“Do I really need to pray?” I’ve heard the question often enough. It is easy to get stuck in puzzles and paradoxes on the topic, even if we know in our hearts and our guts that we need to pray:
- If God knows what I need, and loves me too, why do I need to ask?
- If God’s “providence” is really guiding everything, why bother?
- Is God just wanting me to grovel before he provides what I need? Wouldn’t that mean God doesn’t really love me?
I’ve surprised myself by getting to my twentieth blog post before writing about prayer — having written a book on the topic it is definitely often on my mind! So it goes: turns out there are other things on my mind as well.
Recently @Dawn_Morris1 sent me a tweet asking about God’s providence and human responsibility, and it set me pondering the issues in the Heidelberg Catechism — which is celebrating its 450th birthday, and currently one of my favorite conversation partners on theological topics.
When Heidelberg turns to the topic of prayer it doesn’t mention sovereignty or providence — it talked about those topics early on, so it can assume we heard about them already. It does treat prayer as an aspect of our responsibility, though, in the final big section on the Christian life.
Heidelberg summarizes the whole Christian life under one word: “Gratitude.” Once we have faith, once we know salvation in Christ, we spend the whole rest of our lives saying “Thank you!” But in the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s great passion hymn, “What language shall I borrow, to thank Thee, dearest friend?”
Here’s how the Heidelberg Catechism starts its discussion of prayer:
116 Q. Why do Christians need to pray?
A. Because prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us.
Have to say, I think that’s a bit of a stunner. Christians will find countless ways to thank God for his grace, but the key thing they all need to do is pray.
I think it is a stunning perspective because it is so counter-cultural today. It looks to me like for a lot of Christians today prayer is an afterthought — dessert, if you will, in the feast of life. According to the Heidelberg Catechism prayer is the main course. With apologies to Jack Canfield, this is Meat and Potatoes for the Soul.
John Calvin, the theologian who so influenced the branch of the Church which the Heidelberg Catechism comes from, got to the same point in a slightly different way. Calvin was convinced that faith was the way we receive the grace of Christ. The prophet Joel had said “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). Calvin saw this as expressing much the same thing. It works like this: If you have faith, you know you need God’s help, and you know God is listening, so you call out to God. It works the other way too: If you call out to God in prayer, it is very clear evidence that you have faith.
I’m convinced that the Catechism is right on this one.
- We need to pray, not to convince a reluctant God to provide, but because this is how we express gratitude and faith.
- We need to pray, not because God does not know what we need, but because God invites us into real relationship.
What kind of role do you think prayer ought to pray in the Christian life — and what gets in the way?
What kinds of problems do you think prayer raises as you think about Christian faith?