I don’t know about you, but I find myself resolving to pray more consistently and then failing, time and time again. I mean to pray first thing in the morning, before meals, and throughout the day as life unfolds, but many times I simply forget. Left to my own devices, I tend to rely on my own (ineffective) devices!
In Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today, John W. Kleinig explains that prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit and not something we do. By way of a contrast, he explains: “Much of the popular Christian literature and current Protestant teaching on prayer reinforces the notion that improvement in prayer depends on us – our knowledge, faith, discipline, attitude, and expertise. These teachings are popular for many reasons. They are practical, helpful, and superficially empowering. They feed on our guilt and, for a while, seems to allay our since of spiritual dissatisfaction. Because they concentrate on what we need to do to become prayer warriors and victors in prayer, they boost our self-confidence and overlook our spiritual impotence. The basic assumption… is that prayer is something that we do by ourselves. So success in prayer depends on our willpower and our performance. These teachings, then, disconnect prayer from Jesus and His atonement. They seldom teach that prayer is God’s doing, something that the triune God produces in us,” (pg. 161).
Kleinig describes in detail how Jesus gave his disciples the Lord’s Prayer in order to teach them how to pray and states: “The point of prayer is to receive from God the Father. Jesus gives us His own prayer so that we can use it and our faith in Him to receive the good things that He has promised to give us. We cash in on His promises in prayer. So Jesus teaches us how to pray by promising that God will give us what we ask for when we pray His prayer for ourselves and for others. He is not reluctant to give. The problem lies with us; we are reluctant to ask for what He wants to give to us,” (pg. 165).
What does God want to give us? Himself and the gift of His Word. He wants to bless us with his gracious will for our lives. We often pray for what we want, which may or may not be in accordance with what God wants for us. It’s not unlike children when they ask for things they desire but aren’t healthy or good for them. Loving parents will say no to those requests, as God will to his children. The Lord’s Prayer asks for God’s will to be done, not ours.
How then do we pray? Kleinig recounts St. Paul’s teaching in Romans, chapter 8: “He teaches us that even though we do not know how to pray, or what to pray for, the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us deep inside us in accordance with God’s good and gracious will. The Spirit helps to articulate our hidden needs and prompts us in what we say. Since we don’t know how to pray, He takes over from us and intercedes within us by getting us to pour out our hearts to God. When we pray, we can follow His urging, even if it is evident only in sighing and groaning and deep distress. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of prayer,” (pg. 167).
Prayer then, is a gift that we receive. It’s not dependent on our strength or piety, instead “when we pray, we engage with the three persons of the Holy Trinity. We pray to the Father; we pray together with the Son; and we pray by the power of the Holy Spirit. What we do when we pray depends entirely on what the Son gives us in His Word and on what the Spirit does with us through faith in Christ. Our ability to pray does not come from us, but from faith in Jesus Christ and His Word, faith that receives the gift of prayer,” (pg. 167).
What a relief that I’m not left to my own devices in prayer.