In the formation of my own prayer life, seeing others pray and learning from them has played an integral role. In recent years, I’ve been blessed by numerous saints whose prayers and insights have both inspired and challenged me. One of those individuals is my friend, Matt Bell. Matt and I became friends in seminary, and also became colleagues in ministry at Korean United Presbyterian Church. I and the Upper Room are also blessed to have Matt and his wife Alyssa as a part of our worshipping community. Matt is currently pursuing a PhD in Patristics from the University of Durham, and is also one of the instructors and founders of the Ancient Christian Faith Initiative. Below are seven questions that I posed to Matt in an email, followed by Matt’s response – he chose to weave the answers to the questions into a larger narrative. Thanks, Matt for your wisdom and witness.
I always feel a little cheeky answering questions about my prayer life as if it were something to be imitated or learned from. Prayer and corporate worship are both struggles for me; I recall a cloud of difficulty, at times verging on pain, descending upon me around when I became a teenager. The difficulty led me to different responses, sometimes to a weariness and unbelief that’s left me in stunned silence. It may be that reflections on that would be most helpful to you and your readers, so I’ll post that as background to answering your numbered questions. I’ll try to weave answers to the numbered ones in the larger narrative.
First of all, like most Christians, I was raised to expect God to answer prayer by speaking back, sometimes in words, in images, through signs, through other Christians in the Church…….Worship on Sunday mornings was especially passionate. We tried to be emotionally open to the Holy Spirit, to have our hearts open. Feelings were important, and outward response to God was important. Worship of this kind was a sort of prayer, even the core discipline. Since you ask about posture, upraised hands were our most common gesture. We were told it represented sacrifice — that with one’s hand upraised, you were lifting stuff up to God.
At around age 13, maybe a little earlier, a couple changes happened. First, I stopped “feeling” God in corporate worship, which experience I interpreted as divine displeasure. Second, for whatever reason, I became extremely self-conscious about raising hands in worship. It became difficult for me to do it. My sister, Rebekah, became similarly affected about raising hands, but she articulated a different reason: it felt artificial. She observed people raising hands to be visible to others, and was offended by the hypocrisy. I can’t remember why I didn’t raise my hands — only that it was hard, and that God felt distant. I remember around that time that I tried to start manipulating my emotions, to stir myself inwardly to passion towards God, all to no avail. The effort simply increased my pain. Around that time, the pastor even gave a word of knowledge that someone in worship was “working too hard”. That was a very unhelpful word for me, because it simply led to frustration — I couldn’t stop working, or felt I couldn’t. To work led to pain, to stop working felt like apathy. Gradually, this experience grew until it covered everything, taking over my spiritual life bit by bit, like an advancing glacier.
Looking back at this time I sometimes find myself surprised, because although it felt like God was so absent, I now can see he was stunningly present. It’s been that way a lot throughout the years — when I look at the present moment, all I see is confusion. When I look at the past with gratitude, I see the Lord everywhere. So it was with that time. Three or four experiences related to the nature of prayer stand out very dramatically from that period. The first happened as I was waking up, engaging in very mundane, early morning “get-ready-for-the-day” activity. I was pitying myself over the lack of feelings of God’s presence as I got washed up, occasionally complaining to the Lord about it and asking why he was displeased with me. The Spirit broke the silence and said, “Why do you need feelings from me? Is it not enough goodness just to worship me, even without the feelings?” The second was years later, when I was in college. I was walking around the campus, struggling with prayer. I was on the third floor of Corbett Center, the student union building at NMSU, standing nearby the payphones on one side of the building by the stairs. I complained to God about the struggle, said that I could not pray, and he responded to the effect, “Your problem is not that you cannot pray, but that you will not.” On another occasion he said, “You don’t believe.” Through these experiences, I began to learn that prayer is not about feeling God respond, but acting in confidence that he is there and will respond. A third experience occurred as I was trying to quiet myself to hear his voice on a particular request. The Spirit interrupted and said, “I have no difficulty speaking to you. I don’t need you to do that.” Through experiences like this, I was slowly brought through to a place where I could again worship and pray not without difficulty, but in spite of not feeling things, not hearing things.
Perhaps because of the difficulty, though, I don’t really have set times of prayer or strict habits. Having them might help; I’ve not set them, however. I tend to try to pray throughout the day, to cultivate an awareness of God’s presence. Since meeting Alyssa, who is more structured, I do now pray with her once a day about certain specific, “covenanted” requests — for the salvation of five people we have agreed to pray for daily, and for needs in our family. We begin by going over our requests and debriefing about our day, then reading a psalm slowly, then alternating our requests.
I’ve found it very helpful to think of prayer as participation in the divine counsel. I really believe this is the case. Prayer is not just “me and God”. Prayer is a priestly activity. In addition to myself there are saints and angels, including some fallen powers, before the Throne. The Lamb is on the throne and in the midst of the elders, and the Father is upon the throne. The Lamb is the great high priest, and the saints and holy angels are lesser priests, and they all offer sacrifices of incense and intercession to the One on the Throne through the Lamb, who ever intercedes and whose intercessions will not be rejected. It is a royal, as well as a liturgical, space. The Lamb is the Son and Crown Prince, the One on the Throne is the Father and King. The saints are adopted and beloved sons, royalty invited into the King’s secret councils. The more one gets to know the Father and the Son and the Spirit, the more confidence one has in prayer, for your prayers cease to be the petitions of an individual. They become participation in the governance of the kingdom, and the King is just and good and passionately interested in the wellbeing of the kingdom and everything that occurs within it. Other councils are also being voiced before the throne, and not all of them intend well. Some are subversive, hostile to the King and Crown Prince and the interests of the kingdom. They persecute the saints and make war against the angels. Thus, it is desperately important not simply that good “win”, but that the Victor appear good — that at the end of the day it be clear who is righteous and who is not. Prayer and worship participate in this, too. The saints ever keep in mind the reputation of the One on the throne and of the Lamb. Their very identities are integrated with that of the King, for he is their father by adoption, the source of their own beatitude and ground of their rule in the kingdom. They are jealous that he be honored, and pray with that in mind. What they speak in the council they do so to honor the King and the Lamb and neutralize the enemies. The more we get to know the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the more we can speak effectively to this end. We come to know the love of God and enter more deeply into his counsel and life. The more we know the love of God, the more confident grow our prayers, where love is not always or just a feeling, but an act of the will that becomes the fabric of one’s very being and identity.
The above effects how I pray, or perhaps the above view grew out of our I prayed — it’s difficult to tell. I try to pray daily and as often as I think of it. Periodically, I try to engage what Dave Hansen calls “long, wondering prayer” — walking a few miles, letting my distracted mind simply be distracted before God, treating life as something lived in the Presence. I do use gestures, especially when out amongst people. If I sense I’m being hypocritical or worried for my own appearance, I withdraw; otherwise, I try to worship and pray outwardly in a way to direct the attentions of those around me to what is going on in the Spirit’s realm. Hands upraised in blessing and words such as “Blessed be…” or “Let it be….” are not simply requests (although they are), but participation in the life and rule of God over the creation. When God himself is the One blessed, the creation is being offered back to Him in sacrifice, it’s transformation interceded for that He might properly be blessed by and within it, his just and loving character no longer obscured by the malice of demons and men. Hands raised with palms up or resting on my knees symbolize openness to receive from him. He doesn’t need the gestures, though. (Invocation is not incantation. Incantation is where an occultist tries to manipulate the divine; invocation operates out of the confidence that God is open to us and for us, and wills the best, and is active in the world, and so does not need to be manipulated! In fact, he rather dislikes it…)
When doing the above, there are some bits and pieces of prayer I do find myself, personally, coming back to. These are largely fragments of scripture and liturgy. These days, I find myself using a lot phrases including the trishagion, the Jesus prayer, blessing upon the kingdom of the Trinity, affirmation that God is the source of all goodness and that we only offer to him out of his goodness (“All things come from you, and of your own do we give you”), pleading for mercy upon myself and the system of which I am a part, and sometimes appeals to his reputation a la the psalms.
In discerning how to pray and for whom, I find it helpful to keep a couple general guidelines in mind. First, abstraction is frequently the devil’s realm, whereas the concrete and actually real is the Holy Spirit’s. I think it was Oswald Chambers (but it may have been Bonhoeffer) who noted this with regards to the confession of sin and guilt — that Satan likes to stir up self-hatred along the lines of generalities (“you’re not pious enough”), but that the Holy Spirit is specific (“just now you were unreasonably angry with your brother”). Tim Becker taught me that this applies over a vast range of matters. Whenever a matter occurs to me, I try to think of some particular, specific request I can make about that matter, keeping in mind the just, loving character of God. I then try to articulate that request in words. If my request is too abstract, I try not to make it; if it has been corrupted with unbelief regarding the character of God, I confess it as brokenness and plead for mercy on myself and do not make it as a request.
On praying for myself, if I find myself falling into self-pity, I focus on gratitude and intercession. If I am genuinely suffering, however, or am in real pain, I pray for myself. C.S. Lewis notes that it is a trick of the enemy (temptation towards spiritual pride?) to convince us we should never pray for ourselves. Sometimes we need mercy to strengthen us so that we can pray for others. Here, I find it helpful to think of myself as like a ranger in a rough wilderness, responsible to help guide other pilgrims through treacherous land. If my health or good judgment becomes compromised I risk the safety of everyone with me. Of course, sometimes a ranger has to treck ahead despite pain. There are no clear rules here, only guidelines. Our success hinges not upon our genius to get it right, but on the faithfulness of Jesus, whose Spirit is the chief “ranger” who searches all things in this wilderness, even the infinite depths of God, and who will not get lost or tired. If we get a bit wrong, we stumble, repent in His grace, then get up — and he is pleased with us doing so.
I hope this helps and isn’t either too general, on the one hand, or without sufficient explanation on the other!