Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: May 3rd, 2014
I still remember the words of this Church leader many years ago: "Prayer meeting? You go ahead. I'll pray when there is a need." At that time, that statement made me quite confused about the whole idea of prayer. What is the purpose of prayer? What if we do not have any immediate need? Does it mean that we pray only as a last resort? Why pray?
Throughout history, many saints of old have also been masters of prayer. The apostles learned it first-hand as they watch the Master Himself pray so regularly. Subsequently, the meek Simon Peter the fisherman, turned into a fearsome preacher, becoming one of the most prominent leaders of the Church. The zealous Apostle Paul became a powerful preacher of the gospel to the Gentile world. The fourth century saint, Augustine of Hippo's classic Confessions is an open prayer about his own spiritual state and his hunger for God. Augustine was known not only for his powerful intellect. His passion and love for God has been exemplary for both Roman Catholics and Protestants even today. Influenced by his prayerful mother, his classic work "Confessions" has helped shaped the theological world through honest prayer. So influential is his work that his beginning has been used as a core introduction to the Westminster Confession.
"You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable. Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being bearing his mortality with him, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." (Augustine, Confessions, Book I.i.1)In just one verse above, there are five reasons why we pray.
A) God is Great
The Muslims use the phrase "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) in their prayers. Many Christians use "Praise God" in their everyday language. For Augustine, not only does he begin with the declaration of the greatness of God, he anchors his prayer on the Word of God. "You are great, and highly to be praised" is a direct reference to Ps 47:2 and "Great is Your power and Your wisdom is immeasurable" is from Ps 146:5. Just like the way God refers to Himself as the I AM, there is no better way to describe the greatness of God than to use the Word of God. The saints of old are richly nourished with the Word of God, just like Jesus. Note how Jesus himself was full of Scriptures everywhere he ministered.
"It is folly for any man to attempt to fight in his own strength. The world, the flesh, and the devil are too much for any man. But if we are linked to Christ by faith, and He has formed in us the hope of glory, then we shall get the victory over every enemy." (Dwight L. Moody, The Overcoming Life,Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995, 8-9)
Isn't that comforting? It is not us or our prayers that overcome but it is God who makes all things happen. That means that our praying is not the magic. It is an act of faith in the One who is greater than any magic.
B) Man is Mortal
Augustine goes on to declare that man is mortal, a created being who is just a small part of the world. "Bearing his mortality with him" is a direct reference to 2 Corinthians 4:10 which says:
"We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body." (2 Cor 4:10)
We are nothing, but in Christ, we are everything. This is why we need to pray in the Name of Jesus. This is why we end our prayers with the words, "In Jesus' Name we pray. Amen." In prayer, we learn that we by our own will never survive the effects of the world. Without God's guidance, we are like lambs being led to the slaughter. In prayer, we acknowledge our weakness. We confess our iniquities. We admit our limitations. We call ourselves "CHRISTians." It is "Christ" we carry with us all the time. In prayer, we let this be manifested in our thoughts, and our words.
C) We Arrest Our Pride
Prayer is a natural check against any rising pride within us. Remember how Jesus spoke out against the religious leaders and pagans in that era, who loved to pray long prayers, full of flowery words and motions?
5“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." (Matthew 6:5-8)Pride tries to show off our learning. Pride tries to deceive people toward wrong beliefs. Pride dishonours God. Augustine goes on to describe this condition in his prayer "carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud." God welcomes the humble but resists the proud. It is because pride is so subtle that we need to make sure that we do confessions every time we pray. For in confession, we let God humble us and to let ourselves be right-sized back to reality.
D) We Reignite What is Natural for Us
"Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation" is a beautiful acknowledgement by Augustine on the true natural state of man, the man that God had created to be. Far too often, we have used the word, "natural" to describe the flaws, the weaknesses, and the follies of man. People say, "It's only human nature" more as an excuse to escape blame. After all, if it is mere "human nature" to do wrong, we relieve ourselves from responsibility. The chorus by the group, The Human League is revealing:
I'm only human
Of flesh and blood I'm made
Born to make mistakes
Are we only "born to make mistakes?" Theologically, that is only half right. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10 that we are created for good works, and sin has kept us from perfection. We are not created to make mistakes. It is sin that has marred our capacity to do good. The danger of this statement is that we put the blame of mistakes smack at the hands of God. Instead of admitting our faults, we put the responsibility of our mistakes and throw it on God. The true desire for doing good works is to let the good work be an outworking of praise to God. That is the reason we live. Sin has damaged that intent. Sin has disconnected our purpose from godliness to worldliness. Sin has thrown us off course. In prayer, we re-calibrate ourselves back to the path God had intended for us to travel.
E) We Rest in God
The Westminster Confession proclaims outright that "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." This is a paraphrase from Augustine's famous words, "You stir man to take pleasure in praising You, because You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You."
This is beautiful and tells us of our calling, our purpose, and our covenant with God. Without God we are nothing. Without God, we remain restless and centerless. Without God, we are lost. The notion of a Sabbath is a powerful way to demonstrate how much we need God. We need to learn to pray not because we need answers to our world problems. We need to pray simply because we desperately need God. Augustine knew it, and declares that we are forever restless until we find our spiritual center in God. Dwight Moody writes:
"Rest cannot be found in the world, and thank God the world cannot take it from the believing heart! Sin is the cause of all this unrest. It brought toil and labour and misery into the world." (Moody, The Overcoming Life, 102-3)
These are the five reasons why we pray. We pray to a Great God. We pray as mortal beings to an Immortal God. We pray to arrest spiritual pride. We pray to be the image of God that we had been created to be. We pray that we find true rest in God. As we observe the Sabbath, we move away from the hollow promises of the world toward the holiness of the Kingdom. We move away from the empty routines that suck up our resources, and to move toward a bigger picture of God's will for the world, as we glimpse at the Face of Jesus in worship. We are not mere workers. We are worshipers. We are not measured by what we do. We are measured by what God has declared. That we are loved. Let that love of God motivate us to serve, not the love of frantic working.
THOUGHT: "The obvious sign is you overwork. You become a workaholic because 'everything depends upon you.' If you don't take a Sabbath, something is wrong. You're doing too much, you're being too much in charge. You've got to quit, one day a week, and just watch what God is doing when you're not doing anything." (Eugene Peterson)
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