Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Thoughts on Odd Prayer Habits

Today I thought I'd light-heartedly (weird for me, right?) briefly talk about four small facets of prayer: (1) What does it actually do? (2) Ending prayers with "In Jesus's Name" (3) Praying for a desired outcome after the fact when we don't yet know what happened (4) When praying out-loud in groups, verbalizing what God already knows.

Some of this will be me arguing a point, but some of it will be just musings over mysteries we can only catch glimpses of.  Please join in! :-)

What Does Praying Actually *Do*?
I think this is a fun question to try to wrap my mind around, because it's one of those issues that is so BIG and so beyond human understanding that it reminds me just how enormous of a God we serve. :-)
We know that God doesn't change (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17).  But does He change His mind?  There is one verse that seems to say this, Numbers 23:19, but only non-literal translations phrase it that way; others say that He doesn't "repent," which is similar but not the same thing.  There are some Old Testament examples where it explicitly states that God "changed His mind" after His followers entreated Him to do so - for example, Jeremiah 26:19 and Exodus 32:14
But, from reading the whole Bible as context, it is clear that it wasn't like He was logically persuaded by these men that His plan was wrong!  It's just that He planned these situations as a way to test the men's faith, bring them to a realization, help them grow, teach them a lesson, etc.  God's will and plan are in no way dependent on what men ask or do not ask Him.  So, when He "changes His mind," it's not as if He actually changes His mind - it's that He plans that <in a reality without that specific prayer, such and such will happen>, but <in a reality with that specific prayer, such and such will happen>...but He knows in advance that the prayer will be spoken, so actually, what He "changed His mind to" after the prayer is what He planned on all along!  It's the intersection of a God fully outside of time with a world and human race trapped in time - it is impossible to fully explain in human language!
So then...why are we commanded to pray?  Because the communication with God fosters a true relationship, because it reminds us to depend on God, because it develops our love, compassion, and sacrifice for others, and because it puts us in situations where we will realize new truths and learn new lessons.
We can't shirk prayer by thinking that God will do what He plans to do regardless of whether or not we pray, because maybe He planned a specific action based on the fact the He knew whether or not we would pray!  So, we arrive at two truths that seem contradictory, but the contradiction only arises because our finite human minds, trapped within time, cannot possibly conceive of a God outside of time: God's plans are not dependent on our prayers, AND, We have the responsibility to pray, because our prayers do affect God's plans.
Ending Prayers With "In Jesus's Name"
In the American church, at least, people have the habit of ending prayers with, "in Jesus's Name, Amen."  This practice is derived from John 14:12-14 and 16:24, which contain the promise that anything we ask in Jesus's Name, He will grant us.  But the practice of saying, "in Jesus's Name" as a fulfillment of these verses arrives at a huge logical flaw: What about when God says no?
Well, in New Testament times, doing something in Alice's name meant doing it in the capacity of Alice or doing it as Alice would do it.  So, praying in Jesus's Name means praying as Jesus would pray.  In other words, those verses have nothing to do with "magic words" to get what you want - it's a promise that when we are walking in synch with God, He will be with us every step of the way.  It doesn't mean we'll get everything we want - I mean, look at Jesus's prayer at Gethsemanae - He prayed that if the Father wanted Him to die, He was willing to die!  But the promise is that we can rest assured that we are safe in the Father's will.  Nothing will happen to us without God's hand being on us during it.  A good example is the first three chapters of Daniel - the four God-fearing men had plenty of bad things happen to them (like being taken captive in the first place, becoming slaves, and the terror of being almost killed - twice), but God was very much *with* them through the bad, and also caused much good to come upon them.
Now, I don't think most people who end their prayers with "in Jesus's Name" really think it's a magic phrase to force God to give them what they want (some do believe it - and it's heresy)'s just a habit Christians pick up.  And to some people, it's a verbal reminder to themselves of the sovereignty of God - so, for them, it's a very beneficial practice, and I'm not coming down on it.
So, how does someone like myself who doesn't habitually end my prayers with "in Jesus's Name" because, to me, they're just words?  Well, when I'm around someone who I know does like to end their prayers that way, I try to remember to employ that phrase when praying aloud around them so as to not trip them up in any way.  It's sort of a way of becoming all things to all men - if the practice isn't wrong, and not partaking would cause pointless division or stumbling, I might as well participate when around them.  (See Romans 14)
Praying After the Fact
I've noticed that a lot of times, we pray for the outcome of something that already happened, but that we don't yet know the outcome of.  Isn't that pointless?
No.  God's outside of time, so even though we are trapped in the same realm of time that whatever we're praying about occurred in, the God who guided the events is outside of time.  It goes back to what we discussed above. :-)  And maybe He made a certain thing happen because He knew you would pray, even knowing you would pray "late."
Try sitting and contemplating that for a while. ;-)
"Explaining" in Group Prayer
Depending on how much experience you've had praying out-loud in groups, you may have experienced a time when someone starts praying about an issue they realize the others in the group don't know the details of, so they have to start explaining the situation, seemingly to God, in the middle of the prayer in order for the others to be able to join in.  I've heard others do it, and I've done it.  There's nothing wrong with it - it's courteous, actually - the irony always just makes me chuckle.
It's funny because God already knows everything we pray, because He knows us better than we know ourselves, and He knows what we're going to say before we say it.  In fact, the Holy Spirit within us prays with deeper understanding than we are consciously aware of!  So, actually, "explaining" during prayer realy isn't any different than how we normally pray!  But it all goes back to what we first talked about, how the act of praying teaches us things and fosters relationship, even if the actual prayers perhaps don't make as much of an impact as we think they do (or perhaps they do - that's the paradox here!).
Anyway, those are my musings for the day.  What are your thoughts on any or all of these facets of prayer?  Are there any other prayer practices we partake of (like the alliteration?) that you find to be either ironic or stirring of deep thought?
Image: Maria Magdalene Praying, by Ary Scheffer.  Wikipedia.  {{PD-1923}} Public domain in the United States.

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