Tuesday, February 1, 2011

False Dichotomies: prayer from the heart vs. prayer from a book

In one of the sermons in the Lenten postil of 1523 Luther said:
"You will never pray well from a book.  You may certainly read it and learn how and what you should pray for, and it may kindle the desire in you.  But prayer must come freely from the heart, without any made-up or prescribed words, and it must itself form the words that are burning in the heart." 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his booklet on Psalms has this introduction:
"'Lord, teach us ot pray!'  So spoke the disciples to Jesus.  In making this request, they confessed that they were not able to pray on their own, that they had to learn to pray.  The phrase 'learning to pray' sounds strange to us.  If the heart does not overflow and begin to pray by itself, we say, it will never 'learn' to pray.  But it is a dangerous error, surely very widespread among Christians, to think that the heart can pray by itself.  For then we confuse wishes, hopes, sighs, laments, rejoicings--all of which the heart can do by itself--with prayer.  And we confuse earth and heaven, man and God.  Prayer does not mean simply to pour out one's heart.  It means rather to find the way to God and to speak with him, whether the heart is full or empty.  No man can do that by himself.  For that he needs Jesus Christ.  The disciples want to pray, but they do not know how to do it.  That can be very painful, to want to speak with God and not to be able to, to have to be speechless before God, to discover that every call to him dies within itself, that heart and mouth speak an absurd language which God does not want ot hear.  In this need we seek out men who are able to help us, who know something about prayer.  If one among us who is able to pray would only take the other along in his prayer, if we could pray along with him, then we could be helped!  Certainly experienced Christians can help us in this way a great deal.  But they can do it only through him who must himself help them, and to whom they direct us if they are true treachers in prayer, namely through Jesus Christ."

Only superficially can we discern a discrepancy between these quotes. Jesus obviously indulged his disciples in giving them a prayer to pray.  He was not against prescribed words.  They have their place and Bonhoeffer does explain so well what it means to pray with someone God's own words, Christ's words.

Still, we can hide behind that practice.  We need to learn to pray from our own spirit, with Christ's.   This way we can care for our neighbor also, by praying with him or her in their times of need.  It would be very lazy of us, not to try to put these into our own words.  Someone else said:  "God only hears those prayers which have passed through our mind."  When we form our own words, it passes through our mind more, can be more authentic and more loving.

In the end, because of our tendency to neglect the first commandment, we neglect to pray either way.  This is the worst scenario.

I don't quite like when Evangelicals and such people are put down for their stammering:  "O Lord, I just want to thank you..." prayers.  Yes, "just" comes up a lot.  But these pleople have been neighbors to me with their prayers, however poorly formed. 

To speak badly of liturgy or a beautiful, pre-written prayer is just as foolish.  This prayer can carry us to unimagined depth, height, riches and gives us ground under our feet.

In any case we know that it is not about show or length or outward piety. 

God knows us.

"When you pray, don't ramble like heathens who think they'll be heard if they talk a lot.  Don't be like them.  Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8)."

We should pray with few words but with deep, meaningful thoughts.  The fewer the words, the better the prayer.  The more words, the worse the prayer.  Few words and deep meaning are Christian.  Many words and little meaning are heathen.  That's why Christ says, "When you pray, don't ramble like the heathens who think they'll be heard if they talk a lot" .  Similarly he says to the Samatitan woman, "Those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth"  (John 4:24).  The Father looks for worshipers who pray this way.  To pray 'in spirit,' or to pray spiritually, is very differernt from a prayer that comes from our evil desires.  To pray 'in truth' is very different from a fake prayer.

For the showy prayer that comes from our evil desires is pointless mubling and babbling.  It shows no respect for God.  To those who are watching and listening, it looks like prayer.  It may be spoken with words but it isn't spoken in truth.  The spiritual and true prayer, however, comes from within.  It comes from the sighing and yearning of the depths of the heart.  Unspiritual prayer produces hypocrites and a false sense of security.  Spiritual prayer produces true believers and reverent children of God.

("Through Faith Alone, CPH, March 9)
(I'm reading the Giertz and am getting to know him, but I always fall back to Luther.)


Steve Martin said...

Prayer is one of those things that we just do, often poorly, often awkwardly.

I have been gulity of making fun of the "we just..." crowd. I know I shouldn't. Quite often my prayers are so disjointed and lousy...I just give up and ask Him to forgive my dumb prayer.

Thanks be to God that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and fixes them.

Thanks, Brigitte.

Brigitte said...

Thanks Steve. We need God's help and forgiveness for so many things. But sometimes I think we need more courage and sometimes we need more thought.

And sometimes we just need to say: "Jesus help." I remember learning about short, quick prayers from the nuns in Catholic school.

Steve Martin said...

And sometimes we just need to say: "Jesus help."

I think that is a great prayer!