I just finished the draft submission of my first project. I haven’t worked that hard in years, but it is just the beginning. That is one course partway done, seven more to go.
I have never been afraid of hard work. So, when I first started thinking about how hard it is to create the habit of disciplined prayer, I thought to myself, a little hard work never scared me away. Just apply yourself and you will get there. Now I realize that though I have never been afraid of hard work, this is different. All that other hard work has been externally directed, at jobs or other goals. This hard work is internal and that appears to be the sticking point.
I had never thought about the difference before, but now it seems pretty clear. Not all hard work is the same. There seems to be a line, at least for me that as the effort moves internal, my drive, my energy seems to dissipate. It appears that the Old Man is not threatened by working hard at external things, but does everything to pull the plug as things move internal, as they start chipping away at his hegemony.
Paul ORear asked me to identify the real nature of prayer, what it really is. One of the frustrating (at times) things about Scripture is the way it lacks our modern sensibilities of just getting to the point. We want it to define, set the limits on, tell us the five best things to do here and the three most important things there, and then, we might feel we have a better grasp on things.
Well it doesnt do things that way. Why, I dont know, but it doesnt just come out and say that prayer is such and such and this is how you do it. One of the reasons I believe that Jesus disciples asked him how to pray was the lack of clear instruction on the subject in the Old Testament and if not for that request we wouldnt have all that much in the New Testament either. What we mostly have are examples of people praying.
So, in order to answer Paul I have had to synthesize many sources, coming at last to my own conclusion, which I think was best expressed by C.S. Lewis. While many people focus on prayer as either asking God for what we need or seeking guidance to do the right thing, I want to go in a different direction. I dont disagree that those things are not important aspects of prayer, but I think Paul was asking more along the lines of what is the root of prayer, its fundamental purpose.
I believe prayer is a change agent. While the Bible leaves us with the possibility of our influencing Gods decisions, made real in Jesus parable of the Unjust Judge where the woman petitioning the judge keeps at it so long the judge relents just to get her to stop, I believe that is the exception.
yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?
C. S. Lewis, when his wife Joy was dying of cancer, prayed exhaustingly in the college chapel. One day, the Bishop saw him praying and told him that surely God would hear his prayer and heal his wife. Lewis looked at him and said, “I don’t pray to change God. I pray that God might change me.” [from memory out of the movie Shadowlands].
I think one of the reasons a habitual, disciplined prayer life is such hard work is that it is essentially working on an internal change. If the person who said praying was thinking God’s thoughts after him was right then I am pretty close to the truth here. God’s purpose in us is to complete the good work he has begun. That fashioning of a noble vessle, fit for service, requires a lot of change–from a lump of sinful clay, having no spiritual purpose, to a renewed life changing daily in its pursuit of God.
That all is accomplished by God’s hand on our clay, by change, deep inner change. Prayer attacks the strongholds of the enemy and his greatest stronghold is in the Old Man we are struggling to put aside. It is the last toehold the enemy has within us, and it resists tooth and nail every advance of the kingdom in ourselves.
A disciplined prayer life is hard because it is a form of spiritual warfare and it is against the strongest enemy we will ever face–overselves, our Old Man. This idea definately warrants more thought and development.
Until then, may our God and Father, who supplies our every need in Christ Jesus our Lord, grant you clear vision on the path we walk together. And, by his mercy, may you find the wisdom and strength to walk it to its conclusion. Amen.
This reminds me a lot of Luther’s contrasting of the Theology of Glory with the Theology of the Cross. Theology of glory says that actions equal rewards and is often focused on external things. Your observation that as things become internal we lose our drive is right on – we don’t like it because its not as defined and formulaic. The Bishop’s comment to Lewis is textbook theology of glory. The theology of the Cross, however, is the idea that God works through difficult things to bring about our good – He uses the shameful, disgusting, and externally disappointing death on a cross to be the very foundation of our entire faith. God thus turns our suppositions on their head, that He might show Himself to be the only author and finisher of our faith. Lewis’ answer is very theology of the cross.
The Old Man loves the theology of glory, because he wants to know what he has to do and what will be his reward. The New Man loves the Theology of the Cross, because he rejoices in Christ’s victory over his sin.
Gene Veith’s The Spirituality of the Cross has some excellent material on this distinction.
Brant, that is an interesting insight. As a man, I have always found it easier to focus on what needs to be done: teach the class, go to the meeting, cut the grass, just solve the problem. When things turn internal, they are not as clearcut; the paths get murky and it is easy to lose your way, or fall asleep–since the easiest time to look into your soul is when you are lying in bed and you are not looking to do anything but go to sleep.
Hmmm…, I wonder if panic attacks and night terrors are related to looking into your own soul?
I guess real personal prayer automatcally puts you into that inner environment and the more intense the prayer the deeper you go. I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing more scary than inside my own soul. Sort of like the image of Luke Skywalker in the Empire Strikes Back thinking he is battling Vader and it is really himself. We, ourselves, are really our greatest foe. There is no external fight like the internal one with the Old Man.
Bill – thanks for trying to address to my questions. I’m in agreement with you on the purpose of prayer, and that it is indeed a discipline and hard work. I was actually posting more to fuel the thinking and discussion, and to encourage not depending on the common assumptions that are easy for us to make.
I’m still puzzling myself though a bit about what that discipline and hard work actually looks like. Most of the things I’ve ever read from generally contemporary writers about the work of prayer still mostly seems to be about the external things than the internal things.
I’ve done a little reading and exploring about more ‘esoteric’ (I believe in the more beneficial sense of the word, than the occult sense) practices lately, which have helped a little. One book I still have yet to read – “the cloud of unknowing”, which looks promising.
One of the dangers I’ve seen (and experienced a bit) on focussing on internal work is missing the fact that God is at work in us both to will and to do His good purpose. (cf. Philippians). Many esoteric disciplines get you focussed on your failings, recognizing them and working on them, but often without reminding you that your cause is not hopeless and there is actual “external” help available in the form of the Holy Spirit.
There are some interesting discussions on ‘centering prayer’ on the ‘net (mostly Catholic in origin) that seem to have relevance and are practical.
I believe that ultimately that the work of prayer is still ultimately relational, though not necessarily experientially so. *Somehow* we have to learn to keep ourselves consciously and continuously in God’s presence; holding ourselves up to the mirror of His word and His Spirit. How we do so, and what it looks like when we’re doing it, I’m trying to discern. Usually the way prayer is presented it seems like it’s about our words, where I’m thinking that it’s more about our presence of mind both to our current condition and to God’s presence. And responding to the gentle promptings…