This post, to a large extent, builds upon the previous post on the subject of prayer.
Unlike most religions, in which prayer is humanity’s attempt to reach or contact the divine, Christian prayer begins with God Himself. We have the unique belief that God is three-in-one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons, yet one God, this gives us two major truths about God:
- Love is given and received between them, therefore we can say that God is love.
- A right relationship is maintained among them, therefore we say that God is holy.
As God’s creatures – part of his creation – we are invited into that love and that relationship, to become loving and holy like He is. And a major part of love and relationship is communication. Just as there is communication between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we also are invited into that communication between them. And that is prayer!
You could say that prayer has three angles to it:
- It is joining in God’s communication (you could call this “praying to the Father”)
- It is joining in the Church’s communication (you could call this “praying with the Son”)
- It is offering up our own communication (you could call this “praying in the Spirit”)
#1: Joining into God’s Communication (praying to the Father)
Prayer (and worship) does not begin with us, it begins with God. After all, God reveals himself to the world through various means to proclaim who & what he is. If God had not revealed himself, our ‘prayers’ would just be cries in the dark! Thus, prayer begins as we begin to process God’s self-revelation.
And how do we respond to God’s self-revelation? There are two ways, according to the two ways in which God reveals himself: “general revelation” and “special revelation.” General revelation is the way in which God makes himself known to all the world through not-explicitly-religious things like nature and human reason. Special revelation is how God makes himself properly and personally known: through Scripture (and to a certain extent, through the living tradition of the community of God’s people, the Church).
We respond to God’s General Revelation by recognizing God’s handiwork in creation. We respond to God’s Special Revelation by Praying the Scriptures (especially the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, and other Canticles).
Psalm 19 gives us a great example of how we can respond in prayer to God’s self-revelation both through nature (general revelation) and his Law (special revelation).
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
– verses 1-6, describing general revelation in nature
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
– verses 7-11, describing special revelation in the Law
Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
– verses 12-13, giving a personal response to all of the above
#2: Joining into the Church’s Communication (praying with the Son)
Over time, God’s revelation to us is processed by His people so that we understand Him more clearly. So, rather than just praying raw Scripture (as above), we also enter into prayer as part of the Church (God’s people, the Body of Christ).
The Lord’s Prayer is a good example of this: it begins “Our Father,” not “My Father.” It has a Church-added ending “For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory for ever and ever. Amen” which isn’t found in Scripture. And, historically, it is used in every public worship service.
Zooming out somewhat, even the content and structure of a worship service (or the liturgy, as it is called) is itself a reflection of God’s revelation. The very way in which God’s people worship and pray to Him is itself a communication of one or another aspect of God! This is true for every part of a worship service: any prayers that we say together or songs that we sing together form a common (or communal) response to God’s self-revelation. One step removed from simply praying the Scriptures, this angle of prayer highlights the reality that we pray as one Body, one Church.
Not to get too anti-individual, however, I should note that we are each personally joined and linked into this Church community. First, we are made members of the Church by being baptized into ‘the Body of Christ’ (Romans 6:3-5). Following that, we renew and reenact our membership in the Church by participating in Holy Communion (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, noting that we are one “because we partake of one bread,” not the other way around).
More generally, you could say that we are members of the Church by participating in the worship (or liturgy) of the community (Acts 2:42, Hebrews 10:23-25). This includes, but is not limited to, going to church on Sundays and other holidays, observing community-building customs (such as fasting, celebrating, etc.), and using devotionals or prayers that are held in common by that church community.
#3: Offering up our own Communication (praying in the Spirit)
Alongside being established as members of the Church, we are also each personally adopted by God as His own child. As Romans 8:15-17 gloriously proclaims, we are not slaves of God, but sons and heirs! In support of this, some of the Psalms affirm the importance of individually-motivated prayer apart from formal communal worship: “Sacrifice you did not desire” (Psalm 40:6) and “a contrite heart you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16). There’s nothing wrong with formal worship (Psalm 51:17-19), but God desires our personal efforts in prayer in addition to our participation in Him and His community.
As individuals we offer up our own prayers by: spontaneous prayer, private devotions, and even just generally a lifestyle of communion with God. As St. Paul ambitiously put it, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Conclusion: Striking the balance
So we’ve got these three angles of prayer to deal with:
- Praying to the Father – prayer begins by answering God’s invitation to enter into His conversation, the communication of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- Praying with the Son – prayer joins us with all of God’s people across the world & throughout time as one Church, the Body of Christ.
- Praying in the Spirit – prayer is intensely personal as we each are moved by God’s Spirit within us.
The question of how to balance them is a challenge. Classical Protestantism used to be really good at the first one, praying raw Scripture with minimal (if any) intrusion of tradition. Catholicism (especially Roman, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican) tends to be strongest at the second one, with a strong sense of liturgy and its role. Popular Evangelicalism today favors the third angle, sometimes leaning individualistic to a fault.
In fact, any of these, outweighing the others, can become a problem. The first two angles run the risk of rote performance without the third. The third threatens to create a “my personal Jesus” religion without the reality-check of the first two. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses, the emphases and blind spots of your particular church community can help you evaluate where you might need to grow and where you’re already stronger. A congregation that has a very duty-oriented approach to a traditional liturgy can make it difficult to participate heartily. A congregation that shuns communal prayers in favor of times of “open prayer” can make it difficult to foster a prayer life united with the Church.
For me, the balance of these three prayer angles in the Anglican tradition seems ideal, and is one of the primary reasons I became (and happily remain) in this part of the Church. Other traditions in the various denominations out there may be more or less balanced than others, so I leave it to you to evaluate how these all need to work out your various contexts.