Of all the Christian practices, the art of prayer has rightly received the bevy of pastoral and theological attention. There is, to be sure, no more remarkable gift to God’s children than the fact that through prayer the Father’s sons and daughters have access to him — access to the Father, to the holiest of all, to the innermost sanctuary where God dwells. Such are the benefits of the gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected and ascended, marked by a torn veil, an open door, and an ever-beating heart. There is now no other way to the Father. That path has been cleared by a truer and better High Priest. No more ritual or sanctimonious rite. Just faith. Faith in his blessed pronouncement that your Advocate has carried your sins as far away from you as the east is from the west. (Ps 103:12)
Such a posture of prayer is far more settled than we often suppose. Perhaps I shouldn’t assume you agree — rather I’ll just confess: sometimes I approach prayer as though I’m wrestling with the will of God, as if I’m pleading with a stubborn deity to bring about certain ends. I’m not sure where that feeling comes from. Maybe it all stems from an aberrant interpretation of one of Jesus’s more curious parables, that of the persistent widow (or “the unjust judge”). (Lk 18:1–8) For my own part, I’ve come to seriously doubt whether that parable is really about “persistent prayer.” Thinking about that parable in those terms, we might come to believe that in order to get blessed by our Father, we just have to pester him enough times before he finally gives in. The resulting lesson, then, becomes more about us than about the One to whom we’re praying in the first place.
Expounding that parable in Luke 18 is beyond the purview of this little blog. (I’ll save that for later.) But I’m glad I’m not alone in this thinking. In fact, the Rev. John Henry Jowett confesses similar notions in a chapter in his commentaries on Peter’s letters. He writes:
Prayer is infinitely more than pleading. I sometimes wish — I say it with the utmost deliberateness — I sometimes wish we could drop the word “plead” quite out of our religious vocabulary. We so frequently pray as though we had got an indifferent and unwilling God with whom we have to plead.1
I, too, think that “pleading with God” has become a very overblown topic of Christian conversation. I sometimes tend to think that those who say that and determine to “do” that really do believe that they have to contend with God in prayer to make certain outcomes real and true for them. But the more I think about it, the more I am sure that that is not true. We’re not the contenders in prayer, God’s spirit is. And the battlefield isn’t God’s unperceived will, it is our faith, which is so often weak and fragile.
You see, like Jowett, I think prayer is much less about pleading than it is about receiving. He continues:
The cardinal necessity in prayer is not pleading but receiving. I do not believe — I say it with a full sense of responsibility — I do not believe we have any more need to plead with god to bless than to plead with the air outside to come into a building. It is not so much pleading that is required as the making of an inlet. God is willing. Prayer is simply communion; the opening up of channels of companionship; the opening out of mind, the opening out of will, in order that into the open mind and will and conscience there may flow the Divine energy and the Divine grace. “Jesus prayed,” and I know that when it is said “Jesus prayed,” it means that He was absolutely open to the infinite. Surely that is the meaning of prayer. When a man prays aright, he is simply opening himself out to the incoming of God. God says: “Behold! I stand at the door and knock; I enshrine and surround you like the atmosphere.” Prayer is conscious receptiveness in the presence of the Divine. Jesus, upon the mountain height, in the evening time prayed, He opened Himself to God, the Infinite, and the Infinite began to possess Him.2
Prayer isn’t the means by which we coerce God into doing a certain something or healing a certain someone, as good and well-intentioned as those petitions are. Prayer is the space in which, through unbridled access, we are brought into communion with the Infinite, with the will of Jehovah himself. Sometimes that means unfortunate ends for things we hoped would come about. Sometimes that means death when we prayed for life. Sometimes (oftentimes) means far different outcomes than we anticipate — and this is not because ours is an indifferent or sadistic or negligent God, but because his will for us and for this world is so vastly different than we presume it to be. Our ideal isn’t, necessarily, his ideal. (Is 55:8–9)
“Prayer, reduced to its essence,” writes Presbyterian minister William James, “is simply this — the groaning of a soul in bondage, its breathing and panting after spiritual liberty.”3 When we pray, we are opening up our soul to the One who knows the ends from the beginning. We are holding out our lives to the One who gave his up for our sake. We don’t plead, we receive. We don’t pray so as to make something happen, or will something to occur. We are, therein, imbued with the Spirit of God to repose upon his sovereign order of all things and all life. And so it is that one of the greatest gifts God gives to his children (access to him in prayer, Rom 5:1) is made possible because of the unspeakable gift of his Son given to us on the cross. (2 Cor 9:15) In prayer, then, we are opening ourselves up to be swept deeper into the heart of God — and what do we find there? We find . . .
A heart of perfect balance and proportion, never overreacting, never excusing, never lashing out. It is a heart that throbs with desired for the destitute. It is a heart that floods the suffering with the deep solace of shared solidarity in that suffering. It is a heart that is gentle and lowly.4
John Henry Jowett, The Epistles of St. Peter (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1906), 255.
William James, Grace for Grace: Letters of Rev. William James, edited by S. W. H. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1875), 217.
Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 99.