is prayer more than just asking God for stuff?

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Towards the end of Stanley Hauerwas’s fascinating and deeply moving memoir, Hannah’s Child, he recounts how the Lord has been teaching him to pray. As he tells it, part of this process has been learning how not to pray — and here he singles out the verbal tic, endemic to the circles I move in, of ‘just asking’ God: “Lord, we just ask you to do X or Y”.

Hauerwas once provocatively suggested that bad prayer habits de-form us in serious ways: “You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend” (The Truth About God).

But his objection to the ‘just asking’ phenomenon zooms in on the hypocritical pride he sees lurking in the pat phrase. According to Hauerwas, it’s the prayer equivalent of a humble brag.

The fig leaf of (apparent) humility goes something like this: “When I pray ‘Lord, I just ask you…’, I’m not asking much, am I? Just this one little thing. That’s all.” But concealed beneath it is an arrogant assertion of entitlement: “Lord, I’m just asking you for this! And surely you won’t be miserly enough to withhold such a small thing. In fact, you probably kind of owe it to me…”

Ouch. I think that’s a fair few of my prayers right there.

And yet… isn’t ‘just asking’ the very thing Paul encourages his Christian readers to do in Philippians 4.6 (quoted above)? To let their requests be made known to God?

In fact, I’ve read some fairly compelling arguments for saying that ‘just asking’ God is close to the essence of Christian prayer. Not ‘listening to God’. Or silently communing in some inarticulate ecstasy. Or wrestling with myself as much as — if not more than — with God.

Sure, God might speak to me as I’m praying. Audibly or inaudibly.

However, I remain more or less committed to the idea that God does in fact speak to us chiefly in the way he’s promised to: through his Spirit-inspired word in the Bible, where our risen Lord Jesus meets us “clothed in his promises” (as Calvin puts it). And expecting him to relate to us in ways that he hasn’t told us to expect — well … that’s kind of arrogant, isn’t it?

Equally, I may be transported in the midst of prayer to a state of ecstatic and awestruck joy. This happened to me earlier this year in response to a sermon I heard that powerfully brought home the goodness and reality of God’s loving fatherhood for his adopted children.

But it would be unrealistic — and I think unbiblical — to expect this to characterise our every experience of prayer. I would even say it’s proud to think we’re entitled to this!

And I may have to wrestle with myself in prayer to bring my will into line with God’s. Or to embed my prayer and supplication in thanksgiving (as Paul teaches) so I don’t turn inward in my anxiety but outward to my. Or even just to stop my attention wandering.

If Jesus’ example in the Garden of Gethsemane is anything to go by, we can probably expect this sort of struggle to colour our prayer lives fairly consistently.

But I’m not sure if that makes it essential to prayer. Certainly, if all we manage to do in a time of prayer is wrestle with our own will, out inclinations to thanklessness and self-involved worry, or our straying attention, then the job is less than half done!

We’re ready to pray maybe. But we haven’t yet prayed. Have we?

And in fact we may now be tempted to proudly brandish our hard won posture of readiness as some sort of talisman that secures God’s favour towards us. Rather than actually asking him to show us favour. In full knowledge of our rebellious, doubting, straying unworthiness. Resting nonetheless in the father-child relationship Jesus has wrestled decisively to secure for us.

What if the just asking prayer is the best we have?

Not as an arrogantly brief shopping list. But as our participation in the prayer of God the Son to his Father and ours. As his Spirit testifies with our spirits that we belong to him. And as we join our voices to Christ’s Gethsemane prayer — that cry of unprecedented access, “Abba, Father”…

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