Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Heart of Prayer

One of the problems of the utilitarian society in which we live is that we tend to think of things in terms of their usefulness to us. We need technological advances because they make our lives more efficient and convenient. Certain people are good to know because of what they can do for us. And on it goes.

Interestingly, we can even see evidence of this utilitarianism in our discussions about prayer. A walk through most any Christian bookstore will yield remarkable evidence for this. The phenomenally popular “Prayer of Jabez” hints that if you practice this Old Testament prayer regularly, then you will prosper beyond your wildest imaginings. Other books point to formulas for prayer that, if recited properly, will yield whatever result for which you are praying. Still other books, especially ones that focus on centering prayer, talk about the benefits of their prayer to the body, i.e., if you practice their prayer form, you will have lower blood pressure, be less prone to depression, and have more focus and alertness.

Now I’m not saying that God won’t bless people with prosperity, nor am I intimating that God secretly wants people to be hypertensive, depressed, and anxious. But I think that the people who write these volumes and the marketers who promote them are barking up the wrong tree (or the wrong totem pole, as the case may be). I suspect that what has happened in these cases is that many of these writers have witnessed the popularity of things such as the New Age Movement and quasi-religious organizations such as Science of Mind and Unity, and they are trying to say that Christianity in its more traditional form can offer something similar.

However, to make this claim is, to my way of thinking, a serious error. False mysticism is dangerous because it is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) attempt to entice a Christian to embrace clearly heretical paths. All of the movements noted above each share a common error: They seek to raise man to the same plane as God, or, at worst, seek to find ways that force God to do man’s bidding. This is a serious problem and it is one to which serious Christians should be alert and from which one should run at all costs.

Having spent some time talking about what prayer is NOT, let’s take a few moments talking about what prayer IS. Although I do not profess to be an expert in prayer, I believe that prayer is the process by a person or a community develops a relationship with God. It is noteworthy that all men were created in the image and likeness of God. Prior to Adam’s fall, man enjoyed an intimacy and a communion with God that was lost with the transgressions of our first parents. It is this intimacy and this communion that we seek to regain through the life of prayer. Prayer is the desire of the human heart for intimacy with its Creator.

Saint Augustine says it very well in his famous Confessions: “...Man, being a part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee, -- man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that Thou 'resistest the proud,' -- yet man, this part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee. Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”

The true purpose of prayer, according to Augustine, is a response to the goodness of God. We respond to God’s gift of life in us and we express what our deepest, fundamental desire is: To draw closer to the God of our salvation. In fact Augustine, goes further when he says, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.” The saint implies that until our hearts are filled with God, until we are conformed to his will through our life of prayer, then we can never know true rest. This is why, in the end, these fads of prayer do not satisfy and ultimately wither and die. They seek to force God to change to suit us, rather than forcing ourselves to change to suit God. Until the human heart does the latter it cannot know true peace. Let us each pray that God will open our hearts to conform ourselves in His image and likeness.

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