“What is Prayer” by Ben Patterson
from “God’s Prayer Book; the Power and Pleasure of Praying the Psalms”
Prayer is more than a tool for self-expression, a means to get God to give us what we want. It is a means he uses to give us what he wants and to teach us to want what he wants. Holy Scripture in general, and the Psalms, in particular, teach us who God is and what he wants to give. When the members of his synagogue complained that the words of the liturgy did not express what they felt, Abraham Heschel, the great philosopher of religion, replied wisely and very biblically. He told them that the liturgy wasn’t supposed to express what they felt; they were supposed to feel what the liturgy expressed.
To be taught by the Bible to pray is to learn to want and feel what the Bible expresses—to say what it means and mean what it says. Those who have practiced this kind of prayer over time make a surprising discovery: As they learn to feel what the Psalms express, their hearts and desires are enlarged. They find that what they once regarded as strong desires were really weak, puerile little wishes, debased inklings of what is good.
Of course! Would not the God who made us in his own image understand better than we ever could what we really need? And shouldn’t we ask him for it? As C. S. Lewis put it, God Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
The best part of prayer is who you pray to. Answers to prayer are wonderful, but the Answerer is better. Spend enough time with Jesus, and you’ll start to look and think and act like Jesus. Seeing is becoming. The church father Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.” It’s true: God is never more glorified than when we come alive to the vision of God. Prayer is anticipation and preparation for the great day promised in Scripture when we will see Christ fully and “will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.”
How shall I call upon my God, my God, and my Lord, since in
truth when I call upon him I call him into myself? Is there any
place within me where God can dwell? How can God come into
me, God who made heaven and earth? O Lord my God, is there
any place in me that can contain you?
Is there any place in us that can contain God? No, there is not. Something must expand us for that to happen. The Psalms are God’s gracious gift to us to do that very thing. How sweet and kind of God to give us a book of prayers in his Word. This Word “is alive and powerful . . . sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.”
This is the very Word he gives us to pray in the Psalms!
Paul coined a word to describe the character of Scripture: He said it is “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Greek is literally “God-breathed.” The breath of God permeates the Bible. The breath of God is the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who spoke light into darkness and turned dust into living beings made in the image of God. This is the Spirit who God speaks to us in the Bible, making it “useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.
It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” (2 Timothy 3:16). With this thought, no doubt in mind, the poet George Herbert described prayer as “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.” The same Breath that gives us breath to pray comes to us through the God-breathed Scriptures. What we inhale in the Word of God, we exhale in prayer. Like language, what comes in comes out, changing us in the process.
Certainly, God invites us to pour out our hearts to him. The Psalms, which John Calvin called “an anatomy of all parts of the human soul,” can help us do that. All the joys, pleasures, hopes, fears, despairs, doubts, heartaches, terrors, and longings of which we are capable are mirrored, clarified, sanctified, and transformed in the Psalms, as are all the ways we may pray: supplication, intercession, praise, thanks, lament, and meditation. The Psalms, as many have said, are a mirror; they will reveal you. Yet they are much more. Read them and they will read you. Pray them and they will change you.
Prayer is better than a tool for mere self-expression, unless the self being expressed is the self being shaped by the Word of God into the image of Christ. And who is Christ, but the new Adam, the true human, the faithful Son who lived as we were all created by God to live? When we sin we are apt to excuse ourselves and say, “I’m only human.” But Jesus knows better. He points to himself and says, in effect, “When you sin, you are less than human.” We say, “Just be yourself when you pray.” Jesus says, in effect, “You need to be a self, a true self, before you can be yourself.”
To be in God’s presence is to be transformed. At the end of The Divine Comedy, Dante writes of passing through the levels of hell and purgatory before ascending through heaven into God’s very presence. He tries to describe what he saw when he looked into the face of God. Words fail him, for human language cannot express such a sight. But he does describe the effect gazing into the face of God has on his will and desire: But now my desire and will were revolved, like a wheel which is moved evenly, by the love that moves the sun and other stars.
The same love that moves stars and constellations and nebulae moves you. The apostle Paul said that to be in the presence of God is to have a veil lifted so we “. . . can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.”
Source: God’s Prayer Book, The Power and Pleasure of Praying the Psalms by Ben Patterson by Tyndale House Publishers
Reverend Ben Patterson is the Campus Pastor at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California. He served previously as the founding pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church (California), senior pastor of New Providence Presbyterian Church (New Jersey), and Dean of the Chapel at Hope College from 1993 to 2000. He is a contributing editor to “Christianity Today” and “Leadership Journal,” and the author of several books; his most recent work, a “Prayer Devotional Bible,” was released this past spring. Ben earned his bachelor’s degree from La Verne University in 1966 and his master’s of divinity from The American Baptist Seminary of the West in 1972.