God as Prayer

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Andrew Louth — in his very interesting series of lectures on Eastern Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy: A Personal Introduction — has a fascinating examination of who God is.

It is fascinating, because Louth takes an approach which I had never read before. In a usual western approach to proper theology — the theology of God — one examines God by looking at his nature or attributes, who he is in his essence or being.

The emphasis within the Eastern Christian church, however, is not to see God first and foremost as a being to be studied. Rather, Eastern theology emphasizes that God in his essence is a true mystery. We cannot truly know him in his being. We can only know him as he has revealed himself through history and redemptive acts (Western Christianity does not deny this of course, but following Aquinas et al, Western theology creates more categories with which to study God, for better or worse).

For this reason, Louth defines God as the one to whom we pray. Louth says this about God:

The ways Jesus wanted his disciples to remember him seems to me to suggest a different way of approaching the mystery of God. The Lord’s Prayer first and foremost teaches us that God is the one to whom we pray; he is not some ultimate principle or final value, but one to whom we can address our prayer, one with whom we can enter into a relationship. We call him “Father”; we are his children, his sons and daughters.

God is the one to whom we pray. Now, without this being wrong in my mind, when I first read this paragraph, I thought, “Yes I pray to God; but what is he? Yes, God is a personal being with whom I can interact, but what sort of being am I interacting with?” This definition of God seems to have no handles.

To flesh out what he means, Louth interacts with the numerous Christological and Trinitarian controversies which plagued the first centuries of the church. Who was Christ? And what was his relation to the Father? Without going into detail about all the opinions which were finally rejected, the Council of Nicaea finally articulated that Jesus was homoousios of the Father; put another way, Jesus Christ owns the same divine nature or substance as the Father. Later on, the Holy Spirit was argued to be homoousios as well.

What this all amounts to is that Christians worship one divine being who exists in three distinct persons; Or, we worship the Trinity. But what sort of existence does this Triune Being live? Louth, now having context, answer that this Triune being which we worship lives a life of reciprocal prayer and love! Or, God is in himself prayer. 

To concretize this concept of God as prayer, Louth brings in a doctrine first articulated by John Damascene called perichoresis. He says:

[John of Damascene] introduces a concept that had not hitherto been used with much confidence in relation to the Holy Trinity: the idea of perichoresis, interpenetration or coinherence. The persons of the Trinity are not separate from each other, as human persons are, rather they interpenetrate one another, without losing their distinctiveness as persons, their reality coincides or coinheres…

It seems to me that the doctrine of perichoresis, coinherence, that John introduces in the Christian theology, expresses well the realization that within the Trinity there is relationship, a relationship expressed in prayer. There is, as it were, a kind of mutual yielding within the Trinity: the Father makes space for the Son and the Spirit…and Son and the Spirit yield to the Father as they turn to him in prayer.

In other words, God himself is a mutual community of divine prayer and submission. And, what Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer is that we are invited via the gospel to join this community of prayer. This makes prayer not simply communication with God, but communion with the divine communion of the persons of the Trinity! What wonder!

 

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Praying to God as Father

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Christ the True Vine Icon. This icon pictures the disciples of Christ being caught up and participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, akin to branches connected to the vine (John 15)

In Matthew 6, the disciples, lost as to how to pray, ask Christ for a teaching on prayer. What Jesus gives them (and us) is the prayer of the Christian. It is almost credal in its emphasis. It does indeed mirror lines from the Apostles’ Creed. Early church father Tertullian, called the Lord’s prayer the “epitome of the whole gospel”. I assume, at least, that Jesus expected his disciples to memorize it, to know it intimately. To chew on the meaning of the lines, and to pray it often. This applies to the disciples of our age too!

One of the lines with which I’m almost always astonished as I pray, is the first line: “Our Father in heaven”.In this simple, short line, Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their Father. This command would almost certainly have been alarming to the disciples. Reason being is because the disciples could not conceive of calling God Father. 

In the OT, the Jewish people did understand Israel corporate to be God’s firstborn son. This is evident in passages such as Hosea 11:1 (a passage, interestingly, that Matthew depicts Jesus as fulfilling and subsuming in himself!). Israel was redeemed and adopted by God from their bondage to Egypt. However, no individual Jew would ever call God their Father. They related to God corporately, covenantally. Individually, however, Jewish people would not conceive to relate to God in such an intimate manner.

Connected to this is the reality that although all human beings can in some way attribute Fatherhood to God (Paul does in his discourse at Mars Hill in Acts 17), there is no human being that is properly, or by nature, God’s child. God is totally and utterly unique in his essence and substance. His holiness and “otherness” cannot even be comprehended by man. Certainly his nature isn’t shared by man. How then can a person even conceivably, realistically, call God a Father? This would have certainly been in the disciples’ minds.

So what did Jesus mean by commanding his disciples to call God their Father?

Frederick Bruner has a helpful discussion on this:

The church confesses in its Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son, our Lord”. Jesus’ relation to the Father is absolutely unique. He and he alone, is God’s Son by nature… Therefore, when Jesus gives us the right to call his Father by the address “our Father”, he is passing on something of his own priceless relation to God. This is Jesus’ greatest gift in the Lord’s Prayer… Jesus’ exquisetly simple reference to God as his “father”…, and now most intimately his gift to his disciples of “Our Father”, indicates a remarkable relation between Jesus, God, and Jesus’ disciples (Christbook, 296)

Bruner makes some theologically important points here (concentrate!): he points out from the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus, being God, has an actual, substantial connection to God the Father: he is God’s “only Son”; he shares in the same substance — the “homoosios”, as the Nicene creed says — as God the Father, and is thus his “eternally begotten Son”. When Jesus became a man, he did not give up his divine nature; rather, He added to himself a human nature — as the Chalcedonian creed says, he is one divine person with two natures. In this way then, Jesus the man, could call God Father and really mean it, because he had a true substantial relation to God the Father. He is truly the only man who can call God Father.

Going back to the Lord’s Prayer now: in giving us the command to call God “our Father”, what is Jesus teaching us?

Jesus is in fact expounding on one of the great mysteries of the gospel. As the early church fathers put it: God the Son became a son of man, that sons of men might become sons of God. That is to say, Christ came down and assumed what properly belongs to us, to give us a share in what properly belongs to him: Sonship (cf Gal 4:4). He united himself to human nature, that by by faith in him, we beggarly humans might be united to him and share in his relation to the Father.

I put the icon up top to illustrate this point. By faith, we are as it were, connected to Christ as branches to a vine; and he takes us up into himself — all the way up — to God the Father. And we gain filial relation to God the Father by the life of his trunk, or to say another way, by his Spirit. We are “born again” and receive supernatural life, and are adopted as true sons in the Son. We become, as a Peter put it, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and can relate to God really and truly as sons. What a dizzying, amazing truth that is!

 

What is Prayer?

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I’ve asked this question to myself too many times to ask. I know what prayer involves: petition, thanksgiving, etc. But, what is it? 

Eugene Peterson has a helpful answer to this question in his Working the Angles: Peterson says simply that prayer is “answering speech”. He explains what that means:

[P]rayer is never the first word; it is always the second word. God has the first word. Prayer is answering speech; it is not primarily “address” but “response.” Essential to the practice of prayer is to fully realize this secondary quality. It is especially important in the pastoral practice of prayer since pastors are so frequently placed in positions in which it appears that our prayers have an initiating energy in them, the holy words that legitimize and bless the secular prose of committee work or community discussion or getting well or growing up…

[But] the first word is God’s word. Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary.  (Kindle loc 450-453, 466-471)

For Peterson, prayer is not a human initiative toward God: it is not man attempting to begin a conversation with an aloof God. Rather, prayer is a response to the first initiation of God’s own word to mankind. Prayer is a logical response to God’s condescension and communication with us.

Peterson goes on to explain that the best way to pray is first to listen! God talks and acts first, then we respond. And so listening to God’s communication to us is how we learn talk to him. And of course, listening to God entails reading his divinely inspired Word: it is there that we hear his speech, see his acts, see his gracious iniative. And it’s there that we can respond.

Peterson also puts his finger on something when he says that rather than seeing prayer as “answering speech”, we are tempted to see prayer as the “first word”, something that “gets God’s attention”, something that “makes God act”. In other words, it is our temptation to see our own words as something that can initiate God’s response to us. This is dangerous, he says, because it makes human beings the “first cause”. In fact, Peterson will go so far as to call this mindset “closet Pelagianism”!

Jesus himself warned against the thought that prayer is something that “gets God’s attention”. Jesus says in Matthew 6:7-8:

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him

Frederick Bruner, commenting on this verse, says:

[A common] misconception of prayer that Jesus attacks is believing there must be much of it before it works… Some pagan convictions taught that the gods are reluctant to hear prayers unless prayers are long, and that only when the petitioner has proven oneself sincere by spending time in confession, praise, or even quiet do the divinities listen… (Christbook I, 289)

The thought during Jesus’ time was that in order to get the gods to listen, one must pray a lot and yell and get their attention; and then finally will the gods lend an ear (recall to mind the story of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, who went to such lengths as to cut themselves to gain the gods’ attention).

But what Jesus says is that “the Father already knows what you need before you ask” (v. 8)! What is implied in this statement is that God, your Father, knows and cares, and is already attentive. You don’t need to “pray much” for him to listen; you don’t need to initiate the conversation. Jesus denounces this thought that the human must initiate through prayer to get God’s care and attention. God the Father already knows what you need, and already cares. Rather, prayer is a response to God’s Fatherly care and love!

So then, prayer is a response to the loving care of Father who already knows and is already concerned with your needs. It is a response to what he has already said and done. 

Revival vs. Revivalism

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Doug Wilson contrasts the difference between what a revival is, and what revivalism is. He says,

Revival, which is a gift of God, has been turned into a work of man through theological confusion. The result is revivalism, not revival…

In a true revival, doctrine is the emphasis, and the doctrine is God-centered. In revivalism,… man is [at] the center, [and] feelings are emphasized. In [true] revival, truth overwhelms the mind, resulting in an emotional response — inexpressible joy. In revivalism, the emotions are excited directly, and any number of teachings, true or false, can do that…

In a true revival, the change in the moral behavior of those blessed is significant and lasting. With revivalism, very little is done to teach the people to restrain their passions. In fact, because the “revival” encourages a lack of restraint in the church, it is not long before a lack of restraint is evident elsewhere, usually in the area of sexual immorality (1)

I couldn’t agree more with Wilson. Revivalism is about emotions, the show, the lights and the smoke. But it is all mustered up. It is all planned, without any consideration that God’s Spirit is the One who brings about real revival.

But, in true revival, God is at the center, with healthy teaching, and a biblical emphasis. And true revival is brought about through the Word and prayer by God’s Spirit, bringing about conviction, salvation, and passionate repentance. 

For more consideration of this, here is a great conversation between Keller and Carson on revival. Some great thoughts here:

(1) Easy Chairs, Hard WordsDoug Wilson

Sin and the Sovereignty of God (part 4): Answering More Objections

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In my first post about objections to God’s sovereignty, I addressed the objection that if God is sovereign, then he is the cause of sin.

In this post, I want to address the objection that goes something like this: If God decreed everything that would happen, this makes us puppets, and takes away any real choice that we would make. In my opinion, misunderstanding the nature of how God makes his decree leads people to this conclusion. In my former posts, here, here, and here, part of my argument included the fact that God is able to decree the free choices of humans. That God decreed those free choices by no means takes away free will — it simply means that God can be and is sovereign over even the free actions of man.

Louis Berkhof says,

This objection [that God’s sovereignty takes away our free choices]…ignores the logical relation, determined by God’s decree, between the means and the end to be obtained. The decree not only includes the various issues of human life, but also the free human actions which are logically prior to, and are destined to bring about, the results.

In short, God’s decrees include our free choices. And what this means is that although God has planned to include my actions and choices in his plan, my choices are still my choices. Many argue for instance, that within a world where everything is decreed, prayer and evangelism are meaningless. But in fact, this is again misrepresenting God’s sovereignty. When it comes to answered prayers, God decided before hand to accomplish his purposes in and through our freely offered prayers. God dwells outside of time; so although I make my prayers in the year 2014 (or whatever year), God can decree to answer my prayers before the world even existed, and even use them to accomplish his purposes. To me, this makes prayers all the more important. God has designated the means to his own end, and my freely offered prayers are included in it. As Berkhof says, we cannot ignore the logical relation between God’s ends, and the means to his end.

Wayne Grudem has some more helpful insight with this objection. He says,

In response to the claim that choices ordained by God cannot be real choices, it must be said that this is simply an assumption based once again on [subjective] experience and intuition, not on specific scripture texts. Scripture repeatedly indicates that God works through our will, our power to choose, and our personal volition, and it consistently affirms that our choices are genuine choices, that they have real results, and that those results last for eternity…

[However], the kind of freedom that is often assumed by those who deny God’s providential control of all things is a freedom to act outside of God’s sustaining and controlling activity, a freedom that includes being able to make decisions that are not caused by anything external to ourselves. Scripture nowhere says we are free in those senses. That kind of freedom would be impossible if Jesus Christ is indeed “continually carrying along things by his word of power” (Heb 1:3) and if God “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11).

I think Grudem makes some good points here. First, just because we choose to do something doesn’t mean that God didn’t ordain to permit and use your free choices. Subjective experience alone cannot confirm or deny anything.

But also, Grudem makes a great point that no one is completely free, or outside of God’s providence. This would be impossible — even God’s permissive will is under his sovereign control. While we may say that we willfully and freely make choices in the sense that God in no way forces us to make the decisions we do, still God sovereignly decreed to permit and use those free choices, making them certain.

Grudem then critiques the theological idea that God simply foreknows everything, but does not decree anything. I found it immensely helpful. He says,

Others [who disagree with this idea of God’s sovereignty] say that God knows the future [simply] because he is able to see into the future, not because he has planned or caused what will happen…

[However, this] response fails to render our choices free in the way that [they] wish them to be free. If our future choices are known, then they are fixed and therefore predetermined by something (whether fate or the inevitable cause-and-effect mechanism of the universe). And if the are fixed, then they are not “free”…

I think that this is exactly right. Whether God decrees or not, if he foreknows the future, this means he foreknows a fixed future. And this means that the free will we may want doesn’t really exist, because the future God foreknows is fixed.

More than that, if the future is not certain because of God’s final decision, then what makes it certain? Fate? Nature? Random coincidence? Either way you slice it, something has to make the future fixed. While we do make free, non-coerced, unforced choices, these choices are either fixed by God’s decision, or by another force unknown to us.

With that said, I believe that God is able to render certain free-will actions, and that this by no means takes away man’s free choices. It simply means that God is the ultimate authority over all that has, is, and will happen. It certainly does not make us puppets.

Prayer and God’s Goodness (even when it doesn’t feel like it)

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In Matthew 6-7, Jesus expounds on a teaching in which he exhorts his followers not to worry, because those who are in him have almighty God as their Father. In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus tells his people that if God the Father has an overall general care for the world, why would he not have a very specific and powerful care for his sons and daughters? The answer, of course, is that if God cares for flowers, grass, and birds, he cares infinitely more for his children! Because of this, anxiety is something that should never characterize God’s people. Blood-bought, redeemed, and adopted sons and daughters of King Jesus have a sovereign, all-knowing, all-powerful God who does only good for his people. Why should we then worry? Answer: we shouldn’t!

Jesus finishes this teaching with a parable. And he tells us that because God is our Father, we should bring our needs and worries to God in prayer often. Christ tells us that if an earthly father “who [is] evil, knows how to give good gifts to [their] children, how much more will your Father who is heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt 7:11). Hopefully you can see the logic here. Even fallen sinful fathers desire good for their children; how much more does a perfect, all-powerful, all-caring, eternal Father desire your good? It’s almost silly to compare the two! And because our infinite God has a perfect and faithful commitment to his children, Christians should pray, trusting that God will take care of his people. Paul adds to this thought, telling us that God works only for the good of his people (Rom 8:28). All things happen necessarily for our betterment, our growth, and for our joy in God the Father. God is ruthlessly committed to his peoples’ good. And so in prayer, we should trust that God responds to our needs with good things (Mt 7:11).

But this begs the question: what about the times when God does not answer our prayers? What about the times when it seems that God does not give us the good for which we had been praying?

As I was praying with my wife last night, I thought about this for a while. And it struck me that my definition of good and God’s definition of good may at times be different. Much of the time they are the same; but from my finite perspective, often the things I perceive as good are really not good at all. From God’s infinite, all-knowing perspective, his good may be very different from ours.

In fact, this issue is addressed in scripture: sometimes our perspective on what “good” is needs to be changed in order to pray for God’s definition of what good is. Jesus says in John 15, “if you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (Jn 15:7). This is such an interesting verse, because it gives us a condition for answered prayer: We must abide in Jesus, and his teaching must abide in us. What this verse means is that when Christians abide in Christ, and allow his teaching to take root in us, we will ask for things which God already wants for us. We will ask for things that God sees as good, because we also see them as good. This verse echoes Psalm 37:4, which says, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart”. Again, this implies that what God delights in will become what we delight in. God’s definition of “good” will also become oursand so we can pray for whatever we want! 

What this also means though is that often when we pray for what we perceive to be “good”, God will not see it as good. And when we don’t receive that perceived “good”, we must trust that there was a better, more fuller good that God has in store; and because of that, God answers “no” to our good in exchange for his good. And though we don’t have the eternal perspective that God has, we do have a perfect Father in whom we can trust.

Whenever we don’t get an answer to prayer for something “good”, we must trust in God’s infinite and better goodness. We must trust that God is a good Father who only gives us what is good. We must trust that God is faithful and committed to give us this good, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

And one thing I do know: God’s good gifts are better than my own measly impression of what “good” should be. I want that more than anything else.