The Inward Understanding of Prayer

Recently I’ve been reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God and I just started E.M. Bounds Essentials of Prayer. Prayer is an interesting topic on which many great and worthy volumes have been written, each with it’s own approach, conception, and fundamental understanding of the importance of prayer. There are many who believe that prayer exists solely to guide the mind and heart of the believer to God, and that it has no fundamentally real effect on the world outside of the believer. There are others, as I have written about before, who believe that prayer is akin to a magical spell which the believer can use to force God to accede to his wishes. Some believe that prayer is a simple thing, that it is easily pursued and it’s goals are easily obtained. Others argue that prayer requires the absolute and total concentration and devotion of the believer, that a half-hearted or half-minded prayer is utterly worthless, possibly even that God does not hear these prayers in the first place. I think that prayer is all of these things and more.

Prayer is, at its very core, our communication with God. There are times in which our prayers are uttered in confusion. They are half-hearted, half-said, half-meant because we ourselves do not truly know or understand for what we pray. We are easily distracted and often utterly without conviction. We lose ourselves on a daily basis, and must seek God for any hope of finding ourselves again. In these times, we are told by scripture, the Holy Spirit translates our prayers for us. No prayer passes by God unnoticed. No utterance, no matter how confused or insincere, is lost to the rolling tides of time. God knows all, sees all, hears all, and so all prayer is meaningful in that it is communication with God, but this does not mean that God responds in the affirmative to all prayer.

However, any attempt to parse out the prayers that God answers and those that he doesn’t is an exercise in ridiculousness. Who are we, simple and foolish men, to lay out rules upon God. Make no mistake, this is often what we do. We search the scriptures for verses that support our ideas and desires, and then we make those into unbendable sanctions upon the divine. We claim verses from John 15 or Christ’s promises to Peter and make them into manifest laws that, when we pray in a certain way, God must give us what we want. Similarly, we take verses from Paul’s epistles or from James and transform them into unalterable standards that all men must meet for their prayers to reach God’s ears.

I have found that these issues of practical theology are best governed by one simple rule, place not upon God, but upon man’s desire to define things: God is God. He can do whatever he wants.

There is much wisdom concerning prayer in scripture, and many promises concerning the effectual nature of prayer. However, the one thing that we can see both from scripture and from experience is that God does as he desires. Consider the failure of Paul’s prayers to remove his ‘thorn in the flesh’, or the failure of the disciples in casting evil spirits out of a young boy. Even at our best, the understanding of man is utterly and thoroughly limited, and any attempt to understand the power of prayer must begin with an inward conviction that we are not in charge. We do not make the rules, we do not define the standards, we do not tell God how things work or what he is allowed to do.

Instead, we must come to prayer with a humble spirit and a contrite heart, fully aware of our own depravity, and of the eternal grace that God has laid upon us to cover our many sins. We must begin by understanding that prayer, at its core, is communication with God. It is our conversation with a loving, gracious, jealous, wrathful, just (and so much more) father who has the will, the right, and the power to do whatever he desires with and in us, and who loves each of us more than can be understood. Any discussion of prayer must begin with the inward understanding that our first purpose is to glorify him, and the humility to make that purpose our overriding goal. Whatever other intention our prayers might have, this is the core, and when we forget that, then we lose sight of the foundation upon which our lives of prayer are built.

Practicing the Presence of God

I think I’ve mentioned before that God took six years to teach me how to trust him. For the last two years he’s been teaching me about hope and joy. I’m a slow learner. Honestly, I wish that I wasn’t. I think that a lot of my life would be easier if I were less stubborn, less prideful, and more teachable. At the same time, I am confident that God made me a slow learner for a reason. I can definitely say that I value the lessons that I learn deeply, though I’ve certainly still got a long way to go.

I’ve been reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God, which is an excellent little book. I wrote yesterday about where I’ve been the past few days, and this is true of today as well. I’m pretty much struggling at the moment. Massive doses of rejection will do that to a person. That being said, as I’ve just told a friend of mine, when I put Brother Lawrence’s idea into practice, when I keep my mind focused on God instead of on anything else, then I find that I’m doing really well. I’m upbeat, happy, encouraged and encouraging, and focused on whatever it is that I’m doing.

Whenever I let my focus slip from God to… pretty much anything else right now, then I tumble into a pit of self-pity, rejection, despair, and worthlessness.  It’s not easy, though seeing as how he’s kind of my only bright spot right now it was pretty easy today… respectively speaking. However, I still find myself struggling with questions of why no woman wants me.

I like to figure out which character on a television show I identify with, and I’ve been watching Desperate Housewives recently which, despite being poorly titled, is a show that deals very well with a wide variety of sticky moral and relational issues. The show, unlike some would lead one to believe, doesn’t really present it’s characters as moral or good in any reasonable way. In fact, the vast majority of the characters do very questionable things, but it does present them as real people individually… well, most of them (though not as a real group of people). The individual struggles of each character are definitely real issues. You have the perfectionist who’s legalism destroys her family. The struggling mother trying to keep up with crazy kids, the single mom looking for love, and the cheating wife. Then you have their sex obsessed but caring, hark-working, cheating, and money obsessed husbands/ex-husbands. Again all present real issues that people deal with, but magnified to make them more easily visible. The farther you get into the show, the more real each character becomes. None of the character’s is purely good or purely evil. All of them have high points and low points, just like real people.

Then there’s Ray. Ray is an attractive, but romantically hopeless man who is quite possibly a sociopath. He replaces the medication of Rex (perfectionist’s husband) with potassium pills, which leads to his death, because Ray has convinced himself that he’s in love with the man’s wife. He then goes on to court her, assault her psychotherapist, manipulate her into an engagement, and finally, when she breaks off the engagement, tries to manipulate her into staying with him by attempting suicide. Ray assumes that she’ll save him… she doesn’t. The thing is, I kind of get Ray. He does some terrible things, but he’s also desperate. He’s desperate for someone to love him, and for someone to want him (honestly, a better title for the show might be Desperate People), and I know how that feels. I identify strongly with the backstory that they give to Ray, and that scares me a little bit.

However, I also know myself. I can see the differences between myself and Ray. I think Ray (or worse) is what I might have become if God hadn’t drawn me into a relationship with him. That still scares me a little bit, but not as much as it might. The thing is, like Ray, I don’t understand why I am consistently being rejected. However, unlike Ray, I’m not really sure that I need to. God is drawing me to himself, ever closer, and if this is what that looks like, then it is good. As I just told my friend, the past few days have been good, but rough. Filled with self-doubt and more than a little pain and frustration, but also filled with a longing for God.

Brother Lawrence claims that he found daily joy simply by focusing on God in all things. By always keeping in mind that God was with him, and focusing his thoughts on that God. Even he admitted that this was difficult for him at first, but I think it will get easier with time. If I can keep my focus on God, then I can find everything I need in him, and that’s where I want to be.

Bovary Moments Part 2

So, a few days ago I mentioned a novel that I’ve been listening to as a book on tape (full disclosure here) called Madame Bovary. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed the book. To be completely honest, it’s pretty much infuriating! The entire novel revolves around an incredibly selfish woman and the pain that she causes to everyone around her. Emma, Madam Bovary, is an adulteress and wastrel who spends her husband’s money on her lovers until there is no money left to spend, and then continues spending until her family is ruined, at which point she commits suicide. She is convinced of her own worth, flaky, flighty, and constantly plays the victim while the real victim of the novel, her husband Charles, blissfully goes about his days in apparent ignorance. I haven’t quite finished the novel yet, so I don’t know if it will be revealed that Charles was simply a trusting victim or if he knew of his wife’s indiscretions and chose to love her anyway. I want to identify with Charles. He’s a good man, an honest man, and a hard worker. I want to see Charles in myself, and to see Emma in the people around me. The truth is often the other way around.

I’ve been doing fairly well with my struggles lately. I’m generally satisfied with my life, though T’Amber shot me down when I finally asked her out yesterday. I’m planning to ask a couple more times. In this, I’m going to go by the sayings ‘Third Times the Charm’ and ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out’. She was very nice about shooting me down, and I don’t figure a couple more polite invitations are likely to hurt anything. I’ve been doing fairly well in my internet struggles as well. I’ve wrestled with the desire to look at pornography, but I haven’t fallen much lately, and I’m very happy about that. I did just break down and pay for a year-long membership to eHarmony… it was a good sale price… still, I have a feeling I’m going to regret that. Nonetheless, I’ve been doing well (Happify has helped with that some, I suggest checking it out). Nonetheless, no matter how well I do, I am not Charles.

I am all too often fickle. I like T’Amber and I plan to try again, but then there’s also a very pretty young lady who just started taking Karate at the school at which I help teach Aikido. I have a feeling that one of my other students might try to set us up, and I am in no way opposed to this. Then I still have to ask Sally to lunch, although I’ve recently found out that she’s not available in the first place, which made me indescribably happy.

More than that, I’m not only fickle, I’m downright selfish. I want to be loved, often (I was going to write sometimes here… but that wouldn’t really be honest) more than I want to love others. I want to be desired as much as Madame Bovary does, and I want to play the victim. I always like to have someone to blame when something goes wrong. I know that I should take responsibility for my actions, but all to often I don’t. In short, I am just as selfish a man as Bovary is a woman. The thing is, I think this is true of all of us. We all want… we all desire… we all need… often we don’t even know what we want/desire/need. We are listless, indecisive, and ultimately we don’t have the time or the energy to care about anyone else. It’s not a good thing. In fact, this is exactly what God is trying to fix through the process of sanctification.

However, as I’ve said many times, sanctification is a process. I don’t get there overnight. In fact, I won’t get there until I’m dead. Until then I keep trying to be better, and often I keep failing, and God keeps forgiving.

I’ve also been reading The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (Lawrence of the Resurrection if you want to look him up) lately, and there is a huge difference between the life to which Brother Lawrence exhorts us, and the life that Gustave Flaubert displays. Lawrence exhorts us to a life of consistent worship, a life filled with the presence, the wonder, the beauty, and the satisfaction of God. Flaubert displays a life without any of those things. A life in constant quest for beauty, wonder, and love. A life in which satisfaction is an undreamable dream (I know I stole that, but I can’t remember where).

I am struck by just how much Emma had, and still her life was empty, compared with how little Lawrence  had (he was a lay brother and kitchen worker in a Carmelite monastery in Paris, a man of absolutely no importance). None the less Lawrence espouses a complete satisfaction with life that Bovary never considers a possibility. I have written before that I am currently searching for eudaimonia. The thing is, eudaimonia does not lie in financial security, in things (duh), in the respect and admiration of those around me, in knowledge or wisdom, or in the bosom of a beautiful woman. Eudaimonia is something that I can only reach by the daily practice of walking in God’s presence. Something that I’m still fairly poor at. Nonetheless, on with the process I march.