Monday, March 16, 2015

The Who, What and Why of prayer:

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about to whom and for what we should pray:

Q:  When Christians pray, who should they pray to, and what things should they pray for?

The typical formula by which Christians pray is a prayer to God the Father, through or for the sake of Jesus – God the Son, and guided by God the Holy Spirit.  This sort of prayer includes the whole Trinity, and acknowledges that we have no right to approach God in prayer, except because His Son Jesus had died in our place, forgiven our sins, and reconciled us to His Father, and that it is only by the Holy Spirit that we can trust in Him and rely on this. 

The public prayers of several liturgical traditions reflect this by ending with the words, “…through Jesus Christ, Your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.” 

Sometimes less-formal prayers simply shorten by praying to God “in Jesus’ name,” and other prayers might pray to Jesus Himself without mentioning the other members of the Trinity.  Although permissible in theory, prayers directed toward the Holy Spirit are only rarely seen in the history of Christian prayer. 

Because the Triune God forbids those who trust in Him from mixing His worship with that of other gods, it would be inappropriate for Christians to pray to any god other than the persons of the Holy Trinity, such as the Muslim Allah, the many Hindu gods, or local ancestral deities, or to direct prayers to demons or to lesser spirits associated with other religions. 

Prayers to creatures that are real and good, but are not God Himself would also be prohibited.  This would include prayers directed toward angels, other Bible characters, and Christians who have died before us.  This is made clear in Scripture when St. Paul writes to Timothy that “there is one God and one mediator between God and men – the man Jesus Christ.” 

At some times and places, a compromise has been suggested that, even though we may not pray to deceased Christians, it is permissible to ask them to pray for us from Heaven instead, much like we would ask a living neighbor to pray for us. 

Even though this idea recognizes that our deceased brothers and sisters still live with the Lord as members of the Church, and some Scriptures even lean toward implying that they do pray for us there, this has typically been discouraged in most times and places.  This is the case because there is not a direct Biblical instruction for us to ask them do so, because it has a significant danger of crossing the line into worshipping the dead, either by confusion or carelessness, and because we have the privilege of asking Jesus Himself intercede for us is, which is of infinitely higher importance. 

In a related note, Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector also teaches us that the length and number of prayers and those offering them is not an indication of God’s answer, so confining our requests for prayer to the living congregation of believers does not impair God’s ability to answer.  Instead, although persistence in prayer is a virtue, we recognize that the brief prayer offered once is just as likely to be answered as the prayer of thousands offered repeatedly. 

This is because prayer is answered purely as a gift because of Jesus and not because of our effort or worthiness.  In fact, in Jesus perfect prayer given to the Church, He instructs His followers to pray for several things that God has already promised to do and which will happen even without prayer.  Yet we pray for them out of confidence that they will happen, rather than in order to cause them to happen. 

Christians may pray for these things that God has already promised with the certainty that He will grant them.  They may also pray for any other good thing in God’s creation—both earthly and spiritual—even if He has not promised that He will certainly give it.  In such cases, we recognize that God may grant it, or He may know in His infinite wisdom that we are better not to have it, and therefore withhold it for our benefit. 

The number of things for which Christians may not pray is a short list:  They may not pray for those who already died apart from Jesus to receive forgiveness and be saved, and they may not pray for sinful things or things that are harmful to themselves or others.  In such cases, we can be certain that God will not grant what is asked for, because it is contrary to His revealed will.

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