how prayer can liberate you from judgement and anxiety

As I continue to pray “Lord – teach us to pray” this year, all sorts of experiences and things I’m reading are ricocheting off one another, and occasionally showering me with glimmering sparks of insight.

Oliver O’Donovan’s paper on ‘Prayer and Morality in the Sermon on the Mount’ (Studies in Christian Ethics 22.1 [2000]: 21-33) did this to me yesterday. And, with my mind’s eye, I can still see the dazzling sparks settling around me.

I doubt I can reproduce this effect for you — it’s a bit like trying to advertise a 3D TV on normal 2D television. But this brief comment on the structure of Matthew 6.25-7.12 is one moment that could stand for many (pages 28-29):

We might have expected the command to ask be set directly beside the command not to be anxious. But by placing these two teachings one on either side of the command not to judge, Matthew has allowed us to see what judging has in common with anxiety. Judging, like worrying, is a false way of disposing of our power to care; it focuses care on the wrong of the past, just as worrying focuses it on the peril of the immediate future. Judging, like worrying, is unable to see through the bewildering complexity of meaning with which the world confronts us; it is tangled up in the twists and turns of its own narrative. It cannot revert to the simple and consistent goal towards which all things tend, the Kingdom of God and it’s righteousness.

To my mind, this is a brilliant diagnosis of the shared pathology behind what can appear as opposing sets of symptoms — proudly sitting in judgement on others, and anxiously judging yourself. Pride, someone has said, is just anxiety in drag. (Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, there’s truth there…)

Better still, it points the way to the liberating power of prayer — the asking, seeking, and knocking Jesus goads us to.

Only prayer can set us free from both judgement and anxiety. Because only a prayerful focus on the holy reputation, kingdom, and will of our Father in heaven has the power to draw our eyes and hearts away from ourselves — and our own little kingdoms.

Ultimately, only a living knowledge of God as our Father can give us the confidence to draw near to him with our needs. Rather than leaving us feeling like we have to steal what we need — as though either our needs are met or God’s kingdom agenda is advanced. An either/or that’s a sure recipe for judgement or anxiety…

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