What if prayer doesn’t really ‘work’? What if it was never meant to, or at least, not in the way we usually think? What if speaking prayers of supplication is just one small element of a much larger and more significant expression of prayer?
In this week’s episode of the EvoFaith Podcast, we tackle the last letter in the old prayer acronym, ACTS—the ’S’ for supplication. We explore why some of our traditional ideas about supplication aren’t helping us anymore, if they ever were. We go back to the Bible to recover some of what Jesus taught about the practice of spirituality, including prayer. And we are challenged to pray not just in words that ask for things, but in actions of service that change things.
My experience of prayer meetings, of listening to people pray in public, and even my own personal prayer temptations, show me that for most of us, the primary purpose of prayer is to ask for things. We ask for things ourselves—for which the theological word is petition. And we ask for things for others—for which the theological word is intercession. Together, these two kinds of prayers are called ‘supplication’—prayers in which we request God to intervene in our lives and world in some way. And that brings us to the final letter in our prayer acronym, ACTS. We’ve already explored the ‘A’ for adoration, the ‘C’ for confession, and the ’T’ for thanksgiving. So now we come to the ’S’ for supplication—prayers of request, prayers in which we ask for things.
It’s not wrong that we would want to appeal to a God for assistance. But when all we do in prayer is ask for things, we miss the vast richness of the prayer landscape that we could be enjoying. As we’ve seen in the last few weeks, there is far more to prayer than asking for things. And, while we have focussed on prayers that we say, there is still so much more prayer available to us in silence, listening, and action, and reflecting. If we are to ‘pray without ceasing’ as the Scriptures teach, then we cannot limit prayer only to the words that we speak or the requests we express.
There are also some significant temptations when we become fixated on prayer as asking. If all we do is ask, then we risk falling into passivity as we wait for God to answer our prayers. And we risk falling into fatalism when our prayers are not ‘answered’ and we conclude that what we wanted was not ‘God’s will.’ And finally, in our traditional understanding of prayer, we risk our prayer practice falling under the same hypnotic, capitalistic influence that has tainted so many other areas of Christianity in the West. We begin to believe that prayer must ‘work’ and we start to measure prayers—and those who pray them—according to their ‘success rate.’
If our prayer is real—so our thinking goes—and if we are holy, faithful, or spiritual enough, then our prayers should be answered. Those who come to be viewed as successful at prayer in this way are known as ‘prayer warriors.’ And if our prayers fail, we begin to believe that it’s either because we were not good enough for God to hear us, or that there were not enough of us praying to win God’s attention.
A few years ago a prominent South African evangelist very publicly called for one million South Africans to gather together in a single location in one of our bigger cities to pray for our country. Many promises were made about the difference such a large gathering of praying believers would make to our nation. The obvious implication was that God would have to listen and respond to so many people praying all at once. Needless to say, the promises went unfulfilled. But few of those involved seem to have recognised the very flawed view of God and prayer that such a gathering was built on.
It’s in our nature, and it is part of a healthy life and spirituality, that we feel comfortable to express our needs, longings, and desires. It’s also normal and healthy that we should direct our requests to God or the Universe or some other higher power. So I’m not trying to talk you out of offering prayers of supplication. But I do want to suggest that there is a lot more to supplication than just speaking our requests to God. And when we begin to explore this more, we begin to get some idea of why prayer is so hard, complex, and unreliable for most of us.
In the famous parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus shows us the truth about prayer in a rather blunt manner:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Notice that the sheep are praised not for the beauty and quality of their prayers, but because of their loving actions. And the goats are reprimanded not for their failure to pray, but for their failure to act.
The writer of the letter from James expresses the same principle in this passage:
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?
So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.
In authentic, evolutionary spirituality, prayer is not about begging some distant deity to swoop in and save the day. It is not dependent on our capacity to stir up sufficient faith in our hearts, or to gather enough believing friends to join us in prayer.
Evolutionary prayer is less about supplication and more about service, about doing for ‘the least of these’ as Jesus expressed it in his parable. I forget where I first heard this simple but profound principle, but it has remained with me throughout my life: whatever you pray for, be willing to be the answer to your prayer. Be willing—yourself—to be the answer to your prayer
Evolutionary prayer recognises the need—in our own lives and in the lives of others. And it cries out to God for those needs to be met—because we need to express our longings and desires. But then, rather than wait passively for God to intervene, the evolutionary pray-er gets moving to find ways to meet that need. It’s not a lack of faith to seek to be the answer to our own prayers. Rather it is a bold and brave faith response to the Divine Life and Love that is within us and our world. It is a willingness to be a channel of grace. And it is a commitment to make prayer about more than just words.
So, while supplication is the very definition of prayer for many believers, I want to suggest that we need to make the shift from supplication to service. Don’t get me wrong: supplication is an important element of a heathy and creative prayer practice. But if our supplication is only about speaking a few words in the direction of a supernatural Being who is expected to intervene, then we are likely to be disappointed more often than not. And our prayers have little value for anyone but ourselves.
But if our supplications lead us into heartfelt, compassionate service, then prayer becomes something truly transforming and powerful—for us and for our world. As Mother Teresa once said: “I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
In the next episode—and through the next few weeks—we shift to another important practice in Christian spirituality: reading the Bible. We’ll explore what the Bible actually is and how it came into being. And we will investigate how an evolutionary approach can transform and enrich our reading of the Scriptures in deep and profound ways.
If you’ve found this series on prayer meaningful, then I encourage you to sign up for the EvoFaith email list so that you can get all the details for my upcoming free webinar on prayer. We’ll explore a few prayer principles that can revitalise your prayer life after you’ve deconstructed your picture of God. It promises to restore the practice of prayer in your spirituality, regardless of how your view of God has changed and to turn prayer into a life-giving and restorative part of your life.
And don’t forget my spiritual practice guide More Than Words—Living what we pray which offers a reinterpretation of the Lord’s Prayer from a progressive perspective. You can find that at Sacredise.com.
But for now, that’s all I have. Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the sacred. And I’ll catch you next time
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