made. And so it was natural that communication with such a Creator might have as both its underpinning and its goal the needs of God’s crowning glory, and the belief that God’s intention was to defend those whose beliefs in God were the correct ones.

I know this introduction sounds a bit negative, and believe it or not, that’s not really the message I want to convey—because I am not wholly convinced that that theology of prayer is incorrect. And regardless of that, some of the gifts of our spiritual ancestors are important ones to us today.

First of all, from the tradition we learn to see faith in God and relationship with God as inseparable. A cold faith that has no desire to know that which it believes in is no real faith. And a desire to know another must needs be accompanied by communication with that other. To this end, John Calvin said that “faith unaccompanied with prayer to God cannot be genuine.” [1] This isn’t rocket science. I hope we’d say the same thing about any genuine relationship: Love for another unaccompanied by communication with them isn’t genuine. A marriage or a parent/child relationship when persons aren’t on speaking terms may have a legal basis, but it has no basis in everyday practice.

And so it is with our love for and faith in God. To love God is, on the one hand, to desire to know who God is. And on the other, it’s a need to let God know who we are. We may believe that God already knows everything. Yet we still desire to tell God that which is important to us, or that which we need in order to be whole or to be fulfilled. This is why Jesus’ disciples came to him and told him that they’d learned that John the Baptizer had taught his followers how to pray, and to let Jesus know that they would like for him to do the same for them.

And here in Luke, he taught them a shortened version of the prayer from the Sermon on the Mount we call the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer is important to just about every Christian on earth. There are a few exceptions, but the vast majority of us love this prayer. We say it when we pray alone. It often opens or closes our small group meetings. And we look forward to the moment when it is intoned in our worship service. When we’re by ourselves, it reminds us that we are not alone [2]—that there are millions of others who are praying as we pray. And when we’re together, it helps make that unity palpable: praying as our Lord taught us helps us touch something that cannot be touched and feel something that is absolutely spiritual.

The Lord's Prayer in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke)
The Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful example of one of the tradition’s greatest gifts to us. Yes, our ancestors saw in prayer the importance of personal communication, but they also saw the need for structure—something which shaped the very time of their lives. Just as it was important to spontaneously call out to God in gratitude or complaint or supplication when the occasion arose, it was just as important to set aside time at different points in the day to communicate with God more formally. Just as healthy families talk to each other throughout the day, the structure of a family meal at an appointed hour makes that communication not less meaningful but more meaningful and somehow more beautiful. And just as a family might have a favorite grace they say together at meals, so the Lord’s Prayer is the family grace of Christians —not just grace at mealtime, but grace for the day itself. We all know it, we all say it together, and though it might say different things to different people, it not only speaks to all of us, but it helps each of us speak to God.

The Lord’s Prayer isn’t the only prayer in the Bible. In fact, the Bible has its own prayer book called the Psalms. Just as I close my daily devotions with the Lord’s Prayer, I open them with a different reading from the Psalms each day. I even set that reading to music. [3] And something else that I wish I could say I did every day, but I do do it frequently: I memorize that song—it’s usually just one or two verses of the Psalm—so I can sing it in my head (or sometimes aloud) the rest of the day. For example, here's today's little Psalm selection (85:6-7). The tune, called Mendon, is an old German one:

Just as the Lord’s Prayer is something shared by all Christians, the Psalms are something shared by Jews and Christians. Though the Reformers rejected certain aspects of the monasticism they saw in Roman Catholicism, they embraced the Psalms, and tried to make them even more accessible to the laity in the churches. To understand why, nobody explains it better than the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He said that to pray aright was to learn the language of the psalms, which cover the whole range of human emotions. And it’s not so important that we always pray only what we’re feeling in our heart, but also sometimes to “pray against our own heart… not just what we want to pray, but what it is that God wants us to pray.” [4] If we only learn the language of prayer for our accustomed feelings, then what will we do when we encounter new feelings? How can we pray prayers of grief if we have never known grief? How might we approach God with anger if we’ve never dared pray about it before? Sure, God hears and understands our emotions even when we articulate them poorly—but how much more likely are we to even try to articulate them if we already know the language of prayer that corresponds to that feeling.

We say that prayer changes things. But the first thing we need to remember is that prayer changes us. Many Reformers believed that our lives were foreordained and that God’s plan was sovereign. Though this seems to eliminate any need for prayer, I believe that quite the opposite is true: If it is God’s plan that our prayers be heard and answered, then the withholding of those prayers goes against God’s will. That may, in the end, turn into nothing more than an academic argument, until we realize the extent to which our prayers change our own attitudes about life, about our problems, about the world around us, and about our own responsibility to advance the will of God—as we understand it—for the world we pray for.

Most importantly though, our prayers change our outlook, for the most important prayers we pray are prayers of gratitude. Such a prayer-life of gratitude would result in our being fully alive in God, and that ours be “whole human lives of divine service.” [5] You won’t find much discussion in our history about our prayers changing God’s will or God’s mind. The purpose of our prayers is more to change us and what we do, as well as our understanding, and our attitudes. The purpose of prayer is to help us to conform to God’s will, not to cajole God into granting us our desires.

We’ll soon hear an opposing viewpoint on the theology of prayer.

—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

A second meditation discusses prayer from the viewpoint of process theology. It can be read here.

  1. John Calvin, Institutes 3.20.1. 
  2. I preached a sermon on this same topic called We Are Not Alone on June 21, 2009. It was based on the opening words of A New Creed of the United Church of Canada. 
  3. I prepare my daily devotions ahead of time and publish them in a blog called A Venerable Company, updated every night at midnight. 
  4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Die Psalmen: Das Gebetbuch der Bibel (Gießen: Brunnen Verlag, 2006), p. 15. Though I’m calling this meditation a “Reformed View” and most people consider Bonhoeffer to have been a Lutheran, his writings about the Psalms would be embraced by Reformed theologians, and he belonged to the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union, which was a union of both Reformed and Lutheran churches. The official American partner of this church's successor churches is the United Church of Christ.
  5. Matthew Myer Boulton, Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p. 49. Though this quotation is very brief, the book it comes from is a must-read for anyone interested in learning about the rôle of prayer and piety in Calvin’s theology and ecclesiology.