Essay Approaching the Infinite and the Intimate


A lot of ink has been spilled on the topic of prayer. Currently, if you search Amazon Books for "Christian Prayer", Amazon will present you with over 55,000 possible results, a number that increases to over 96,000 if you take out the word "Christian." Everyone is interested in prayer. Many of those books share similar ideas, quote similar passages from the Bible, and give similar advice, but I think it is probably a safe assumption that within that massive list there are thousands of different definitions of prayer and thousands of different suggestions as to how we should approach God in prayer.

Given the massive amount of material available, a person could easily get lost trying to get prayer "right." So, I would like to set those 55,000 books aside for a moment and ask a really simple, fundamental question: What is prayer?

I'm not asking for another definition. I'm asking, at the most basic level, what is it?

The entire Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, is a long story about how God pursues people. And in that story of pursuit, God is always the first to move. John stated it as clearly as anyone ever could, "We love him because he first loved us." People are the recipients of what God has done. God creates, and we exist. God speaks, and we listen. God reveals the corruption in the world, and we confess our sin. God loves, and we are saved. God acts first.

That means that at the most fundamental level prayer is always a response. It might be a response to our sense that God is present, or it might be a response to our sense that God is absent. It might be our way of responding to his justice, his mercy, his love, or his wrath. It might be a response to the claim that he can heal us or that he can free us from our circumstances. We might even pray simply because we believe he has told us to. Regardless of our reasons for praying, genuine prayer is always a response to God.

But that leads us to another big question: What kind of a god are we responding to?

For those of us who have been Christians for a long time that may sound like a ridiculous question, but it's an incredibly important question, because what we believe about people determines how we respond to them, and what we believe about God will determine how we pray, or if we even bother to pray at all.

Recently, an older gentlemen and I were having coffee, and he made the following suggestion: "The entire Bible is a commentary on the first three chapters of Genesis." I agreed with him, but when it comes to questions about God, I think we should be particularly interested in the first two chapters of Genesis.

Our scripture begins with Genesis 1:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good...

Adults don't read Genesis enough, and when we do, it's often for the purpose of scientific debate. But if we only read these chapters when we have a problem with something scientists are telling us, we've missed the point. These passages are not about us. They're not scientific treatises. They're inspired statements about the god to whom we pray. This opening passage, in particular, is about a god who sees nothing but chaos out in front of him. There's formlessness; everything is a void. There's darkness everywhere. But he does something about it. He speaks, and order comes from chaos, light is produced from darkness, and the meaningless void becomes something good.

God is presented in this passage as a god of supreme power, a god who produces good things - a god who can repair the void in your life with a single word. This god, however, stands apart from his creation. He creates the universe with his voice, from a distance. As the psalms and the prophets tell us over and over again, his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. He's bigger than we are. His power extends beyond the universe, which scientists tell us is still visible from the earth 46 billion light years away. Theologians, pastors, and writers throughout history have referred to this aspect of God as his "otherness." He's different than we are.

I think Mr. Beaver says it best in The Chronicles of Narnia. Susan and Lucy, two of the four children who entered the enchanted land, are speaking with the Beaver family about Aslan, and they ask if he is a man:

Mr. Beaver: Aslan a man? Certainly not. I tell you, he is the king of the woods...Aslan is

a lion - the lion, the great lion.

Susan: Ohhh! I'd thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous

about meeting a lion.

Mrs. Beaver: That you will dearie, and make no mistake, if there's anyone who can

appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver

than most or else just silly.

Lucy: Then he isn't safe?

Mr. Beaver: Safe? Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being

safe? Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king, I tell you.

God is good, as the saying goes, but we should never forget that he isn't safe, and he certainly is not a man. He's not like us. He's "other." As the Celtic poet, John O'Donahue has suggested, "If we had an absolute meeting with God, our consciousness could never survive it... There is a certain sense of danger and adventure about God." So, when we pray we are responding to a wild, untamable god who, as Isaiah told the Israelites, is higher than anything we can imagine. And practically speaking, this means that our life of prayer should be characterized by humility and reverence.

I cringe when Christians, of all people, pray like they have God figured out, like he's a vending machine and if we punch the right numbers and drop in the right coins we get what we want. There are stories in the Bible about people who think they can tame God. Those stories never end well. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't petition God for the things we need, for healing, or for our concerns, but we should remember that God is different from us. He thinks differently than we do. He's bigger than our church, and he's bigger than our denomination. We could be wrong about many things. So with humility, we ought to pray as Jesus did in the garden, "Take this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done."

If we are really humble, reverence should come easy to us in our moments of prayer. I don't think our knees should knock every time we speak to God, but I do think we ought to respect the one to whom we are praying. Respect, of course, looks different in different cultures, and most churches today contain multiple sub-cultures that cross ethnic, regional, and age based thresholds, so reverence will not always look the same. We dress differently, act differently, and speak differently, so we will pray differently, but however we do it, we have to do it with reverence. The Apostle Paul warned the Galatians that God will not be mocked. We will reap what we sow.

Genesis 1 is powerful, but it doesn't stand alone. Genesis 2 describes God as well:

...Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed in his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had till it and keep it.

The second chapter of Genesis provides us with another way to understand God. Instead of a supremely powerful, distant God who creates with his words, God and his creation are intimate in this passage. The language in this chapter suggests that we ought to use our imagination as the story is told. We imagine God scooping up the earth and carefully shaping it into a human being, exactly as he wants it to be. When his project is finished, he shares his own breath - his own life - with it. Then, he gives it a divine task. This image of God is so beautiful and so profound that Jesus echoes it in John 20 immediately following his resurrection. The disciples are still in the upper room, afraid and confused - lifeless - and just as God breathed life into mankind, so Jesus breathes purpose, meaning, life, and power into his followers. And just as God instructed the man with whom he had shared his life to tend the Garden of Eden, so Jesus instructs the people with whom he shares his life to tend to one another, as well as the broken world around them.

From this Genesis 2 perspective, God is closer to us than we are even aware. The Apostle Paul told the Colossians that all things are held together in him. And a few hundred years later, St. Augustine, the famous fourth century theologian, claimed, "God is more intimate to me than I am to myself." God is involved. He works for us, with us, and through us. So, our life of prayer should not only be characterized by humility and reverence but also by our authentic presence and emotional conviction.

I often hear people say that we should be honest with God because he knows everything already, and I agree, but that implies we are doing all the talking, which is not how prayer really works. Sometimes we're supposed to listen. In both cases, we have to learn how to "be present" before God. We have to learn that if we are angry or sad, God needs to be a part of that. And if we are happy and filled with excitement, God needs to be a part of that too. He has shared the breath of life with each of us, and each of us should share our life with him. This is something we have to learn and practice and discuss with one another, because we don't do a very good job in our culture of simply being present with anything or anyone, much less with God. But Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Jesus, Paul, Peter, and many people since them knew how, and it changed their lives.

If we are authentic and present in our life of prayer, our emotional conviction will come naturally. Before I became better acquainted with charismatic Christians, I was highly critical of "emotionalism", as many people are today. And I still think that it can become dangerously self satisfying, but I have also learned that emotional conviction is important. Our feelings can deceive us, but they are powerful motivators and a central part of who we are in any given moment. I believe an intimate creator would wish for his creation to embrace emotional experiences with him, but like reverence, how that happens will vary from person to person, so we have to give one another other plenty of room to let it happen the way it needs to happen.

If we take Genesis 1 and 2 seriously, the god that we respond to is farther away than we can ever imagine but closer than we can ever know. He's supremely powerful but intricately forming us. There's a mystery about him, a paradox. And it is this paradox that makes God everything we've ever needed him to be. There's nothing wrong with books about prayer. There's a little book called Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton that I read every couple of years and another book called The Art of Prayer by Igumen Chariton that I'm working through. They're encouraging and useful. But, they aren't necessary. I often tell my students that if they want to approach something the right way, they need to understand it the right way. And I believe that if we keep the god of Genesis 1 and 2 before us, then we will naturally approach him with humility, reverence, our authentic presence, and emotional conviction. I believe we will each be approaching God as he would have us approach him.

Josh Fraley   # June 21, 2014

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