Let us pray

Feb 1, 2021 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

The Archbishops have called for prayerThey suggest every day at 6pm. Cranmer is right to point out on his blog that it’s churlish to criticise this initiative because of disagreements over theology in other areas. The C of E leadership recognised towards the end of last year that in the early days of the pandemic they had prioritised a ‘health and safety’ message over a spiritual one; they have sought to rectify this. “We are in trouble; let us pray”, they say. “Amen” should be our response, wherever we see our church allegiance, present or future.

I’m very grateful for a member of my extended family who started a daily 6pm Zoom prayer meeting for relatives and friends which lasted during the first lockdown last April and May. We reinstated it at the start of this year. Our format is: a Psalm is read, someone gives a short message, needs are briefly shared, and then one of the participants gathers up the issues and individuals in prayer. It takes 15 minutes.

Prayer is perhaps the most basic activity, the most obvious idea which marks out the person of faith and his/her worldview from the secular humanist. If I pray, I’m acknowledging that there is a spiritual realm outside myself and the material world, and there is a personal deity who can listen and has power to bring about change. Mindfulness, centering and other activities which focus on the inner psyche rather than God out there can’t really be described as prayer.

For the Christian, God can’t be known or communicated with apart from Jesus Christ. I’ve been re-reading the Sermon on the Mount and once again I’ve been struck by the way Jesus authoritatively teaches on the attitude required by the person in relationship with God, how he warns about the sinful traits which hinder that relationship, how he shows practically how to pray, and then reveals himself as the one through whom we pray.

The heart that prays

The Beatitudes describe the attitude of the person who sees God, who is a member of God’s kingdom, who is a child of God and receives his comfort – in other words, the one who prays. This basic simple faith can’t be set against having correct thinking, as if concern for doctrine always betrays a heart that is uncaring and hard towards God and others, as some claim. In fact Jesus goes on to warn about those who “set aside” God’s word (Matt 5:19). But having said that, the right attitude, it seems, is a prerequisite for right ideas. This is good to remember as evangelicals are confronted with shameful reports of abuse of power by individuals respected for their orthodox theology.

Instead, the Beatitudes describe poverty of spirit, humility, desire for righteousness rather than personal advantage, mercy, love, and courage to witness to Christ even in the face of persecution. And what is poverty of spirit? Surely not a technical admission of general sinfulness, quickly followed by self-justification assisted by intellectual understanding of the atonement?

Putting Matthew’s version side by side with Luke’s “blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20) perhaps gives us a clue to help us grasp and put into practice Jesus’ demand for real repentance with which he begins his sermon. Material poverty, that crushing, debilitating sense of powerlessness and low self-esteem associated with constant financial lack, which few reading this blog would ever have experienced, is not just an illustration of spiritual poverty but results, in most cases, in actual humility. Material poverty does not in itself provide entry into God’s Kingdom, but most of those Christians who answer today to Jesus’ description “you who are poor” know the first steps of prayer because they cannot be proud or dependent on their own resources. This is why affluent Christians need to be part of networks where they can learn about these basics of faith from their disadvantaged brothers and sisters.

Prayer blockers, and how to overcome them

Jesus goes on to talk about the things in human nature which are blocks to the attitudes required for prayer. Hating, despising, writing off another person, especially another Christian (Matt 5:21-22; 7:1-5) but also even an enemy (5:44). Lust and marital unfaithfulness, specifically the sexual immorality of the mind, is spiritually destructive (5:27-32 – have any of those who claim that Jesus had nothing to say about sex ever read the Sermon on the Mount?) Pride – and Jesus particularly warns against the virtue-signalling and self-promotion of the religious, doing and saying good things in public in order to be praised (6:1). How might this apply in the social media era?

Of course pride is much more of a monster than can be summed up in these examples of pharisaical piety. It is the opposite the attitude of the Beatitudes; because it is surface and not internal righteousness, it ends in hypocrisy (7:5) and destruction (7:13). But the problem is, we often think humility is nice in theory, and in certain contexts, but impractical in the real world. How will I get on in life if I don’t push myself forward? Who wants a pastor who is meek, and not trumpeting or tweeting his virtue? How will he lead our church into growth? How many of those now complaining about a pastor who has abused his power, were drawn to and praising his ‘alpha male’ qualities a few years earlier? This is not, it must be said, in any way excusing wrong use of power in church contexts, but perhaps explains how it can lie unaddressed for so long? One thing is for sure: pride and prayer are incompatible.

Greed, and worry about money, are two sides of the same coin and next on the list of prayer-killers (6:19-34). Again, it’s the opposite of the attitude which hungers for righteousness and thinks first of how to help others. With a few simple examples Jesus holds up the mirror to our souls, inviting us to repentance, but not despair. He teaches us how to pray, simply laying out the priorities of establishing the vision of God’s glory and kingdom, asking for our daily material needs, confessing our sins and receiving his forgiveness, and obtaining his protection from evil.

There are practical ways to suppress pride, lust and greed, notably “when you give” (6:2); “when you fast” (6:16), serving even our oppressors beyond what is demanded (5:40-41). Then we’re in the right heart-place to ask our generous heavenly Father, to seek his face, to knock on his door as we use that daily time and moments through the day to plead for our own needs and those of the world (7:7-8).

Prayer in practice

The Sermon on the Mount is usually seen as concluding at the end of chapter 7. But the first two stories of chapter 8 can be seen as these principles of humility and prayer being carried out in practice just as Jesus urges with his illustration of the house upon the rock. So, first, the man with leprosy, surely “poor in spirit”, shunned and perhaps unloved, comes to Jesus and experiences the truth of “ask and you will receive”. Then the Roman centurion, again an outsider and considered beyond the pale of God’s Kingdom, demonstrates an understanding of Jesus’ authority over sickness and his power to save, alongside a heart of compassion for a servant. The sharpness of Jesus’ comments should not be missed: he commends the man’s faith and predicts the spiritual global harvest of the gentiles, but also he delivers a stark warning to those who think they are Kingdom insiders.

These two men did not pray for show, or approach Jesus with pride. But also they didn’t hang back, perhaps unsure of his identity, not believing they could have access, thinking they had to have their lives ‘sorted’ first. They asked with the right attitude; they received; the training in ongoing discipleship could come afterwards. And us? Let us pray.

Related Posts


Share This