Tuesday, 10 September 2013

True prayer

I have been thinking a lot about prayer recently. Like many Christians I suspect I am never happy with my prayer life and always think I can pray more or better. Part of this is that I rarely feel that my prayer is authentic. It's like stretching out for something which just keeps moving out of your reach. I suspect that this is, in some way, deliberate on God's part as He wants to encourage us to move closer to Him, like a parent teaching a toddler to walk by moving a little further away each time the toddler gets close.

Thinking about what is and what is not 'authentic' I came across the following quote by a 20th century theologian Oscar Cullman (1902-1999) which made me think:

"The essence of all prayer is that it is a conversation with God as the partner. As soon as purposes creep in which distract from this goal, prayer is profaned, and if it is then supposed to be talk with God, it becomes blasphemous hypocrisy. None of the opponents of prayer who want to dismiss true prayer by referring to this wrong kind of prayer has characterized this distortion and censured it as sharply as Jesus did.

The parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:10ff) is an example of this criticism. The Pharisee is pretending to himself and others that he is thanking God. In reality, in his prayer he only has himself and other human beings in view. Feuerbach's verdict on prayer, that it is worship of one's own heart, applies to this form of prayer which is censured by Jesus. The Pharisee is not talking with God, whereas the publican with his petition for pardon, in awareness of his sin, is seeking to make contact with God."
Oscar Cullman: Prayer in the New Testament 

Distractions figure much in books on prayer and much ink has been spilled over the centuries teaching seekers after authenticity how to avoid or deal with them. Here Cullman is perhaps talking about distractions in their more simple form i.e. as wrong petitions based on wrong motives. Or the kind of prayer that involves hiding your true self behind the prayer that you make like the Pharisee in Jesus' parable above.

So prayer starts not just by asking who God is, but with who am I? Its a tough question and we need God to help us answer that as honestly as possible. I guess that that is why Bible reading is so key to the Christian's prayer life. There we come face to face with humanity at its best and its worst. A quick trawl through the heroes and heroines of the faith will show that they were people shot through with imperfections and flaws. But their redeeming feature was that they were honest about themselves and at the end of the day that is all God is looking for. So is at its most authentic when we are.

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