13 May 2009

Prayer. Is it really "just talking to God"?

[[Hi Sister. A definition I was given of prayer was that it is " just talking to God." The idea here was that one ought not to get overwrought about language or grammar, etc but simply talk to God. However, this seems to rule a lot out of prayer, including a lot you have said about it. Would you disagree or agree with this definition and why?]]

Generally, as I think you are already aware, I disagree with the definition and I believe that while it can be of limited help to some people at some points in learning to pray, especially to young persons used to rote prayers or those who are overly concerned with "getting (or doing) it exactly right" for instance, it is a definition I would generally avoid. There are several reasons. First, our own talking to God is ALWAYS a response to his active, loving, merciful, and communicating presence, and it is this active presence brought to consciousness that is prayer. Prayer itself is the work of the Holy Spirit who empowers us to listen and respond. In other words prayer is ALWAYS first and foremost something God achieves in us, something God does, not something we do ourselves except secondarily and derivatively. The focus on OUR talking misses this accent on God's action and initiative, sometimes completely. Secondly, the focus on talking often rules out subsequent listening to God as well. Similarly, it rules out other non-verbal forms of prayer as well: running or walking quietly, sitting silently, meditating on Scripture, playing violin (etc), painting, and/or any other activity in which one both listens (or watches) attentively and pours oneself into the activity in a responsive way. Prayer involves listening to and with one's heart. This presupposes the activity of God there and it perceives prayer not only as responsive, but as a centered act of the whole person. Finally, when one defines prayer as "just talking to God" one sets oneself and others up for expecting (and not getting) a correlative response on God's part; one sets oneself and others up for believing either they have not been heard or what they said not been regarded, etc. The dynamic here is "I did my part; why doesn't God do his?" --- because after all, God really does NOT speak to us or answer prayer in a comparable way.

This definition of prayer is reductionistic and personally I can't see simplifying (or reducing) the definition of prayer to "just talking to God" when the difficulty with prayer is not that it involves tricky or hard-to-learn techniques. What is difficult about prayer is learning to trust ever more deeply, and further, learning to perceive the activity of God that goes on all the time within and around us so that we can learn to surrender increasingly to it. Defining prayer in terms of "just talking to God" can encourage self-centeredness and make maturation in prayer quite difficult. It may involve some degree of surrendering to God and communicating from one's heart (ideally it implies these things), but often it means simply pouring things out to God in an assertive way and then leaving once one has had one's say, without any genuine listening. When this is true, "just talking to God," can be a distraction from more authentic or mature prayer. In fact it can prevent us from even suspecting that prayer involves "listening" (that is attending and surrendering) to a God who himself is a constituent part of the activity of our hearts or, that is, to the very core of our Selves.

Another objection I have is that it is a definition that tends to make of God just another buddy we disclose our daily agenda or problems to. While I agree our relationship with God should allow for complete openness in such matters and that friendship with God is something to honor, God is not just another friend we chat or have coffee with (though we may ALSO do these things with him in a conscious way). As I noted briefly above, one definition of prayer I personally use with people (including grade school kids in years 6-8) is, "listening to and with one's heart." Here the accent is on paying attention to what a sovereign God does within us, and also making all we do into prayer. Prayer is clearly something responsive which God empowers, and while it will surely involve pouring out our hearts to God, it is always more a matter of letting him pour himself into our hearts -- and into our world through us. In every way, the intimacy of friendship notwithstanding, prayer is not simply talking to a peer. On the whole then, my objections to the definition you heard and provided is that it assists with a narrow range of problems in prayer but fails to teach the larger truth that prayer is always God's own work in us or therefore, that it demands an attentiveness that goes far beyond "just talking to God." For that reason I believe it creates more problems than it solves.