When I can't pray

July 21, 2008

When I can’t pray I often turn to the end of Romans 8. Here Paul
pulls back the velvet curtain of revelation. What we see is amazing: a
never-ending festivity where there sounds a strained, melodious,
mysterious prayer that all the suffering in this present world cannot
drown out. At the heart of the festivity is the Triune God praying for
us.

The Trinity is the
grammar of prayer: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit
praying in harmony on our behalf. Our prayer life is effective not
because we are praying, but because God is listening to the prayers of
Jesus through the witness of the Spirit. Think of it!

As a
pastor there are days I don’t have the words, and situations when the
best I can offer is a sigh of disbelief. I am learning that’s OK. Paul
offers a vision of prayer that does not begin and end with me, but with
the Triune God: with Jesus, through the Sprit, praying for us,
according to the will of the Father.

This vision has been
freeing for me. I used to think that my prayer life depended upon me. I
was anxious about how to pray: Am I doing it right? Am I saying the
right thing? Is my spirit aligned and attuned? My vision was
self-centered. Prayer is what I did before God—it was fundamentally my
activity. In theological language, this meant that I thought the only
priesthood was my priesthood, the only offering my offering, the only
intercession my intercessions. Nothing larger was going on. With this
theology I got tired. I perpetually felt guilty that I wasn’t praying
enough. This kind of praying life is hard to sustain over the long
haul—especially in those seasons when the words don’t come easily. Paul
offers an alternative vision—ultimately more freeing and more
sustaining.

Paul teaches that at the center of my faith
stands not my feelings, my experiences, not even my faith or lack of
it, however important these are. At the center of Christian faith is a
unique relationship between Jesus and the Father. This unique
relationship is described as one of mutual love, mutual self-giving,
mutual testifying and mutual glorifying. And the Holy Spirit, who
searches our hearts and “groans with sighs too deep for words,” bonds
this relationship between Jesus and the Father in love.

The
early church described this unique relationship as a “perichorietic
unity.” Perichoresis is the Greek word to describe God’s life of mutual
indwelling. It is this indwelling we must understand if we are to
understand the Christian life of prayer.

In prayer we are
drawn into God’s own relationship of mutual indwelling—and find, that
to our surprise, before we have even uttered a word, God has already
started the prayer meeting. In other words, we don’t make prayer
happen; it is already happening.

The first real step on the
road to prayer is to recognize that none of us knows how to pray as we
ought. Prayer isn’t rooted in a how but a who. There is no special kit
we need buy. Prayer is a life of relationship we live into. As we bring
our desires to God, we find the Spirit takes our prayers to Jesus who
makes them his own. Our feeble, clumsy, inarticulate prayers are
cleansed, and in a “wonderful exchange,” Christ makes his prayers our
prayers and presents us to the Father as his children. Our prayers are
his prayers; his prayers are our prayers. This is why we pray in
“Jesus’” name.

This Trinitarian prayer is happening right
now. The only one who has the power to condemn us is the very one who
is praying for us. This is why Paul’s wisdom is a true and trustworthy
statement: “nothing will separate us from the love of Christ” (Rom.
8:39).