A quick search supports what a number of commentators have suggested, there are probably more books written on prayer than any other aspect of the Christian life. Yet for many of us, prayer remains a mystery, perhaps even a source of frustration and guilt. This need not be so.
As far as guilt free definitions go, it’s hard to do better than this from Jim Houston: “Prayer is friendship with God.” Isn’t that a refreshingly simple and liberating way to think about it? It’s also very similar to a description given by Clement of Alexandria, writing 1800 years earlier: “Prayer is keeping company with God.” Friendship. Keeping company. Such simple language does not, however, imply a casual attitude towards prayer. Rather it is the result of a life in which everything has been soaked in prayer. Prayer is only ‘simple’ because it is central. Christians are people who pray.
There are many valuable ways to pray, and many traditions of prayer: contemplative, conversational, intercessory, liturgical, scriptural— and many others beside. While they are all helpful, this month we will focus on some traditions less familiar to the members of our church (St Andrew’s Roseville, in the Sydney Anglican Diocese). These styles of prayer are more reflective, listening styles of prayer which sit alongside Christian meditation. Note that prayer and meditation are not the same— even though they are complementary.
Meditation has something of a bad reputation. At best, it’s thought of as a practice for those hyper-devout contemplatives or the slightly strange mystics! At worst, it’s condemned as a heresy better suited to eastern philosophy. But the goal of Christian meditation is not an erasing of our thoughts and emptying of our minds. Instead its goal is to fill our minds and retrain our hearts with biblical truth. This re-ordering, and the stillness that meditation generates, fosters the tranquility of peace with God.
The practices of Christian meditation are very often a preparation and precursor to prayer. Memorising scripture; repeating and absorbing the language, the tone and rhythms, internalise the word of God such that we are formed and ready to pray. More than the athlete’s warm up exercises, meditation is the long-jumper’s run up to the line, the discus thrower’s explosive pivot, or the gymnast’s approach to the vault.
When it comes to prayer, it’s true that the book of James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). As a result, unfortunately, too often we claim license to always jump straight into prayer with our list of frustrations and requests— our vision of a combined Suggestion Box and To-Do-list for God! There’s nothing wrong with prayers of petition but we need to ensure that ours are not a product of greed or guilt, instead of grace. We sometimes forget that James goes on in the following verse to say, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3). Now there are obviously some real complexities around not receiving, and I am not implying that our unanswered prayers are clear evidence of our improper motives. Instead my point is simply that mature Christian prayer rises far above the transactional ‘getting results’.