Last night I attended an interfaith event at our church called “Prayer in a Time of Peril” in which Christians from a broad spectrum of Christianity (Mormons to Presbyterians to Catholics) and Muslims came together to discuss this spiritual practice common to us all.
Many marvelous insights were shared, and it was wonderful evening. Meanwhile, although there was no claim to it being a comprehensive treatment of the subject (in an hour! Ha!), there was a dimension to prayer that I felt missed mention.
Implicit in much of prayer is the idea that somehow we are “changing God’s mind”. That He wasn’t planning on healing Aunt Beth, but we prayed fervently, and God was persuaded to intervene.
First of all, I’m not sure we always know for what to ask, or have any clue what the best answer to prayer looks like (see this parable). But more than that, I wonder: Generally speaking, if anyone’s mind needs changing around here, won’t it be mine and not God’s?
To me that is perhaps the greatest importance of prayer: that by engaging in a dialog (yes, two way — more on that in a moment) I come to see His side of the issue. And become better at remembering that He is always already part of every situation. So I don’t lapse into some self-centered notion that God is my ‘Vending Machine in the Sky’. That I never forget that my relationship with God is more like a dance, with me in Her embrace, in which He leads and I follow, yet we are also ‘partners’.
One way prayer can be a ‘dialog’ is to spend time in prayer trying to imagine the situation from God’s perspective. In that imaginal openness, the Holy Spirit has every opportunity to show me aspects that I never would have considered on our own.
For example, in times of great personal challenge I have (naturally) prayed fervently for the challenge to be lifted. But generally it wasn’t — I had to slog through to some sort of conclusion seemingly on my own. But in hindsight I can see that the challenge was an important opportunity for growth, especially spiritual growth. Would miraculous intervention really have been the best thing for me long term? Perhaps not. For those of us who are parents, is it always in the best interests of our children to remove obstacles from their paths?
I’m reminded of caterpillars, for whom the struggle to escape from the cocoon is essential in their transformation into butterflies. That if they are ‘assisted’ (by cutting the cocoon open for them, for example), the squeezing and pushing necessary for their transformation won’t happen and they die.
And so, for example, we have the petition in the very Lord’s Prayer itself: “Lead me not into temptation.”
The Greek word translated here by ‘temptation’ is πειρασμός (PEIRASMOS), which has the connotation of putting someone or something to the test. So I wonder if — should one be brave enough — one might ask instead “Lead me into challenges that will make me grow, but which are still within my ability to meet.”
I am reminded of what must be the most impassioned prayer in the Bible: Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, facing crucifixion, praying “If it be possible let this cup pass from me. Yet not my will, but thine be done.” 1
Meanwhile, sometimes God does heal Aunt Beth.