- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Grenz explores key questions that many Christians ask: What does it mean to pray ...
Grenz explores key questions that many Christians ask: What does it mean to pray "according to God's will"? Should we persist in petitioning God for our needs? Does prayer really influence God? In the process of addressing these questions, Grenz offers practical guidance on praying effectively and challenges the contemporary church to recapture what it means to be a church that prays.
Revised and completely rewritten, with the inclusion of additional material, and now featuring an insightful foreword by Eugene Peterson, Grenz's Prayer: The Cry for the Kingdom will help readers from every Christian tradition to foster a richer personal and communal life of prayer.
In his Letters and Papers from Prison, the famous German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer recounts an incident that he experienced while he was incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp. During one particularly heavy bombing raid, one of the prisoners who was normally quite frivolous lay on the floor moaning, "O God, O God." Bonhoeffer reports that he could not bring himself to offer the man "any Christian encouragement or comfort." He could not do so in part because he simply was not convinced that the man was in fact voicing a petition.
As this incident suggests, at some elementary level prayer seems to be a common human response. In times of trial, people almost automatically find themselves moaning "O God!"
This assumption regarding prayer is reflected in the generic definitions commonly found in English-language dictionaries. Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, to cite one example, defines prayer as "a solemn and humble approach to Divinity in word or thought." The indefiniteness of the term "Divinity" in this definition is apparently designed to suggest that prayer ought not to be limited to the act of any one religious group in addressing their particular god. Instead, the folks at Webster's are suggesting that all such acts, as well as similar utterances voiced by people addressing no god in particular, fall under the single rubric of prayer. Prayer, then, is supposedly not limited to any one religious tradition but is an experience that all people have in common. Understood in this manner, prayer is present among all societies and all peoples in the world. Perspectives such as these regarding the supposedly universal character of prayer have led some to conclude that prayer is natural, rooted in the instinctive recognition of one's dependence on a higher power.
As significant as this insight into the basic human tendency to pray may be, the supposed universality of prayer does not provide the basis for the distinctively Christian understanding of this act. For this basis, we must direct our attention elsewhere - namely, to the development of prayer in the biblical communities of faith.
The Background to the Christian Concept of Prayer
Prayer may be in some sense an "instinctive" human experience. Yet, as Bonhoeffer's reluctance to offer Christian comfort to the man in the prison camp suggests, prayer often falls short of the specifically Christian understanding. In fact, biblical prayer differs in several respects from that found in many other ancient traditions. These differences may be illustrated by a comparison of the concept of the nature of prayer that arose among the Hebrews with that of ancient Greece. Although Christian conceptions of prayer have from time to time been influenced by Greek ideas, the most significant background to the New Testament concept of prayer lies in the teaching of the Old Testament.
1. Prayer in the Greek Tradition
In Greece, prayer was regarded basically as the act of voicing one's requests to the various forces that can determine one's destiny. Because the power of the deities was seen as comprehensive, prayer was related to all aspects of human life. There was no activity or sphere of life that should fail to be accompanied by sacrifices and prayers to the gods. Prayer, then, was motivated by a profound awareness of one's dependence on the gods.
Because the Greeks did not view the gods as being especially moral in character, they could not imagine that the deities could be swayed by moral considerations. For this reason, they approached the gods in a way that resembled the manner in which one would come into the presence of powerful princes. More specifically, they believed that prayer was to be accompanied by offerings and sacrifices, or by vows of the sacrifice the petitioner would offer should a favorable response be received. The Greeks petitioned the gods regarding concrete physical needs and for the purpose of soliciting their help in attaining specific goals. Petition was rarely connected to spiritual needs or needs pertaining to the inner person.
The Hellenistic period gave birth to two quite different ideas regarding prayer. The philosophical perspective, which typified the Stoics and the Cynics, was motivated by practical monotheism. These philosophers held no genuine belief in the many gods of the people. Instead, they acknowledged one god who they thought was basically impersonal. Consequently, they did not emphasize either petition as such or the idea that the petitioner should actually anticipate being heard. Seneca, for example, considered prayer for what a person could obtain for oneself to be foolish. Therefore, the philosophers rejected any idea that prayer is the cry of need to a god. Rather, they believed that it is designed to reflect the ideal toward which humans are to strive. This activity, they added, had value for the inner development of the person.
The second idea was popularized by the mystery religions. Lying behind this outlook was a quest for an experience of the presence of the deity, from whom the worshiper expected to receive salvation. Adherents of the mystery religions believed that prayer is a means to the vision of the divine. Because they deemed prayer to be significant insofar as it aided them in their quest for the experience of the gods, devotees of these religions considered the specific content of prayer unimportant. Moreover, they rarely offered petitions for the mundane things of life.
2. Prayer and the Old Testament
There are, of course, some similarities between the Old Testament concept of prayer and that of ancient Greece. Nevertheless, the two traditions differ greatly. Three features of the Old Testament understanding are especially noteworthy.
First, in contrast to the practice of addressing prayers to many gods that permeated other ancient cultures, the Hebrews were taught to pray to the one God, Yahweh. Moreover, this God was known, for Yahweh had made himself the God of Israel and had constituted Israel as his people. For this reason the pray-er in Israel could approach God with the consciousness of being part of the community of God's people. Yahweh was known as well in that he had displayed his faithfulness toward his people. Thus the worshiper could approach Yahweh through a consciousness of his past actions. As John Wright has observed regarding the practice of prayer in the Old Testament, "Prayer, then, always carries this overtone of relationship to God initiated by his lovingkindness and sustained by his faithfulness."
This aspect of ancient Hebrew prayer came to be developed further in the Christian community. Like Israel in the Old Testament, the church viewed prayer as a communal task that was based on a communal consciousness. When they prayed, the early Christians were conscious that they were part of the fellowship of people who belong to God through Jesus Christ. Likewise, the Old Testament idea of the faithfulness of God in the past continued to be a significant motivation for prayer for the early Christians. Yet, whereas the Old Testament community looked pre-eminently to the Exodus as the sign of God's faithfulness, the church underscored God's redemptive action in sending Christ. Then, as the centuries passed, signs of God's ongoing faithfulness became a continuing motivation for Christian prayer. The faithfulness of God in the past served as such an important impetus for prayer because it provided a signpost, pointing to and confirming God's promise of faithfulness in the present.
In the Old Testament, prayer was addressed to the one God, Yahweh, who always remained person. The ancient Hebrews believed that Yahweh was the living sovereign who confronted his people in a personal way in both love and wrath.
This understanding gave rise to the question of God's willingness to hear prayer. The Hebrew pray-er earnestly sought to be heard. The crucial question became "How can I know that this active, loving, holy, living sovereign God gives ear to my petitions?" The ancient Hebrew petitioner knew that if Yahweh heard the prayer of his faithful servant, then the answer would surely come. For this reason as well, Old Testament prayers commonly appealed to Yahweh on the basis of his past actions and his promises of future assistance.
The final biblical answer to the question "Can I know that God hears my prayer?" came in John's first epistle: "This is the assurance we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him" (1 John 5:14-15). The bold assurance that John announces, however, raises a further question: What kind of prayer is in accordance with God's will? This important query forms the central topic of the subsequent chapters of this book.
Second, the Hebrew community believed that prayer encompassed all areas of life. In the Old Testament, requests were made to Yahweh regarding every aspect of existence, including the necessities of earthly life. This emphasis arose in part out of the Hebrew perspective on the nature of the human person. Rather than assuming that the human person consists of a soul and a body that can be divided from each other, the ancient people of faith viewed the person as a substantial unity. The close connection between the physical and the spiritual indicative of this Hebrew way of thinking was evidenced even in prayer. The Hebrews did not consider petitioning God for physical needs unspiritual, because they knew that God is concerned for the whole person. This Old Testament viewpoint is evident, in turn, in the fourth petition of the Lord's Prayer: "Give us this day our daily bread." To ask for something as mundane as daily bread is in keeping with God's concern for the whole person (see also Matt. 6:25-34).
One specific area of life loomed as especially crucial in Israel: the presence of the enemy. Because the Hebrews knew full well that they were surrounded by adversaries, prayer for deliverance from the enemy became prominent in the Old Testament. But the Hebrews added an interesting twist to this. Insofar as they were God's people, at stake in the struggle against the hostile nations was the cause of God itself, for the enemies of Israel were in some sense the enemies of God.
The theme of petition in the face of enemies is also reflected in Jesus' prayer: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." Just as the people of God in the Old Testament were surrounded by enemies and therefore prayed to God for deliverance, so also the disciples of the Lord are surrounded by the ultimate Enemy, the supremely Evil One. For this reason, prayer for deliverance continues to be vital and necessary throughout the church age (see also 1 Cor. 10:13).
The third feature of the Old Testament concept of prayer linked this activity to the worshiping life of the community. Among the Hebrews, prayer was a communal act that was to be practiced within the context of worship. Moreover, this act was related to the sanctuaries of worship, especially the Jerusalem temple, which as the focal point of community religious life became central to prayer as well.
The story of Daniel's prayer as an exile in Babylon demonstrates this. Praying was not in and of itself problematic. On the contrary, everyone in Babylon was commanded to pray. What got Daniel thrown into the lions' den was his insistence on praying in one particular manner - namely, with his face directed toward Jerusalem. He prayed in this specific way because Jerusalem - or, more specially, the temple in Jerusalem - was the focal point for Hebrew prayer. His way of praying symbolized that he was directing his prayers toward Yahweh and Yahweh alone, not toward the king of the land to which he had been exiled.
The central role of the temple for the Hebrew community finds its way into the New Testament as well, albeit with a crucial shift. At Pentecost a fundamental change was made in the economy of God: the church, the body of Christ, became the temple, which is now spiritual rather than physical or material. As a result, prayer can now be directed to God throughout the entire world. True prayer can be offered to God wherever the people of God find themselves, for they now are the new temple of the Holy Spirit, the symbol of God's earthly presence.
Because it was related to the worshiping life of the community, prayer in the Old Testament was related to the practice of offering sacrifices to God. In fact, the sacrifices of the people were to be accompanied by prayer.
Eventually, prayer overshadowed sacrifice as the central act of piety. This development began with the prophets, who placed great emphasis on an inner piety that was more pleasing to God than mere outward, ritual sacrifice. The trend toward elevating prayer to the center of Hebrew piety came to a climax after Israel was sent into exile. This change was due in part to the physical separation from the temple that occurred when the Hebrews were deported from Palestine. When the people no longer lived in proximity to the temple, and eventually when the temple was destroyed, the prayer of the pious Jew took on increasing importance.
After the exile, the Jewish religious leaders developed specific forms of prayer and practiced regular times of prayer, although they continued to give place as well to extemporaneous prayer. This development formed a background to Jesus' interaction with the Pharisees on the topic of prayer. It is not the forms of prayer themselves that are important, Jesus declared, but the spirit or piety lying behind prayer.
Prayer and the Life of Jesus
The Old Testament concept of prayer forms an important background for the understanding of prayer in the New Testament faith community. Yet what provided the immediate context for the practice of prayer in the church was Jesus' teaching regarding prayer as well as his own prayer life. Indeed, the disciples who became the pillars of the early church learned to pray at the feet of their Master.
1. Jesus: The Man of Prayer
Prayer was a central dimension of Jesus' life. All four Gospels, but especially Luke, portray our Lord as a person of prayer. The centrality of prayer for Jesus is evident in the amount of time that he spent alone in prayer. Repeatedly, the Evangelists picture him withdrawing from the crowds in order to be alone with his Father. In fact, Jesus' ministry oscillated between engagement and disengagement. He was alternately with the people, teaching and healing, and alone with his heavenly Father for times of prayer. Occasionally, Jesus spent extended periods of time in prayer - "forty days" or "all night." Or he would rise before daybreak to pray. As David Stanley concludes regarding Luke's portrait of the Master, "A habit of prayer is made an important and constant feature of Jesus' ministry."
The Gospels indicate that the signs and wonders Jesus performed were often preceded by prayer. For example, before he called forth Lazarus from the grave, Jesus prayed to the Father. Similarly, before feeding the five thousand, Jesus blessed the loaves and fish.
The Gospels underscore the importance of prayer at crucial stages in Jesus' life. One such occasion was his baptism. David Stanley outlines the significance of this event for Luke's portrayal of Jesus' life:
Thus it is of set purpose that Luke presents Jesus, at his first appearance in the narrative of his public life immediately after his baptism by John, as engaged in prayer.... The reader is alerted concerning the significant role prayer is to play in Jesus' mission as Messiah at the very moment when he is anointed with the Spirit and acknowledged as Son by the Father. Luke appears to imply moreover that this theophany happens precisely in answer to that prayer.
A similar event occurred prior to the selection of the twelve apostles. Luke highlights the crucial role played by prayer in this momentous decision. Jesus made his choices during an all-night vigil in which he seemed actually to weigh the matter carefully in prayer before his heavenly Father.
Prayer was important at Jesus' transfiguration as well. Indeed, Jesus' purpose in ascending the mountain was to pray (Luke 9:28-29). The lengthy time of prayer that Jesus enjoyed while the disciples slept occasioned the extraordinary change in his appearance that they later witnessed.
Excerpted from Prayer by Stanley J. Grenz Copyright © 1988 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc..
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.