Learning to Pray

The Lord’s Prayer Controversy

It has been in the news recently that the agency that handles advertising in British cinemas has refused to show an advert in cinemas in the UK which features the Lord’s Prayer believing it would upset or offend audiences.
On the one level I find this ban itself upsetting and offensive. In my opinion, our culture of political correctness causes far more offence than it does bring harmony, as more and more people are restricted from speaking freely about what they believe. It is often the case with these kind of stories that our main reaction is to sit and moan about the erosion of our freedom of speech and that ‘this used to be Christian country’ etc etc. However, on another level I’m glad that something the church has done has caused this kind of reaction. If we are truly proclaiming the gospel of Jesus then it should rightly be offensive and split opinion down the middle. The gospel is a powerful and subversive message that should rightly challenge the world.
Rather than write my own response to this situation I’d like to share a blog written by Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield. I feel the Bishop articulates something that is important for us to grasp and understand. Take time to consider his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer and use it as a meditation to pray the Lord’s Prayer again afresh.
At the end of the day, all the noise and hype that this story has generated can easily drown out the reason why this advert was produced in the first place, namely to invite people to pray. So lets pray!!

The Bishop of Sheffield’s blog post can be found at here but I’ve copied all the text below.


Seven reasons to ban the Lord’s Prayer

Britain woke up this morning to the news that the Lord’s Prayer has been banned from cinemas.

The Church of England has produced a sixty second commercial.  The only words are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, said by children, the bereaved, people at work and so on.  It’s a beautiful film, Certificate U. The ad is to promote a new website, Just Pray.uk.  The plan was (and is) to show the film before Christmas at screenings of the new Star Wars film to help everyone think about prayer and to pray.  What could be more simple?

The distributors have declared the Lord’s Prayer unsuitable for screening.  They believe it carries the risk of upsetting or offending audiences.

Cue indignation from the press, fury from the Archbishop (according to the Mail anyway) debates about free speech, a possible challenge in the courts and a storm on social media.

But wait just a moment.  Suppose the cinema chains got this one right?

I disagree with their decision and I disagree with the reasons they have given.  I hope it’s reversed.  I don’t believe the film will offend or upset audiences, in the way they mean, and I don’t believe it creates a new precedent.

But from the point of view of global corporations and consumer culture, from the perspective of the gods and spirits of the age, there are very good reasons indeed to ban the Lord’s Prayer from cinemas and from culture and from public life.

This is a prayer said by billions of people every day in every language on the planet.  In every single moment in time, someone is praying these words.  They are the first words of prayer we learn as children and the last words we say at the moment of death.

The Lord’s Prayer is powerful for a reason.  These words shape lives and families and communities and whole societies.

There are real reasons why the Lord’s Prayer has been banned by the demigods of consumer culture, in the boardrooms of the cinema chains.  Here are seven, one for every line.

First, this prayer gives to those who pray it an identity and a place in the world and a countercultural community.  “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”.  It opposes the myth that we are random specks of matter floating through space and time.  It opposes the myth that our lives do not matter.  It opposes the myth of fragmented humanity.

We are created and loved and called into friendship with God who is our father and into community with our fellow human beings who are therefore our sisters and brothers.  Only someone who has found this new identity can stand against the advertising culture which night and day seduces us to define who we are by what we spend.

Second this prayer gives us the courage to live in an imperfect world.  “Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. 

The world is not as it was meant to be.  It is distorted from its true purpose.  But God is at work to redeem and transform this world, to establish his kingdom.  The Lord’s Prayer invites us not to retreat from the world in fear and pain, to anaesthetise or indulge ourselves.  The Lord’s Prayer invites us to join the struggle to see justice and peace prevail.

Third, and most powerfully, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to live with just enough.  This is the most dangerous reason why it cannot be shown with the adverts at the cinema.  It teaches us not to want more.  It teaches contentment, the most subversive virtue of them all.

“Give us this day our daily bread”.  This is not a prayer for more.  This is a prayer only for what we need.  Every other advert in the cinema is there to encourage us to spend money in pursuit of happiness.  This one restrains our greed.

Fourth, the Lord’s Prayer teaches me to live with my imperfections and the imperfections of others.  There is a way to deal with the rubbish in our lives.  “Forgive us our sins”.

Consumer culture holds before us the image of perfection.  We cannot be happy until we look like this person, live like that one.  Each image is a lie.

The Lord’s Prayer acknowledges human imperfection and sin, daily.  The Lord’s Prayer offers a pathway to forgiveness, daily. The way of forgiveness cannot be bought.  It is a gift.  Grace.  Grace subverts the whole culture of advertising.

Fifth the Lord’s Prayer offers a way of reconciliation.  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.  We are not meant to feud or live in hostility or rivalry.  We are meant to forgive and be forgiven, to be reconciled to each other.  That reconciliation happens without expensive presents, without going into debt, without credit.  People are not made happy by more things, another consumer lie.  The greatest happiness comes from relationships.  The key to great relationships is reconciliation and forgiveness.

Sixth, the Lord’s Prayer builds resilience in the human spirit.  When you say this prayer each day you are prepared for the bad days.  “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” 

When we say this prayer we remind ourselves that we are not living in a Disney fairy tale, a saccharine creation of film makers where every story has a happy ending.

We are living in a real world of cancer and violence and difficulty, where we are tested, where bad things happen for no clear reason.  We live in that world confident in God’s love and goodness and help even in the midst of the most challenging moments of our lives.  Faith is for the deep valleys as much as the green pastures.  We may not have the answers but we know that God dwells with us and in us.

And seventh the Lord’s Prayer tells us how the story ends, how this life is to be lived and lived well.  “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and for ever.  Amen”.

The prayer returns as it begins to the praise and glory of the living God.  Our hearts return to their origin and source, the one who created us.  Life is to be lived to God’s praise and glory, not to satisfy our own small desires.  We are beings with a higher calling and a greater purpose.

There are only 63 words in the Lord’s Prayer.  It takes less than a minute to say them.

Yet these words shape our identity, give purpose to our lives, check our greed, remind us of our imperfections, offer a way of reconciliation, build resilience in our spirits and call us to live to the glory of our creator.

No wonder they have been banned in the boardrooms of consumer culture.

+Steven

Note:

This post is based on a sermon given in Peterhouse, Cambridge on Sunday 22 November.

To view the Lord’s Prayer film go to: https://youtu.be/vlUXh4mx4gI

To view the Just Prayer website go to: justpray.uk

For the Pilgrim Course on the Lord’s Prayer see: http://www.pilgrimcourse.org/

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The Touchstones of Prayer

In his book ‘Prayer – Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God’ Tim Keller journeys from theory towards practice, and about halfway through he draws breath (actually quite a long breath) to summarise what he has considered so far. So with the approach of the summer break I thought it would be a good idea to do likewise.
Keller calls the summary of his received learning on prayer ‘touchstones’ – things that test the purity and genuineness and purity of prayer. He lists 12 Touchstones (which I quote below), dividing them into 4 categories.
Let us consider these touchstones as a means of a reminder and refresher on some of the things we have talked about and learnt so far. And as we read through them it might be a good idea to think and about which of these touchstones has impacted and shaped your own prayer.

PRAYER

WHAT IT IS
Work – Prayer is duty and discipline
We are called to pray at least daily whether we feel like it or not!
We often wrestle in prayer just to concentrate or stay awake!
For everyone prayer will at times (if not all the time) be struggle and need perseverance.

Word – Prayer is conversing with God
God speaks to us through His scriptures.
Through Jesus we have had restored to us the most precious thing – free communication with God.

Balance – Prayer is adoration, confession, thanks, and supplication
The Lord’s Prayer demonstrates different forms. Each of these – adoration, confession, thanks and supplication informs and stimulates the other.

WHAT IT REQUIRES
Grace – Prayer is “in Jesus’ name,’ based on the gospel
We can only come before our heavenly Father because of the costly grace of the Son.
The gospel allows us to pray to our heavenly Father, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit.

Fear – Prayer is the heart engaged in loving awe
We must remember that drawing close to God could be lethal! Moses wanted to see God’s glory but God said it would kill him. Therefore, prayer in Jesus name is an astonishing privilege and right.

Helplessness – Prayer is accepting one’s weakness and dependence
Prayer and helplessness must be inseparable.
We cannot truly pray until we count ourselves desolate to the world.

WHAT IT GIVES
Perspective – Prayer reorients your view toward God
Prayer brings God back into view in our lives.
Ps73:17-20 ‘I discerned their end’ when ‘I went into the sanctuary.’

Strength – Prayer is spiritual union with God
Prayer is the way to spiritual energy.
Prayer is one of the ways to abide in the vine (Jn15)
Prayer is the way in which truth is worked into your heart creating new instincts and dispositions.

Spiritual reality – Prayer seeks a heart sense of the presence of God
Through prayer our abstract knowledge of God becomes a knowing of God Himself.
In prayer we can come into the presence of God.

WHERE IT TAKES US
Self-Knowledge – Prayer requires and creates honesty and self-knowledge
The confession required in true prayer uncovers our inward attitudes.
In order to know God better we need to know ourselves better – ‘woe to me for I am a man of unclean lips.’

Trust – Prayer requires and creates both restful trust and confident hope
We wrestle and work in prayer but our prayers need to always conclude with ‘but thy will be done.’

Surrender – Prayer requires and creates surrender of the whole life to God
Prayer requires us to make the decision that God is actually God, and that God is actually our God.
Ultimately it is God Himself who is the answer to our prayers.

Learning to Pray: Part 8 – The Lord’s Prayer

Tim Keller describes the Lord’s Prayer as the ultimate masterclass in prayer. He says that Augustine, Luther and Clavin’s teachings on prayer all come from their understanding of Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Matt6:9-13.
It is quite possible that the Lord’s prayer is the most recited and well known passage of all scripture. One person in a church gathering only needs to say ‘Our Father….’ and everyone around them will almost certainly join in automatically reciting the rest of the prayer (with the slight hesitation when people wonder whether to say ‘thy’ or ‘your’ and ‘trespasses’ or ‘sins’). The prayer is well known but how well do we know the prayer? As ever the danger of familiarity is that we know something so well it no longer speaks to us or has any real meaning to us! My hope is that we can come to this great ‘masterclass’ afresh, defamiliarising the prayer so that it impacts us anew.

Before we look at the prayer itself it is helpful to note that Luther and Calvin both advocate taking the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern for our prayers rather than simply a set of words we recite. This is not to say that it is wrong to recite the Lord’s Prayer as it is written in scripture! But to consider the Lord’s Prayer as something much bigger, something that is stamped on all our prayers, shaping and guiding them as we freely paraphrase and personalise the words Jesus gave us.


Let us look at the Lord’s Prayer line by line and take time to consider:

  • What does it mean?
  • What is it’s significance?
  • What is it saying and what are we praying when we say it?
  • How does it shape our prayers?
  • How can we pray this without just reciting the words?

After each line of the prayer I will offer a short summary drawn from Augustine, Luther and Calvin’s thoughts on the prayer as found in Keller’s book. This is in no way to provide the ‘right answers’, but to share the thoughts of great men of God that will either enhance or affirm your own thoughts on the different elements of the prayer.

Our Father who art in heaven

Calvin says that to call God Father is to pray in Jesus’ name: ‘Who would break forth into such rashness as to claim for himself the honour of a son of God unless we have been adopted as children of grace in Christ?’
Luther says we should start by asking God to ‘implant in our hearts a comforting trust in your fatherly love.’ (It is interesting to note that rather than just seeing ‘Our Father…’ as a form of address to God Luther sees it as well as a prayer for ourselves to receive God’s grace and accept again His fatherly love.)

Hallowed be thy name

Luther says that all baptised Christians have put God’s name upon themselves and so this is a prayer to keep us from dishonouring God’s name.
Augustine and Luther both say that this also speaks that God would ‘be glorified among all nations as you are glorified among us.’ In essence then it is a request that faith in God would spread throughout the world.
Calvin agrees but adds that to ‘hallow’ God’s name is not merely to live a righteous life but to have grateful joy towards God.

Thy kingdom come

Calvin believed that God’s kingdom comes in two ways: through the Spirit, who ‘corrects our desires,’ and through the Word of God, which ‘shapes our thoughts.’ This view sees the coming kingdom as something whereby the Lordship of Jesus extends over every area of our individual lives.
Luther has an outward and future dimension. God’s reign on earth is only partial at the moment but will come in completeness in the future. The hope we have in Christ is that there will be an end to all suffering, injustice, poverty and death in the age to come. To pray ‘thy kingdom come’ is to ‘yearn for that future life’ – come quickly Lord Jesus!

Thy will be done 

Luther paraphrases this line like this: ‘Grant us grace to bear willingly all sorts of sickness, poverty, disgrace, suffering, and adversity and to recognise that in this your divine will is crucifying our will.’ This is no small thing to pray! Keller goes on to link this with the first line of the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Unless we are profoundly certain God is our Father, we will never be able to say ‘thy will be done.” To pray ‘thy will be done’ is to be fully confident of our relationship as children of a loving heavenly father. It is a prayer of absolute trust.
Luther adds that without this trust in God we will try and take the place of God and seek to take matters here on earth into our own hands. In praying ‘thy will be done’ we are protected from seeking revenge on others or trying to control situations.
Calvin says that to pray ‘thy will be done’ is to submit our feelings as well as our wills to God so that whatever happens to us we do not become despondent, bitter or hardened.

On earth as it is in heaven

For some unexplained reason Keller does not address this line in his book, maybe because the trio of theologians don’t address it individually themselves – I don’t know!! But I feel it is worth reflecting on. For me this line is a great prayer of hope. Earth is where we are and where there currently is brokenness, sin and death. Heaven is where God is and where His rule is complete. Instead of us escaping this broken earth and asking to go to heaven this line speaks something of the idea of heaven coming to earth and the rule of God coming completely (as we have already mentioned) to the world we currently live in.

Give us this day our daily bread

Augustine reminds us that ‘daily bread’ is a way of speaking of necessities rather than luxuries. As we have looked at previously he sees Prov30:8 as an expansion of this verse: ‘Give me neither poverty (lest I resent you) or riches (lest I forget you).’
Luther sees a social aspect to this prayer. In his thinking if everyone is to get their daily bread then there needs to be a thriving economy, good employment, and just society. In short to pray ‘give us all our daily bread’ is a prayer for justice.

Forgive us our trespasses/sins/debts as we forgive those who trespass/sin/are in debt against us

Luther thinks that this prayer will help those who insist on their own goodness and urges them to seek God’s forgiveness. Through it this kind of person (ie all of us!!) he says ‘He will find he is no better than others and that in the presence of God everyone must duck his head and come into the joy of forgiveness only through the door of humility.’
Calvin says ‘If we retain feelings of hatred in our hearts…….. we entreat God not to forgive our sins.’ in this line Jesus tightly links our relationship with God to our relationship with others. Unresolved bitterness is a sign we are not right with God!

(A number of different translations are known for this line which I think helps broaden and enrich our understanding of forgiveness.)

Lead us not into temptation

Augustine makes it clear that ‘The prayer is not that we should not be tempted, but that we should not be brought into temptation.’ Temptation itself is an inevitable part of life in this fallen world, we are all tempted and that won’t change. The prayer is that we won’t ‘enter into temptation’ ie that we won’t entertain and consider the prospect of giving in to sin.
Calvin lists two categories of temptation that come to us from the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ referring to the temptations that prosperity and adversity bring. He speaks of this prayer as something that keeps us centred on trusting in God.

Deliver us from evil

Luther writes that this petition is ‘directed against specific evils that emanate from the devil’s kingdom…. poverty, dishonour, death, in short…. everything that threatens bodily welfare.’
Augustine says that lead us not into temptation is a petition for deliverance from the remaining evil inside us and deliver us from evil is for protection from the evil forces that exist outside us who wish to do us harm.

For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever

This line isn’t referred to by Augustine and Luther, simply because it didn’t exist in the early manuscripts of the bible or in the Latin Vulgate (common) translation. However, Calvin believes it is a very appropriate way to close the prayer. Having started the prayer with God as our central focus, and then moved on to our own weaknesses and needs, we finally return to God’s complete fullness – His is the kingdom, power and glory!

Learning to Pray: Part 7 – More Calvin on Prayer

Before we start let us consider a phrase that we have heard and spoken in our prayers countless times: “In Jesus’ name, Amen”.

  • What does it mean to pray “In Jesus’ name”?
  • And what does it do to God when we pray “In Jesus’ name”?
  • Do we have to actually say ‘In Jesus’ name’ to be praying in Jesus’ name?

Having set out rules on prayer Calvin goes on to speak of another rule, which is a rule of grace. God hears our prayers purely because of His grace and not because we make ourselves worthy of being heard by following a set of rules. Access to God through prayer is not something earned by our effort but received as a gift. Just as it is true in scripture it is true here as well that the rule of grace doesn’t mean that the other rules are overturned or nullified. Keller says it is ‘only when we see we cannot keep the rules, and need God’s mercy, can we become people who begin to keep the rules.’ Keller goes on to describe how these rules work by aligning our prayers more and more with who God really is. The conclusion is that, as we come to the place of understanding that our prayers are heard only because of God’s grace we start to understand the meaning of what it is to pray ‘in Jesus’ name.’ If we believe we can have our prayers heard and answered because of our own merit or effort we are actually praying ‘in our own name’ – ‘hear me Lord because I’m such a great person and am following all (well nearly all) the rules!’ To pray ‘in Jesus’ name’ is to come before God trusting solely in Jesus for our salvation and nothing else. It is to remember again that in and through Jesus we come before God as His children. Regardless of how scruffy or dirty we may appear, in Jesus we are children of the Father.

Jesus speaks a number of times in The gospel of John about praying in His name, and we’ll focus on one of them now. Read Jn15:1-17

  • What is/are the overarching theme/s of this passage?
  • How does this passage bring together the idea of grace and following rules/commands?
  • What do we receive from this passage that gives us confidence to pray in Jesus’ name?

To pray in Jesus’ name requires us to be ‘in Jesus’, to abide in Him. We cannot be outside of Christ and pray in His name. To be ‘in Christ’ gives us the capability to pray in his name, not on our merits but only on the merits of Jesus Himself. Jn15:16 gives us great confidence in this outrageous grace of God – we didn’t choose Him but He chose us – God’s choosing of us is His grace to us.
This understanding brings us to the same conclusion that we came to at the end of the last blog post, in that we are to pray confidently and humbly at the same time. Confident that God hears and answers our prayers and humble because we ask for God’s will not ours. Confident that we are heard ‘in Christ’, chosen in Him to bear fruit and humble because it is only by God’s grace, and nothing of our own making, that we can come before God.

So PRAY in Jesus’ name, Amen!!

Learning to Pray: Part 6 – Calvin on Prayer

Calvin set out ‘rules for prayer’ in his work Institutes of the Christian Religion.
His first rule for prayer was that we must have a sense of reverence of God. ‘We must come to prayer ‘so moved by God’s majesty’ that we are ‘freed from earthly cares and affections.”
His second rule was the need for a spiritual humility. Calvin warned against the idea that prayer is a way of impressing God with our own godliness. Instead he urges us to acknowledge our own sinfulness – we are all human and are therefore inclined to wilfully do wrong! Unless we acknowledge this Calvin says we live in ‘unreality’. ‘Unreal’ prayer is when we live in self righteousness, blaming others for everything and never taking responsibility for things ourselves. However, true prayer grows as we grow in confession and repentance.

I have only briefly outlined Calvin’s first two rules as it is his third and forth rules that most captured my attention.
His third rule was that we should pray with a submissive trust of God ie ‘Thy will be done’. And his forth rule was that we should pray with confidence and hope  ie that we have a sure hope that our prayers are not only heard but also answered.
If you consider these two rules together – ‘not my will but Yours be done‘ and ‘hear my prayer, these are my requests, I know you will answer‘ – then you will see that they appear to be almost contradictory and Calvin agrees that this is indeed how it may appear! However, Calvin argues that these two rules are actually complementary rather than contradictory. James4:2 teaches that we ‘have not because we ask not’ and from this it would appear that there are things God will not give us unless we ask Him for them through prayer. But, if we are honest we must admit that our desires and prayer requests are flawed and limited, and the world would definitely be a worse place if God granted every single one of our requests! However, by holding these two rules of prayer together we can know this: ‘God will not give us anything contrary to his will, and that will always include what is best for us in the long run. We can, therefore, pray with confidence because he won’t give us everything we want.’ (Keller)
Our prayers will always be a mixture of faith and error, a combination of His will and our will, but this doesn’t mean that they cancel themselves out! Keller says ‘Ask with confidence and hope. Don’t be afraid that you will ask for the wrong thing. Of course you will! God ‘tempers the outcome’ with his incomprehensible wisdom. Cry, ask and appeal – you will get many answers. Finally, where you do not get an answer, or where the answer is not what you want, use prayer to enable you to rest in his will.’


From my experience most people have a tendency towards either the 3rd or 4th or Calvin’s rules on prayer but not both at the same time. What I mean is that some people will focus on the ‘not my will but yours be done’ way of praying and others will focus on the ‘pray it all into being through faith’ type of prayer.

  • Which rule do you think you tend towards in your prayer life?
  • How can you bring balance to the way you pray without watering down the humility, intent or fervour of your prayers?
  • Consider how God not giving us everything we want can give us greater boldness in our prayers.
  • Consider how this way of thinking can help us appreciate how God answers the many different prayers, from many different people about one situation. (For example the diversity of prayers that people pray for a nation around election time or the many ‘opinions’ in prayer that may exist when praying for justice in a complex and complicated situation.)

 

Learning to Pray: Part 5 – Luther on Prayer

Having looked at Augustine, Tim Keller moves on to focusing on some of the writings of Martin Luther on prayer. Apparently Luther spent at least 3 hours a day in prayer and so was a practitioner as well as a preacher on the subject! A man named Peter Beskendorf, who was Luther’s barber, asked him for a simple way to pray. Beskendorf had an interesting life story – having drunk too much he stabbed his son in law to death at a family meal! He escaped execution but was instead exiled and endured (unsurprisingly) difficulty in his final years. Luther’s response to his request for a way to pray is regarded as one of the greatest writings on prayer in Christian history.

Luther starts by advising that prayer needs to developed as something of a habit through regular discipline. His recommendation was that it should be the ‘first business of the morning and the last at night’. He believed prayer to be a command (alongside not to kill, not to steal etc) that we should do whether we felt like or not.

As we have already begun to explore (in Part 3), Luther understood prayer to be a response to God’s words. He advised preparation for prayer by reciting, as a form of meditation or contemplation, a familiar passage of scripture. The aim being for our thoughts and feelings to converge on God. He says ‘I want your heart to be stirred and guided…… rightly warmed and inclined toward prayer.’ Reading scripture in this way means it isn’t just read as a theoretical truth, but is also rightly received as living truth, causing us to question what the words are actually doing to us and in us. Tim Keller suggests that this isn’t exactly bible study and neither is it exactly prayer. He calls it ‘thinking in the presence of God – meditation.’
(I personally am finding this way of ‘thinking in the presence of God’ very freeing as it takes me away from the practice of prayer as a list of things that have to be ticked off, and the feeling like every prayer has to ‘achieve’ something.)

Having advocated that we learn to hear and respond to the voice of God through His word Luther goes on to speak of learning to hear and respond to the preaching of the Holy Spirit. As we pray Luther says we should keep a lookout for the the Holy Spirit. If, while we are praying ‘an abundance of good thoughts comes to us, listen in silence, and under no circumstances obstruct them. The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is better than a thousand of our prayers. Many times I have learned more from one prayer than I might have learned from much reading and speculation.’
There is a fantastic and rare balance in Luther’s teaching on prayer. He fully expects us to hear God speak through His word. But this doesn’t mean that meditation is just a practice of the mind, he also expects that the Holy Spirit will speak to us and fill our hearts with thoughts and ideas. Prayer is a response to God’s Word and Spirit, it involves heart and mind.


 

Take some time to put some of Luther’s ideas into practice.
Find a passage of scripture – a psalm or parable etc – and read it through/out a few times.
Give the words space: consider what they say to us and what they do in us. Then pray!
All the while lookout for what the Holy Spirit is saying. Is He focusing your heart on particular words, thoughts, ideas? Then listen. Then Pray!

Learning to Pray: Part 4 – Augustine on Prayer

Up until now I’ve been drawing many of my thoughts from Tim Keller’s book ‘Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God’, and I continue to do so. However, in the book Keller himself takes time to expand ideas he has gleaned from the likes of Augustine, Luther and Calvin, and so in this post I will be quoting bits of Augustine although I’ve never actually read his works myself!

Augustine lived from 354-430AD and is regarded as the greatest theologian of the first millennium. He wrote numerous letters (and I’m sure he would have blogged had he lived today!) and amongst them are a couple of letters to a woman called Anicia Faltonia Proba, the first of which is all about prayer. Proba had written to Augustine because she was worried she wasn’t praying as she should and Augustine’s response was very practical. The background behind this letter seems to illustrate that, whilst prayer might be something that is almost instinctive in the sense that we all have the sense and urge to pray in some way, prayer is something that is learnt and taught. As we looked at last week, our prayers are in response to God’s words, but also our prayers are shaped by what we hear our Christian brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, teachers and mentors pray.

  • So before we go any further take a moment to reflect on some of the practical things you’ve learnt about prayer. Who taught you and how were they taught?

Augustine said that before you start thinking about the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of prayer you must consider your place in God’s creation. ‘You must account yourself ‘desolate’ in this world, however great the prosperity of your lot may be.’ What he was saying was that no matter how well off you may appear to be in your worldly position and circumstances count yourself as empty except for the riches of God Himself. This is to take on the perspective that the things of this world are passing and fleeting and ultimately worthless, whilst God Himself endures forever and is most precious (Is40). If we don’t do this our outlook on life will be that of a reliance on the stuff of this world, and when that stuff disappears or changes (which it always will) our prayers will simply be cries to God for him to gain it back for us.
Once we have established in our hearts that we are actually desolate apart from Jesus then, says Augustine, we can begin to pray! Believe it or not he then suggests that what we pray for is, of all things, ‘a happy life’! But having listened to what Augustine has already said we realise that ‘a happy life’ isn’t connected with things and circumstances of this world, these only bring passing fulfilment. Instead he guides us to Ps27:4 – ‘One thing I have desired of the Lord, one thing I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord to behold the beauty of the Lord.’ The basic prayer for our own happiness then is one which seeks God for who He is Himself! This isn’t to say we shouldn’t pray for our practical needs, the Lord’s prayer is explicit in asking ‘give us this day our daily bread’, but that our highest pleasure and happiness comes alone from God Himself.
Augustine goes to Proverbs 30:7-9 as an illustration of how we can pray ‘give us this day our daily bread’ in the context of ‘accounting ourselves desolate to the world’:
‘Give me neither poverty nor riches: Feed me with food appropriate for me lest I be full and deny… or lest I be poor, and steel and take the name of my God in vain.’
To pray Prov30:7-9 is to pray like this:
‘Give me all I need, but not so much that I become reliant on what you have given me rather than reliant on You.
Give me all I need, and not too little so that I become bitter towards you.
Give me all I need to always put You first in my life.
Ultimately what I most need is you Jesus.


 

  • How do we feel about the idea of considering ourselves ‘desolate in this world’?
    • Have we approached prayer in this way before?
    • What are the implications of viewing our place in creation like this? Does it change the way we view the ‘things’ of this world that we do have?
  • What kind of situations and circumstances test the reality of where we put our ultimate trust?
    • Think of examples where you have realised that something or someone has been a priority in your life ahead of the Lord.
    • Have your prayers changed and evolved as a result of this realisation.
  • Is it surprising to you that, having started with these, ideas Augustine goes on to encourage us to pray for a ‘happy life’?
    • Let us be honest and consider what we really think makes for a happy life! Or turn the question round and consider what makes for an unhappy life?
  • Augustine leads us to the idea that God Himself is our highest pleasure and happiness. What does this mean in reality?!
    • Does this mean happiness is purely a spiritual condition or is there something tangible we can experience of it in the world we live in?
    • How do we practically live in this knowing of God and the happiness it brings.
  • Take a few moments to read and reflect on Prov30:7-9. Discuss it, ponder it and then pray!