Remember: Prayer is Approaching the Throne of God

If prayer is entering into the presence of God, it is grounded in our relationship with Him. But many people find it hard to pray and when asked why, the most voiced excuse is, “I don’t know how.” The words themselves state a lack of knowledge, but beneath the words there’s an underlying emotion of fear. And it is usually fear, not just lack of knowledge, that’s stops people from praying. The fear attached to entering into a relationship with God is a lie for we are already fully known by God and God desires for us to deeper know Him.

As Christians, our relationship with God isn’t vaguely suggested but perfectly exemplified by Jesus. Throughout his life, Jesus displays three important characteristics related to his relationship with the Father: intimacy, obedience, and confidence. There are various independent examples of each trait but the three attributes intersect when Jesus prays to God in the moment of one his greatest needs.

While in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” The address of “My Father” is theAramaic word “Abba,” the word children used to address their parent. However, this intimacy does not lead to an overly-familiar behavior but is coupled with a respect for God and a desire to obey His will. Finally, Jesus approaches God with confidence that his request will be heard and with trust in God’s will.

Jesus not only provides an example of the model relationship with God but also instructs by giving us language to use in prayer.

“Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

Throughout this prayer, the three characteristics of intimacy, obedience, and confidence are reiterated in the invocation of Father, the desire for His will to be done, and the petition itself, trusting God will listen and act.

Believers are able to use Christ’s example and instruction to inform a perspective of the relationship we have with God but Jesus was also not just another man. He is also divine and the only way we are able to approach God’s throne. Hebrews 4:15-16 tells us:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but on who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

While our high priest is able to sympathize with us, He is also unlike us in regards to sin; thus the believer is unable to duplicate Jesus’ relationship with the Father. But Jesus’ own relationship with God is able to inform us of the relationship God desires. This relationship is evidenced through the type of mediator God has provided. Our mediator is not distant but able to understand our weakness and temptations that we might draw near.

The believer then knows from Hebrews that God desires a relationship which allows for us to draw near. This act of drawing near is often described with the phrase “encountering God.” The word “encounter” literally means “within and against.” When we pray, we enter into the inner chamber and are able to commune with Him in an intimate struggle. The Psalmist cries out in Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” Our relationship with God is a struggle because of our sin, but it is simultaneously deeply personal and for the purpose of our sanctification.

So how do we approach God? Without the false fear that hinders a relationship with Him. While He is not a fawning friend concerned with securing our love at the expense of our good, neither is He a doctor scientifically probing us for his own sterile delight. We should not let our fear of the unknown or fear of failure keep us from God also knowing we have the Spirit to help us in our weakness. For even though we do not always know what to pray for as we ought, the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. So let us confidently approach the throne of God, not letting our fear stand in the way of our relationship but entering into the relationship God lovingly invites us into through his example, instruction and himself.

Let Us Pray: The Struggles of ‘Ineffective’ Prayers

Living in a world where typhoons kill thousands and tornadoes level neighborhoods, we often ask why we pray. In the midst of our frustration, there has to be a better justification than “prayer works”, and the answer must be more than just “Scripture says we should pray”. God gives us reasons to exercise this spiritual discipline, and these are best exemplified in the life of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

He prayed, and prayed often. Unlike the Pharisees, however, he made sure to pray alone in “desolate places” (Mark 1:35). Being alone in conversation with God is one of the many dimensions to the praying life, taking time every day to listen for His voice. Since we abide with the Father through Christ, it is essential to keep the lines of communication open. Jesus also demonstrates that prayer is about submitting our will to the Father’s, as He talks about in the Lord’s Prayer and as He enacted when He prayed in Gethsemane (Matthew 6:9-10, 26:36-44). Continual prayer will attune the believer to God’s plan, and habituate us to ask for the Father’s will instead of their own. Prayer ultimately becomes self-denial, in favor of relying upon God. Finally, Jesus says prayer is how we make our requests known to God, so that He may bless us and provide those things for us (Luke 11:9-10). As our Father through the adoption in Christ, God wants us to come to Him, even though He knows our needs, and ask with faith that He will not turn us away or give us bad things.

Now, it is that last promise, repeated in the epistle of James, which seems the most troubling. Most often, believers pray to God asking for something, and they have every right, by the covenant of grace, to do so. Jesus says “ask and you shall receive”, and James says, “let him ask in faith, with no doubting…for that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” and later “you do not have, because you do not ask,” (James 1:6, 7; 4:2-3). The promise, predicated that we do not ask for something that is sinful or unhealthy, is that God will give us whatever we ask, that we shouldn’t doubt He will give us that which we ask of Him. Yet, we know that God has His plans for the future, which He sees with the same eye that watches our present, being the eternal I AM; so He already knows what we will or will not receive. These two principles seem at odds, as if God writes us a blank check when the budget is predetermined.

Practically speaking, we know God doesn’t always give us what we ask for in prayer. It doesn’t take many years walking with Christ to find that praying for something and having faith of receiving, does not mean we will receive. Perhaps asking for a new bike as a kid wasn’t the best use of prayer. It seems obvious that asking God for material possessions makes Him too much like a banker, which doesn’t foster a good relationship with Him as a son or daughter. However, what of the case when, during the Civil War, both sides included godly men who fervently prayed for the respective preservation or dissolution of the Union? God cannot satisfy both of their prayers, but He promised His children, found on both sides, that if they ask they shall receive from Him, as their loving Father. The righteous’ requests are often turned down, and we shuffle off the difficulty of reconciling our expectation to His action by retreating to the conclusion we did something wrong.

The disappointment that southern Christians inevitably felt was probably not because they were all iniquitous. Even considering slavery, Jesus didn’t predicate ‘you can expect to receive if you don’t ask for things beyond your immediate person’. He simply said ask, and you shall receive. So, when we do not receive simply because God’s will did not permit it, what does that mean? God’s open-ended promises for prayer are so often met with a contradicting reality, which suggests error, though we as believers refuse to accept scripture as fallible. If we must abandon the promise of receiving when we ask, since God’s sovereign plan may not coincide with that request, why do we bother praying with expectation?

It would seem the answer lies in a redefinition of receiving, and a reminder of the third reason for praying, namely drawing near to God. Notice that Jesus did not say “ask and you shall have what you asked for”— He said you shall “receive” and then goes on to say that earthly fathers won’t give snakes when asked for bread. The point is that our heavenly Father knows how to provide good things for His children, which may or may not include what we pray to get or to happen. We shall receive good things, maybe even the good things we wanted, but the most important exchange is the trust we have that God will provide.

This is especially hard when we ask and we ask and God still doesn’t give us what we faithfully and righteously requested, which might be why God refuses the request. He wants us to rely upon Him in the midst of that disappointment, since He is the giver of every good thing, if not at our every convenience. We should pray with expectation of either the good we want or some better good that God chooses, but in both cases we receive. Being denied what we ask is frustrating, even disheartening, which is why God asks us to trust Him in those moments. If He doesn’t give us the object or result we prayed for, He will give us His perfect peace to endure the continued lack, if we abide in Him. Christians should pray in faith that, whether or not God answers our prayer the way we want, He is faithful to provide above and beyond what we need or ask, because He is our sustenance, not the things we ask of Him.

That is why we pray especially in times when prayer seems empty and hollow, because God is our salvation, not the circumstances in which we pray or that follow after our prayers. If faithful prayer can only exist where good things flow, how can we live a life of suffering as Christ did? He expected in Gethsemane that the Father would provide Him either with deliverance from evil or strength to pass through it. We should do the same. When culture turns against us, when it seems God is removing His hand from our prosperity and will not soon restore it, then it is the time to pray and draw closer to the Lord, in full assurance that He will answer and provide for His people.

“As We Also Have Forgiven Our Debtors:” The Power and Necessity of Forgiveness

We’ve all been there: someone makes a rude comment to or about us; we are treated unfairly; we are abused, dismissed, or made the target. On some level, we all know how it feels to be mistreated and to suffer injustice. At first, the feelings we experience are surprise and shock, but if left to fester, they eventually evolve into anger, bitterness, and resentment. Such feelings can and will harden our hearts if left unchecked, or worse, if we periodically stir them up again and renew their hold on us.

I’ve learned the hard way that it’s often easier to be consumed by anger than it is to forgive an offender and choose to love them. It’s easier to remind myself of the injustice, feel sorry for myself, and wallow in my own bitterness and self-pity. But if we let ourselves get to this point, the reality is that we are the only ones to blame for our continual suffering.

I recently read a talk from 2003 about resentment and forgiveness given by Christian monastic Hieromonk Damascene. The piece is a rather long exposition (certainly worth reading in full), but I was especially struck by Father Damascene’s language of sickness and healing in describing the relationship between resentment and forgiveness. “Why is resentment such a deadly sin?” Father Damascene asks, and then he goes on to answer:

“The Holy Scriptures tell us that God is love. Therefore, explains the Russian Holy Father St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, ‘Resentment or rejection of love is rejection of God. God withdraws from a resentful person, deprives him of His Grace, and gives him up to spiritual death, unless the person repents in good time so as to be healed of that deadly moral poison, resentment.’ If for whatever reason we do not forgive someone and hold onto our anger, it will truly be to our own destruction. It can poison our entire lives, make us the captives of the devil, and eventually prevent us from entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”

On a recent trip to St. Anthony’s monastery in Florence, Arizona, the abbot of the monastery counseled me similarly regarding forgiveness, saying that harbored hatred is a barrier to God’s love in our life and prevents us from fully loving God as well.

This all speaks to the core of why harboring resentment against those who have mistreated us only causes us further and deeper suffering: by doing so, we are in fact distancing ourselves from God and his love. A heart hardened by anger turns us away from God and sanctification and back to sin and our fallen nature.

This is where forgiveness comes in. If resentment is the poison, forgiveness is the cure. If resentment drags us back toward our fallen nature, forgiveness, as Father Damascene points out, tends toward the divine:

“But for Christ’s sake, we go against our fallen nature, and force ourselves to pray. We ask God to bless and have mercy on the person who hurt us, we wish good things for him, we wish his salvation, just as our Lord wishes his salvation. In this way we begin to become like God Himself, Who, according to the words of Christ, is kind to the unthankful and the evil (Luke 6:35). In going against our fallen nature, we return to our original nature—the image of God in us—and we grow in the likeness of God.”

Father Damascene also discusses how holding onto anger and resentment is an act of pride; because “part of us…wants to be God” (again, thanks to our fallen nature), we get angry when things don’t go our way, when situations are out of our control, and when others don’t act how we think they should (especially towards us).

Forgiveness, on the other hand, is an act of love and humility that counteracts resentment. Father Damascene says that praying for our offenders is a crucial part of forgiving them. Prayer serves two purposes: first, it is an act of intercession for the offender, and therefore an act of love. Second, it is also an act of humility, because in praying for our offenders we are setting aside concerns for ourselves and remembering our own humble state before God. Certain prayers can especially help us do this, as Father Damascene explains:

“In the practice of watchfulness [against anger and resentment] and prayer, we have no better tool than the Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ There is no more powerful name on earth than the name of Jesus Christ to oppose the proud fallen spirits. And, in the words of the Holy Apostle Peter, There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). When we ask Christ to have mercy on us, we are also humbling our proud fallen nature. We are admitting that we are not God, and that we need God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. In seeking God’s forgiveness, we are acknowledging the infirmity of our nature, and this helps us to forgive and have mercy on others who share our fallen, wounded nature.”

I find his point about recognizing that we share our fallen nature with our offenders particularly compelling. By remembering that all of humanity is afflicted by the common disease of sin, and that it is because of this affliction that we mistreat each other, it alters the attitude of the abused heart. By adopting this perspective, we can begin to counteract the anger and bitterness and instead replace those feelings with pity, empathy, and love.

Of course, we must remember that as Christians, we are commanded by Christ to forgive:

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” — Luke 6:27-29

“Judge not and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven.” — Luke 6:37

St. Paul echoes Christ’s words in Romans:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” — Romans 12:14

In the Lord’s Prayer, which Christ teaches us in the Gospel of Matthew, there is yet another reminder of this commandment:

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” — Matthew 6:12

Again and again, we are reminded of the necessity to forgive, and we are also warned that if we do not forgive others and instead harbor resentment, we will separate ourselves from God’s forgiveness, love, and grace.

Finally, while forgiveness may sometimes seem impossible, we must also remember that we are not alone in our efforts. Christ will help us, and he will soften and heal our hearts, as Father Damascene says:

“When we continually force ourselves to bless and pray for others in this way, we will find that our Lord Jesus Christ will change, renew, and refresh our hearts. It may take some time and persistence, but gradually, almost imperceptibly, we will be changed. The poison of resentment, by the Grace of Christ, will leave our system.”

Pray Like You (Don’t) Mean It: On Genuine Prayer

When the human hands off her wish or hope or desire to God, what is the action taking place? How does prayer happen?

The kneeling murderer suffers through an attempt at prayer. Repentant yet addicted, he bows and shouts and almost hopes. As he prays, he notices he must adjust his brother’s royal crown on his own head. As he prays, he doesn’t notice his brother’s son lurking, both armed and wronged, behind him. The usurping king prays silently until he belts out a phrase familiar in feeling to many who have prayed as ardently as they could:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” Claudius mutters as Hamlet leaves the scene.

There are two reasons to say this about your prayer: either you don’t care about it much or you care about it a very great deal. In the first case, the one who prays finds herself offering an inauthentic, flippant set of words. In the second case, the one who prays is overwhelmed by her complete inability to be as attentive and genuine and repentant and real in prayer as her need demands.

Despite many failings, Claudius fits the second description – he cares about his prayer. This is no cocky, confident charlatan tossing holy words around for show. This is a man torn inside, who wants to pray and can’t pray as he needs to pray. His reasons for struggle are different than mine, but this murderer, certain that his words can’t rise above his thoughts, reminds me of my own inattentive and flighty mind set simultaneously and irreverently on genuine prayer and inexplicable wandering.

When the human hands off her wish or hope or desire to God, what is the action taking place? How does prayer happen? To pick on Claudius, it is clear that, in some sense, he believes himself to be the origin of his prayer’s power. He believes the action taking place to be primarily his own; God is passive.

This is always a problematic way of seeing God. We do not pray to a passive God. At our most ardent efforts to pray genuinely and attentively, we must remember that God is better at hearing prayers than we are at saying them. God is the most active participant in our prayer life.

The Heidelberg Catechism instructs, “It is even more sure that God listens to my prayer, than that I really desire what I pray for.”

This is what Claudius lacks (and perhaps some boundaries around not killing people). He does not have a sense that God has an active part in the activity of prayer. He believes that for his words to rise to heaven they must come from a perfectly attentive heart. This is not the reality of the human person. The reality of prayer is not duty or flawless execution or ready-made perfection. When I pray, I do not turn my perfection upward toward God; it is precisely the opposite.

Oh, Claudius, if you could see! You think your prayer does nothing, but Hamlet, because he sees you pray, chooses to delay killing you. The prayer you thought failed preserved your life. It is as though the God which Shakespeare portrays will react enthusiastically to even the faintest effort to pray.

The sense that “words without thoughts never to heaven go” conveys half the story of prayer: the half where I am active. But, the half where God is active is the more exciting part. He’s done this prayer activity quite a lot more than I have, and He is, demonstrably, rather good at it.

We come to prayer as genuinely as possible, and we remember that greater things are possible than our attention can facilitate. The author Fredrica Mathewes-Green writes, “However, when you are plagued with distraction and run through a hundred prayers without awareness, when you keep spurning thoughts of Christ for amusing trivialities, when you feel dry and stupid and the words are sand in your mouth, pray them anyway. Do not cease praying when prayer becomes hard, for fear of doing it imperfectly. If you cease praying when you can’t do it right, the devil gets the victory. So keep offering a broken prayer, and remember that you are only an unworthy servant, and yet Jesus wants you.”

In short, the feeling that we’ve failed to pray should never occasion the end of prayer, as it did with Claudius. After his pious lament, quoted above, comes the one-word sinful stage direction which he should never have followed, “Exit.”

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Force Yourself: Why Spirituality Sometimes Sucks

When I was younger, I used to wonder why all of the best-tasting foods are usually the worst for you. Why can’t ice cream and chocolate and burgers be good for me? Or at the very least, why can’t I have cravings for fruits and vegetables? 

My husband shared an interesting insight in a Facebook status the other day: “When I eat poorly, all I want to do is eat poorly. When I eat well, I can’t believe I ever ate poorly.”

I’ve experienced this as well, as I’m sure many have. Even though it’s hard at first, the longer you sustain a habit of eating better, the harder it is to go back. If I’ve been doing well for a couple weeks and then I have a burger, I can feel the difference. The same thing goes for exercise; I’ve been training for my first 5k run and have been working out more regularly than I have in months. It sucks at first, but if you persevere it gets better. Although some days still suck. Some days I just don’t want to go run, or I feel too tired, or I’d rather sit on the couch and watch Hulu. Some days I just want to eat a burger and fries and not care.

Some days, I have to force myself.

A Facebook friend commented on my husband’s status, saying, “Replace ‘eat poorly’ with ‘sin’ and ‘eat well’ with ‘don’t sin,’ and you’ve pretty much got the story of my life.”

Do you ever feel too tired, or too busy, or too lazy to pray? Do you sometimes feel like you’d rather sleep in than go to church? Or do you ever find that you’re in church, but your heart really isn’t? I am guilty on all counts. For whatever reason, my personal spirituality is the most difficult for me to maintain. I’ve been a Christian since I was about twelve, and ever since then I’ve struggled to keep a regular regimen of prayer and Scripture study. It’s so easy to make excuses: it’s late, I’ve had a long day, and I’m tired…I’ll pray in the morning. And then: it’s early, I’m running late, and I don’t have time…I’ll read my Bible tonight.

But when I manage to get into a habit—usually my husband and I like to say our evening prayers before bed—and then I don’t do it, it feels especially wrong. Because when I don’t make time to pray or study Scripture, I’m ignoring God, and that fact is more obvious when I neglect my spiritual responsibilities after starting to get good at fulfilling them.

When it comes to most important things in life, I think “easy” is overrated; at least, I think it’s dangerous to believe that if something is right or worth doing it will always be easy.

I believe the opposite to be true sometimes: sin is apathy; sin is laziness; sin is easy. Righteousness is difficult.

St. Athanasius wrote in On the Incarnation that human nature is inherently akin to nothingness, and therefore at odds with God:

For the transgression of the commandment [sin] was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of nonexistence, so were they now on their way to returning, through corruption, to nonexistence again…By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of his power and he remains incorrupt.”

By the grace and salvation of God through Christ we’re able to return to holiness; we are made worthy to approach God once again. If we persevere, it becomes less difficult—I think the best way to put it is perhaps that, as with physical habits like diet and exercise, it becomes harder to turn away from spiritual goods once we’ve worked to build them into our lives and experienced their benefit. After all, that’s what we’re made for. But it’s not always easy, because thanks to sin, we are at odds with ourselves.

My husband once put it this way: “I have to remind myself that when I don’t want to pray, that’s the part of me that wants to go to hell.”

And so I think sometimes, what’s more important than having the right “feeling” about something—even more important than feeling like my heart is truly in it, or doing something because it always feels easy—is to do what I know is right and good for me and for the betterment of my soul, even if I have to force myself.

If you do not feel like praying, you have to force yourself. The Holy Fathers say that prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced. You do not want to, but force yourself. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force. (Matthew 11:12)

– St. Ambrose of Optina

A Strange Prayer

For a long time now, a close friend of mine has been content to call himself agnostic. We don’t talk about it often, but we did a couple weeks ago. I had a long conversation with him via Facebook, going back and forth on various things. Nothing seemed to sink in: It seemed as though we ended the conversation in roughly the exact same place we had started it: firmly planted in agnosticism.

“That’s a dangerous valley you’re in, dude,” I told him.

“Well, that depends on who’s right,” he said. “But I understand what you mean.”

Then he said he had to go and thanked me for the talk. I told him I’d pray for him, and he said he appreciated it.

But I’m not so sure he would still appreciate it, if he knew what I had prayed for. Continue reading A Strange Prayer