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Effective Prayer

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Seek God where God may be found.
Isaiah 55:6 (paraphrase)

Prayer is perhaps the most common religious expression, yet so many people get stuck when it comes to prayer. It seems natural to think of prayer as asking God for something; the word “prayer” itself is related to the French prier, “to beg.” There is even a technical term for it: “petitionary prayer.” The problem with petitionary prayer is that so often it leads to disappointment. The lack of response to our petitions may even lead us to believe that God is remote and not directly involved in our lives. Therefore some very respected religious writers portray God as a sympathetic but helpless spectator, unable to do more than cry with us when we are in pain. This is one way to salvage God from the failure of petitionary prayer.

But before we simply accept such a solution, let’s consider what petitionary prayer implies. Asking God for what we need suggests that God either does not know what we need or that God won’t give it to us unless we say just the right words. Jesus clearly saw neither prayer nor God in that way:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8)

Jesus did say “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7), but to this we must add James’s important qualifier: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly” (James 4:3). The wrong way to ask, as James tells us, is out of simple self-interest. If we are to make sense of prayer, we need to begin with this observation. We cannot expect prayer to work if we only use it to serve our desires, even if they are good desires. When we simply tell God what we want, we are expressing our own will, not God’s. (We may call God’s will the “highest good,” which may not necessarily coincide with the preliminary good we are asking for.) It may seem obvious to us that God should want the same things we do, but of course it doesn’t work that way. There has to be another alternative besides asking for things we may not get or not approaching God at all.

God is always available to help us. What we need is not to conform God to our own will, but rather to conform ourselves to God’s will. Regarding prayer, Judeochristianity begins with this first principle:

Prayer is the endeavor to bring ourselves into the awareness of eternal life. (Judeochristianity, p. 108)

“Eternity” is the reality of perfect goodness in which God dwells, from which we come, and to which we hopefully will return. The Bible calls this the “Kingdom of God.” We cannot prove its existence, but we do receive intimations of its presence through our God-given sense of goodness. Not all things are neutral, as if they just arrived in the universe by chance. We are given to know what is good (Micah 6:8), even if our knowledge on this human level is very imperfect. Through this sense of goodness we can begin to apprehend the nature of God.

Prayer consists of opening within ourselves a point of receptivity to the eternal, or to divine activity. But how? Judeochristianity’s description of God as “Absolute Goodness” can help. Speaking metaphorically, God recognizes God’s own nature when it is reflected within us:

There is also power in goodness - this is the Bible’s message. As our hearts fill with goodness going beyond self-interest, we more closely conform to God’s image, and God responds as though recognizing God’s own image within us. And so even in the most extreme circumstances we may still find ourselves sup­ported by God’s presence. (Judeochristianity, p. 11)

We can therefore describe prayer as a threefold process:

  1. Quiet oneself from all distractions.

  2. Direct oneself towards the eternal.

  3. Re-view one’s situation in the light of God’s will.

In more detail:

Quiet Yourself from All Distractions

One cannot pray if distracted by a lot of internal or external noise. If you can, find a quiet place. If not, find quietness within yourself. Very often simply observing the distractions, both without and within, can sap them of their energy; this is a basic principle of meditation.

One major distraction that usually needs quieting is one’s own willfulness. If one is too attached to God’s providing a specific outcome, one cannot be open to the real divine activity. It seems a lot to ask, yet we need to suspend our attachment to particular results if we are to create the point of receptivity God requires in order to become visible.

Direct Yourself towards the Eternal

Once we are aware of our distractions, especially our own willfulness, we direct ourselves away from it and towards God. Once again, thinking of God as Absolute Goodness is helpful in avoiding the temptation of looking towards God as a personal Being who must grant our desires. What this really means is we create a place within ourselves that reflects God’s nature, which God can recognize and to which God can respond.

We can begin with a short introduction like this one, or anything similar:

I can see goodness, and I know that this goodness comes from God.

I reverence goodness, as I reverence God.

I can see in myself the yearning for goodness and the real­ization of goodness.

I know this goodness as God’s presence in me.
(Judeochristianity, p. 101)

We can go even deeper and substitute “love” for “goodness” in the above, providing additional direction towards the eternal.

(An important note: Statements like these are not affirmations; they are prayers. Affirmations are attempts to make ourselves believe things we don’t really believe. A verbal prayer is not something we affirm but something we reverently approach with a desire to become aware of its meaning.)

By focusing our attention this way we find something concrete and eternally real to replace, at least in this special moment, our personal desires, which we cannot simply give up by brute force.

This step is the heart of prayer. It establishes in our awareness a place where God’s presence (shekhinah) can dwell. During prayer we leave behind our desires and replace them with a direction to God’s nature. This reflection of God’s nature draws a response from God who recognizes it in us.

Re-View Your Situation In the Light of God’s Will

With our attention attuned to the eternal we can often see our original situation in a different light. We may gain a key insight, see a way out of our difficulty, or perhaps just find a deep sense of assurance with no clear path yet appearing. One way or another, something is transformed.

I will offer an example from my own experience. In chapter 7 of Judeochristianity I tell about one Christmas Eve when I was returning from a nursing home visit, feeling the joy of having shared the occasion with people who really needed a touch of the Christmas spirit that night. I was exiting the subway, and being legally blind, I did not see that a man had carelessly left a pizza box perched precariously on top of the turnstile in front of me. It was directly in my path. I bumped into it and it crashed to the floor (though fortunately it didn’t open). The man (who was considerably larger than I) screamed at me, started threatening me, and approached me in a menacing manner.

I had no idea how to respond, but it was Christmas Eve, so I just picked up the pizza box, handed it to him, looked at him and wished him a Merry Christmas. He became so ashamed that he lowered his voice and wished me a Merry Christmas too, and to my loved ones as well.

As I left the station my nerves were quite a jangle. I was still upset, not comprehending what had just happened, so I went into prayer. I asked God to help me re-view the situation, to see exactly what it meant. In a flash that came from outside myself and stopped me cold in the middle of the street, I suddenly saw this man very differently. He was not a threat. In fact, in the moment of our encounter I was actually very important to him. In that flash I saw his fragile, wounded sense of self. He needed me to repair it by not leaving his box on the floor but treating it with respect. And he expressed his gratitude when I did so.

After that I was completely at ease. Often when prayer helps me see a situation differently, I learn something important. In this case I learned that the incident was not about me, that it was about someone else with a pronounced lack of self-esteem, and that if I can come out of myself to see the other person I will be free. Not a bad lesson for a slice of pizza I didn’t even eat.

When we re-view our situations in the light of the eternal, we can sense God transforming not only our reactions to events but even the events themselves. A spiritual wound has been healed. Then a higher direction takes charge of our life. We may not see the result right away, or it may not be what we expect or hope. But coming closer to God in prayer gives us a clue, as well as a sense of acceptance. By establishing within ourselves this point of receptivity to God’s nature we allow God to enter our existence and guide us toward the fulfillment of our individuality, which we call our destiny. “The way we discover God’s love for us is to become loving ourselves, to find that God’s love does in­deed dwell within our hearts” (Judeochristianity, p. 93). This is the secret of effective prayer.

There is no one right way to pray. Even a prayer that takes a petitionary or intercessory form can become an effective prayer if instead of merely asking for things it brings us closer to the eternal. Praying for the sick, for example, can be a way of holding others in love, uniting the congregation around concern for their well-being and making everyone present more loving and a better reflection of God. God responds to the love in this prayer, not to imploring God to do things God presumably would not do otherwise. It would be cruel indeed for God to grant us things only after demanding petitions and praise. Effective prayer works not by telling God what we think God doesn’t know, but by bringing us consciously into the eternal dimension of life, where our true being originates and is rooted.

So if we do not know how to pray as we ought, we can start with the Lord’s Prayer, which begins with the wish that God’s will be done, that God’s Kingdom (eternity) be established within our earthly existence. Or we can pray this basic prayer at any time and in any situation of crisis:

Remember that God is All and Absolute Goodness.

Ask to be conformed to God’s image of goodness.

Ask to see God’s goodness manifest in your own life and in the lives of others.

Ask to know that you are included in God’s goodness and in eternal life.

If we pray like this regularly, we might be able to build an awareness of this greater dimension of reality called eternal life. (Judeochristianity, pp. 116-17)

Effective prayer opens the heart so that it expresses God’s nature and receives God’s response. The only way to prove this is to live it, and we are all invited to do so. Perhaps we should call this the “Poverty Gospel,” in contrast with the “Prosperity Gospel.” The Prosperity Gospel makes God a servant of human desire, bending God’s will to our own most self-centered wishes. The Poverty Gospel, on the other hand, is for those who are poor in spirit, who do not demand specific outcomes as a result of prayer but who approach God with nothing but the willingness to learn, especially from one’s own errors, to see, and to follow. There is no greater blessing than what true prayer allows, which is to see God taking charge of the direction of one’s life, leading one towards one’s destiny.

April 2014