Since the protests, riots, and looting that erupted in South Africa last week, I have seen a number of people posting various “Pray for South Africa” graphics on their Facebook pages and timelines. I support these calls to prayer, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of prayer people are referring to.

We may not like to think too much about it, but prayer is a complex thing. As I mentioned in last week’s blog (Living in Interesting Times) God doesn’t seem to be doing much to answer all these prayers (again, depending on how we view God and prayer). Which begs the question: in times of turmoil what is the role of prayer? What do we believe we’re actually doing and what results do we expect?

PROBLEMATIC PRAYER

In my Christian upbringing and experience prayer has always been somewhat problematic for me. I have long been disturbed by testimonies of answered prayers for healing, provision, or guidance, while others who prayed just as fervently received nothing. I am confused by the unspoken belief that if we just get enough people together then God will have to answer our prayer, but if we fail to reach whatever that unknown magic number is then no answers are guaranteed. And I’ve been deeply unsettled by the sense that some people’s prayers are more important than those of others.

A few years ago a woman from a congregation where I was the senior minister asked me to pray for someone. She informed me that a lot of people had already been praying, and then said, “But we know that your prayers are special.” I was horrified that there are still people who believe that God listens to some people more than others.

When I listen to a lot of the prayers that happen in so-called ‘prayer meetings’ and when I examine my own habits of prayer, developed over years of Christian teaching and training, I often get the feeling that prayer is seen as a way to twist God’s arm so that God will actually do something. The underlying sense for me is that God is a rather reluctant deity who needs to be persuaded to act on our behalf and will only do so if our prayers are accompanied by sufficient faith and enough people joining in. I can’t help but feel that this is both a problematic view of God and a problematic view of prayer.

ANOTHER WAY OF PRAYING

I am not sure that the way we pray is what the Bible intends. We are told that various people prayed for this or that and it happened. But we aren’t given the specifics of their words or actions, or how, in practical terms, what they asked for came to be. We are told that Jesus prayed, but most of the prayers where Jesus’ words are actually recorded seem to be directed more at the people around him than at God. And again the specifics of Jesus’ prayer practice are frustratingly absent.

Two short passages in the New Testament have challenged me and shaped my evolving view of prayer. The first is in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:21. A few verses after the famous call to ask, seek, and knock, Jesus says this, “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.” (CEB). Remembering that the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not referring to life after death, but a life before death aligned with the values and priorities of God. Jesus seems to be saying that prayer—asking, seeking, and knocking—is about more than just saying, “Lord, Lord.” Rather it is in some way connected with what we do and how we live—what Jesus calls ‘doing the will of my Father.’

The second passage that informs my view of prayer is 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which says simply, “Pray continually.” If prayer is something we say then it is impossible for us to fulfil this instruction. But if prayer is something we become then prayer without ceasing is very much a possibility.

PRACTICAL PRAYER

These two passages give me a glimpse of a way of praying that is practical and that avoids the contradictions mentioned above. Rather than talking to God or trying to coerce God to do our bidding, prayer must be more related to how we live. As Matthew Fox writes in his book Prayer: a Radical Response to Life (affiliate link) (Previously titled On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear) “To do the will of his Father is to do the truth: to live out ‘justice, mercy, good faith.’” He quotes Kierkegaard who says, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one that offers it.”

So in the light of this, what does it mean to “Pray for South Africa” (or any other country, person or situation)? It means to seek to connect with the will of God, to discern how the values and priorities of the Reign of God (summarised as love and justice) are at work. Then it means to allow those values and priorities to shape the way we act, speak, think and relate to others. It is to make love and justice the framework within which we make decisions, evaluate the actions and words of our leaders, and vote when the time comes. It is to seek to participate in the Divine process of evolution that is moving the world (and the universe) forward into ever-deepening connection, compassion, and contribution.

When we pray in this way, then it really does mean that our whole lives become our prayer and we truly do pray continually. And this is the kind of prayer that we so desperately need in South Africa in the light of the tremendous challenges facing us.

WHERE WORDS FIT IN

I must confess that at times I have been guilty of completely rejecting spoken prayers. I have struggled with the anthropomorphic view of God that spoken prayer can sometimes imply. I have refused to engage what I have felt is an attempt to convince God that I deserve God’s help.

But I have come to believe that there is value in expressing prayers in words. I have learned that I can never really free myself from the urge to speak prayers out when I’m struggling or faced with great beauty and wonder. And I’ve begun to interrogate this instinct. Perhaps some of it is just habit formed over years of religious observance. Perhaps some of it arises from a need to feel that I am connected and engaged with the Divine presence (even though I no longer view God in personal or anthropomorphic terms).

But I also believe that the words that I speak in these unguarded, heartfelt moments reveal the truth of my attitudes, emotions, and desires. Sometimes I am surprised by what I find myself saying in these spoken ‘prayers’ and I discover truths about my soul that were previously hidden to me. And sometimes I gain insights into the situation I find myself praying for that I may not have seen in other ways. Perhaps it’s because I tend to think out loud, or maybe it’s got something to do with speech engaging a different part of my brain. And maybe in some way, I am being connected with a consciousness bigger than my own. I don’t need to define it. I just need to recognise that there is value in praying like this too.

WHAT DOES PRAYER MEAN FOR YOU?

When we let go of prayer as a way to change God and get God to act, then it opens up all sorts of possibilities. This doesn’t mean that we have to stop saying prayers, but it does mean that prayer becomes more than just saying prayers. It means that it shapes who we are until we become a prayer. And who we become then reveals whether our prayers are effective in aligning us with God’s values or not.

As you read this, what response is happening in you? What thoughts arise? What emotions are you aware of? What do you feel in your body? What would you add to this reflection on prayer? What do you see differently? What would you want to take out of this post?

Feel free to share your perspectives and experiences in the comments below and let’s work on deepening our prayer practice together!

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