Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Prayer: What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing? Or absolutely everything?

In the wake of the Brussels tragedy, I've seen lots of "Pray for Brussels" responses, along with "Instead of praying, how about *doing* something for Brussels" responses. I could relate to the "there's prayer, and then there's doing something to help others" and "prayer is mostly about God changing believers, not God changing the world" and "God doesn't need to wait on our prayers before He acts - and we don't need to wait on God's intervention before acting, because our acting *is* His intervention" sorts of responses, because that was me up until last year.

I've struggled with prayer for a long time (which is why I gathered up all the books on prayer I could find - books are the answer to all life's problems, right? ;)). I had faith in God's eternal work of salvation, but I had next to zero faith in God's temporal work – figured it all would happen as it was going to happen, and who was I that God would change things just for me :-/. So I prayed for God to continue to save me and not much else, because I didn't think there was anything else to pray for – not anything else that was guaranteed, anyway. Seemed kind of presumptuous to pray for temporal blessings – felt like asking for God to change the course of the universe for my petty benefit. And not surprisingly, when I did pray for temporal blessings, God generally did not see fit to change the course of the universe for me. Which just reinforced that maybe I wasn't supposed to pray for those sorts of things in the first place. Maybe I was just supposed to pray for salvation and for help in navigating the temporal world – not for God to change the temporal world. That never really seemed right, but everything else people claimed for prayer seemed wrong :-/. And so I continued to not really get prayer, not really see the point, and as a result continued to not pray much.

But I found that my struggles with prayer were rooted in my not actually having a clue about how my faith connected to living my life here and now, and my not having a clue about how God works in the temporal realm. Prayer is "talking to God", and what we talk to God about depends on what we believe that God will *do* about what we tell Him. And despite truly wanting and trying to let my faith inform my entire life, I was actually living as a practical atheist - living my this-worldly life just like a secular person, using the very same wisdom and guidance and sources to come to the same decisions - because I didn't believe that God was in the habit of supernaturally intervening in the temporal world. I believed He existed and worked eternal life - but I didn't see how those things impacted the temporal world. While in theory I believed God could supernaturally intervene at any time, in practice I believed it probably wasn't going to happen the vast majority of the time.

I had inadvertently bought into the (incredibly common) religion-belongs-to-the-private-sphere-and-not-the-public-sphere split, where God works supernaturally in me but doesn't really interfere in the working of the natural world outside me except in rare extraordinary matters (God might work miracles, but if there's a timely green light, it's just fooling yourself to credit God for a purely natural coincidence :-/). And faith, in this life, is about helping me *cope* with secular life but it doesn't really change anything about how I *act* in secular matters :-/. I remember a journal entry of mine from a few years ago, where I was struggling with what to expect of God in this life, and I concluded that I maybe I couldn't legitimately expect anything from God in this life other than to be with me, and that really, wasn't that more than enough? Wasn't it selfish and unBiblical to expect any sort of objective this-worldly consideration from God? It's kind of hard to pray when you don't think God does much in this life other than keep you company :( and it's kind of hard to gladly seek out God's Word when you (unconsciously) don't think it has much bearing on "secular" life.

I see something of that split reflected in the separation of "prayer" and "doing something that (actually) helps" - that they are two separate things that in practice don't have anything to do with each other (and in fact often seem to interfere with each other). I know for me I consciously believed that my faith was applicable to all of life - it was certainly what I was taught - yet when I tried to put it into practice I realized I didn't have the first clue how to actually live out all that nice-sounding theology. And it turned out that was because my theology was in fact unlivable. And that was the first sign my theology was *wrong*, or at least very, very incomplete. I was unconsciously interpreting it through a "religion is a private matter" lens - a lens that is so common in the modern world I didn't even realize I was viewing the world that way.

And I've since learned that I had help getting that way - that American Christians of all traditions have been getting cut off from their history and theology and for a good couple generations, at least, have been taught an increasingly vacuous and secularized Christianity by leaders who mostly don't know any better themselves. We use the much of the same language but it's been drained of meaning and significance and scope. And this is happening to confessional Lutherans just as much as anyone – so many key Lutheran theological teachings have changed in meaning between the Reformation and now. (Some key ones: two kingdoms theology, vocation, the nature of God's supernatural work in the temporal realm, and what it means for God to “work through means”.) Lutherans used to use those concepts to explain how God supernaturally works in His creation, but now they are largely used to justify the lack of God's supernatural work in how He governs His (natural) creation.

One example that was *huge* for me: what does it mean that God is the creator and preserver of life, and the source of all good things? I remember reading Luther last year, and noting how he approved of the habit of thanking God for any minor bit of good fortune that comes one's way. It startled me, since in my circles the idea of thanking God for minor bits of good fortune is seen as negative and a bad witness - that you are trivializing God, or are falsely/stupidly/naively seeing supernatural influence in a perfectly natural event, or are somehow being smug in a "see how God loves me more than you/others" way, or are claiming as a blessing something that was good for you but bad for others (such as thanking God that a tornado didn't hit you - it gets interpreted as you claiming that God loves you more than those poor schlubs that got hit, or that you care more about your wellbeing than the welfare of others; oddly enough, if you leave God out of it, and are just thankful you weren't hit, and worry about if that is equivalent to wishing bad things on other people, everyone is quick to assure you that it is perfectly normal and natural to be relieved that you are ok, and that feeling can coexist with feeling bad for those who were hit).

Underlying that is a sense that God's active providence in the natural world either doesn't exist or is a big, honking deal - to claim "God blessed me in some objectively tangible way" is to make a major/impossible claim. And so to pray for that blessing feels selfish or like seeking wish-fulfillment.

But that view - that the default is that natural things happen naturally with no supernatural influence - so that God making something happen in the natural world is either a matter of seeing things that aren't there ("God made it rain" "no, perfectly natural physical processes made it rain - no God necessary") or is claiming that something extraordinary happened, that God supernaturally intervened to make something happen that otherwise wouldn't have happened, that any active work of God in the natural world is effectively a miracle - is a rather recent and novel view, and one that didn't exist much at all until 300-400 years ago. The apostles and church fathers and reformers didn't share that view.

Rather, God is actively and personally responsible for every single good that anyone experiences ever. There is no good too trivial to have been God's work. "God has made me and all creatures; He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me."

I know for the longest time, I understood “God works through means” in giving us our daily bread as “God works through physical processes to give us temporal blessings *instead* of working supernaturally”. But that's not what it meant for Luther. Rather, God working through means is how God works supernaturally to give us temporal blessings. Every good, big or small, mundane or miraculous - it's all the supernaturally-given gift of God to us, to humanity. And that has been a *huge* paradigm shift for me, and has made such a difference in feeling the urge to pray.

Because when you pray to a supernatural God, you're expecting a supernatural response. And when you view creation as "the natural world" - aka creation is drained of the supernatural - then that makes any supernatural work of God in creation inherently *unnatural*. And so either you are claiming that Christians (but not unbelievers) can have special supernatural temporal miracles just for the asking, like the charismatics (with all the theological problems inherent in that view), or you basically rule out the possibility of God's supernatural intervention in the temporal world, which makes praying for that intervention futile. But once you see *every* good gift in the temporal world as God's *supernatural* work - that makes God's supernatural work in the temporal world not just ubiquitous but *normal*. And that makes praying for God's supernatural work normal as well. It's not asking for special consideration, but asking in the usual way for God to continue working good in His usual fashion.

The biggest thing that changed my understanding of prayer was understanding the Catechism's teaching on the immensity and nature of God's First Article gifts - all temporal and all supernaturally given - and this includes *all* the good things - every last one of them, down to the most mundane, is a supernatural gift of God.