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Praying Rightly

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

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

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
Romans 8:26

Have you ever given thought to what you are actually saying when you pray?

When I hear prayers in a house of worship, I often feel more exhausted than uplifted. Such prayers usually ask God for things, often imploringly. When we pray privately, our prayers often tend to center on ourselves. We may pray for a new house, a better job, healing from an illness, and the like. Prayers in communal worship tend to be more expansive. We pray not just for ourselves but for others as well, usually for healing, or rescue from a dangerous situation, or comfort in a time of sorrow. Such prayers have value in holding up to the love of the community people who are in need. There will always be a place for such prayers. But we might think twice about the way we phrase them. What we are actually saying about God might make us uncomfortable.

Whatever our conscious intentions, such prayers are designed to persuade God to do things we suspect God might be less likely to do without them. It is as if we believe God must be constantly reminded, or else God might ignore us. But isn’t God supposed to be all-knowing? God already knows what we need, and sometimes need desperately, yet we seem to believe God will respond only if we say the right words in just the right way. And what of people who don’t have others to pray for them? Does God pay less attention to them? Does God love them any less?

It is as Jesus said; God already knows what we need before we ask, so there is no need to multiply our words in repeated petitions. As usual Jesus was ahead of his time, and ours as well. Modern science supports him. A Wikipedia article on “Efficacy of prayer,” citing several references, documents that, contrary to much popular belief, intercessory prayer has no discernible effect on outcomes. I witnessed this in the two decades I worked in hospice. Many times I heard people praying over their seriously ill loved ones, imploring God for healings, expressing assurance that those healings would come because God can do anything, but those healings never came. These kinds of prayers, which contain the expectation that telling God what we want will increase our chances of getting it, are largely magical thinking.

It is understandable why we pray this way. When we feel desperate, in need of help, it may seem we have no other place to turn but God. Still, while such prayers are certainly of no offense to God, their real problem is that they may distract us from more effective ways of praying.

Jesus tried to tell us this. So did Paul. Paul understood that most of us don’t know how to pray. We need help, and specifically the intercession of the Spirit. What could this possibly mean?

It all goes back to Jesus’s teaching of the kingdom of God. To most people of his time, the kingdom of God represented a hoped-for new order that would arise with the overthrow of the powers of evil on earth. But Jesus took that language and pointed it toward something else. For Jesus, the kingdom was not a new heavenly regime on earth to be achieved by force. Rather, it was something people might not even notice, as tiny as a mustard seed before it sprouts, and even a simple child will enter it before the wise. Look at all of Jesus’s kingdom sayings, and compare them to all the apocalyptic images in other writings of the period, and you will find they could not be more different.

Jesus said “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). It is not the overthrow of earthly powers that others were expecting the Messiah to achieve. It is a higher reality, in which the nearness of God can be felt, and which provides direction for our lives. It is a reality in which the doubts and fears of this life are overcome. It is a sense of something greater, better, and more loving than ourselves, that is present often without our even knowing it. Another name for this is eternal life.

This was the real good news Jesus came to give us: not that he died for our sins - God does not sanction the violent punishment of an innocent creature for the sins of others - but that this higher reality, which Jesus called the kingdom, exists, that it is approachable, and that we can find God there.

This suggests a possible new definition of prayer, which we might consider as a replacement for petitionary prayer: prayer is the endeavor to enter the awareness of eternal life. In prayer we have the hope of knowing this dimension of reality, in which conflicts are resolved and we can feel a loving presence. But we cannot just get there by force of will. Jesus said the kingdom cannot be taken by force (Matthew 11:12). This is why we need prayer.

Faith is the state of being aware of eternal life. We cannot create faith simply through our own efforts. But there are steps we can take to approach it. We can start by doing the opposite of what we do in petitionary prayer. We can let go of our wants and drop our demands, in a spirit of humility and recognition that we do not know what is best, so wish to open ourselves to divine direction. By observing rather than identifying with our impulsive thoughts, we just barely begin to approach the higher perspective from which God sees and knows us.

There are other steps we can take. Remembering that God is love, we can seek to join ourselves to love. We can open our hearts to non-self-interested love, involving primarily the awareness of others as individuals in their own right, and cherishing their well-being. And as God created others out of love, so he created us as well. To love ourselves as well as others means accepting that we too belong to God, and we seek to know God’s direction for us.

This is actually the one thing for which we can pray: God’s direction for us. It is not for us to determine that direction, or to tell God what it should be. We only seek to know it, and ask God’s help in allowing it to operate in our lives. And then, in the course of time, looking back on what our lives have been, we may sense an intimation of that direction. It could even be that this direction was present all along, even throughout our lives, yet only much later did we realize it. “Surely the LORD is in this place - and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16).

Let us not forget the most important aspect of this prayer, which is listening. If we wish to become aware of the eternal, then after taking these steps to purify our hearts, we become quiet and listen. We may not hear actual words, but we may get a sense of things falling into perspective, of a presence surrounding us, hinting of a different reality, and even some sense of the direction for which we pray. We pray not to ask God to do things for us, but to join with God in God’s holy place. “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (Psalm 84:10).

Praying in this way, we may come to sense the closeness of eternal life. It may come at some times more strongly than others, and sometimes we may not feel it at all. That is the nature of the spiritual life. But if we make this a regular practice, we have a chance of knowing the presence of the eternal more consistently. And when we persist in this endeavor even when we do not feel any result, we are still showing a kind of faith, which I call “dark faith.” Dark faith means quietly waiting before we receive a sign. It means the anticipation of God before God appears. Dark faith, as arid as it may seem, can become a bridge from the estrangement of this world to the knowledge of eternal life.

We cannot explain why it appears that God does not answer every need. It is a mystery that has no solution on this side of eternity. We can, however, observe that if all our needs were met, we would not learn anything. We would not grow, we would not reach outside ourselves, and we could therefore never know God. It is only out of pain and grief that we come to know love and compassion for others. And only then do we have a chance of knowing God.

We are not meant to spend every moment in eternity while still in this life. Here on earth we still have much to do. As Jesus counseled, we are here to help bring the kingdom to earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). We can only do this if we have known a taste of the kingdom ourselves. But we are not to keep it to ourselves. It is here to be known, by ourselves and others, and eventually by all. Without temporal life with all its pain and struggle, the kingdom would remain invisible. And so we are to use our connection to it, formed in prayer, to make it visible to ourselves, to others, and, if enough join with us, to the whole world.

There are many ways to pray, not just one, and not just this one. But however we pray, we might ask ourselves: Does this prayer bring me closer to God? And to the awareness of eternal life? What does my prayer say about God, and about myself? Does it express my yearning to grow spiritually? To pray rightly we do not need to ask for anything. All we need is to approach God with an open heart. “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).

So if we are in the habit of asking God for things and wondering why God does not answer, we might consider revising our understanding of prayer. Many give up on their faith in God because it seems that when they stand at the door and knock, there is no one responding. But perhaps there is a response we have not yet learned to see. We cannot create a space in God for ourselves. But we can create a space for God in ourselves. It is not upon us to ask God for an opening, but rather to open ourselves to God.

August 2022