Tonight I started a Wednesday night study on prayer entitled "Teach Us to Pray: Developing a Life with God." Part One follows.
Part One: The Place and Position of Prayer
“(Jesus) was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1). Along the way we will return in detail to the specific teachings on prayer that Jesus offered in response to the request of his disciple but for now I want to note that this disciple expressed the desire of the heart of each of us, whether we know it or not: we want to know how to pray. Moreover, the fact that Jesus answered the question reveals that we can be taught how to pray, that we can learn how to pray.
One of the first steps in learning anything is finding out where and how you are supposed to stand. A baseball player learns first where to stand in the batter’s box and then how to stand in the batter’s box; a football player learns where to stand on the field and then how to stand on the field; a golfer learns where to stand in the tee box and then how to stand in the tee box.
Learning involves being in the right place and in the right position, then. That applies to learning to pray.
The right place: before God
Glenn Hinson offered this definition of prayer: “Prayer… is conversation, communication, or communion between ourselves as personal beings and our heavenly Father, the ultimate personal reality in the universe” (The Reaffirmation of Prayer, p. 17).
God as Father. Prayer is personal communion between personal human beings and a personal God; it thus has the potential for great intimacy. Jesus purposely taught us to pray to “Our Father”; the word is Abba, a form of the Aramaic word for Father that really means something like “Daddy.” So Jesus told us to approach God as a personal being in a very personal way.
God is love. That statement in 1 John 4:8 is the most basic biblical definition of God. As Hinson also said, “Prayer…is motivated by love, which seeks naturally and spontaneously to interact with what it has made.” So from God’s side of this two-sided relationship, conversation, and communion, God approaches us and that approaching is motivated by God’s love. Our response is a response of love, then; as Hinson put it, “Our love responds to God’s love that is always beaming on us” (A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle, p. 46.
The incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, along with the subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit, offer the definitive proof of God’s determination to relate to us personally.
Prayer happens when our real and open personhood responds to the real and open personhood of God.
The right position: the posture of humility
While God is personal and relates to us in love, we nonetheless need to acknowledge that we stand before him as the human creation of Almighty God. As Psalm 8 reminds us, “When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou has ordained; what is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him?” (vv. 3-4 NASB). God does take thought of us and God does care for us—but that is a most remarkable thing. This morning before sunrise I went out to try to see the Orionid meteor shower. I am happy to report that I saw exactly one meteor but it was still worth the effort as, it being a clear morning, I was overwhelmed by the wonder and majesty of God’s creation as exhibited in the innumerable stars. What are we, indeed? We stand in awe before God.
Luke 18:9-14 contains Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, in which the tax collector’s humble attitude, exemplified in the words “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” is favorably contrasted with the self-righteous and haughty attitude of the Pharisee.
Commenting on that parable, Metropolitan Anthony said,
What we must start with, if we wish to pray, is the certainty that we are sinners in need of salvation, that we are cut off from God and that we cannot live without Him and that all we can offer God is our desperate longing to be made such that God will receive us, receive us in repentance, receive us with mercy and with love…. (A)ll we can do is to turn to Him with all the reverence, all the veneration, the worshipful adoration, the fear of God of which we are capable, with all the attention and earnestness which we may possess, and ask Him to do something with us that will make us capable of meeting Him face to face, not for judgment, nor for condemnation, but for eternal life (School of Prayer, pp. 7-8).
As we approach our attempts at prayer, our position is before God and our posture is humility.