Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Prayer as the Fulfillment of Human Identity


I learned how to pray from my parents. Like many such conversations between parents and preschool-aged Christians, I’m sure it covered the basics and was phrased in the simplest of ways. Prayer is just talking to God, thanking him for the good things that we have and asking him to help us and to help other people. I’ve had that same conversation with my children. 

But even beyond sound advice like this, a keen young Christian picks up a number of other things about prayer quite quickly. For instance, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that it was expected for you to close your eyes and bow your head when you prayed. Though folding one’s hands wasn’t obligatory in our family, I also knew that that was appropriate. And even though I seldom knelt, I knew from pictures in my children’s devotional books that the really knock-it-out-of-the-park sort of prayer was to have your eyes closed, hands folded, head bowed, on your knees beside your bed. This sort of posture was standard for prayer at home, and it was standard for prayer at church—eyes closed, head bowed, hands clasped; those who truly wanted to show their devotion could even slouch further down and rest their elbows on their knees as they prayed. 

It came as a bit of shock to discover, many years later, that most of these things are Western conventions, and of fairly late origin. That is to say, the first Christians often knelt down to pray (Acts 20:35, 21:6; Eph. 3:14), and kneeling was seen as an appropriate means of prayer, but not necessarily the standard one. Nor was folding your hands a common gesture in prayer. Nor was bowing your head. Nor, astonishingly, was even closing your eyes. 

Drawing on the worship traditions of the Old Testament people of God, it seems that Christians, while giving place for bowing and kneeling as the Israelites had done (Ps. 95:6; 1 Kings 8:54), used standing as their regular posture for prayer. Add to this the fact that early churches were not equipped with pews, and standing became the normal way to pray. Not only would they pray standing, they would pray with arms outstretched (Job 11:13, Ps. 28:2, 63:4, 77:2) and head uplifted (Ps. 123:1; Job 22:26; Ezra 9:6). 

So why does this matter? While the use of the body in prayer is an important thing to consider, the main point here is that the early church (and the Old Testament people of God) prayed the way that they did for a very good reason. The early church’s understanding of posture in prayer teaches us about human identity and human vocation, and these topics are central to prayer. We have to understand who we are in the Kingdom of God before we can understand the meaning of this great Kingdom-act of prayer.  

Early Christians didn’t stand in prayer just because they didn’t have any pews. They stood because standing is a position of dignity and authority. Kneeling or bowing, while also appropriate in prayer, are postures of submission, humility, and contrition. These are appropriate, of course, because in prayer we are approaching the all-holy, limitless God of the universe, and we feeble creatures are right to bend the knee and render him the homage of humble submission to his glory. Especially when we come before him as sinners seeking his undeserved favor, it is appropriate to come kneeling.  

But good theology would tell us that we’re not just sinners. We have already been granted the undeserved favor of God through the atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus our Lord; we have already been given a new and righteous standing in his presence. We are the redeemed of the Lord; we are, to use the language of the New Testament, his “saints,” and so contrition is not the only appropriate way to enter his presence, and probably not the one that we need to be using most frequently. Self-debasement is an appropriate way to show the contrast between God’s uncreated glory and our creaturely smallness, but if it is done too much, it will make us miss the biggest part of the Bible message about who we really are in God’s eyes. 

According to the Bible, we are not defined primarily by our sinfulness. Our sins are an unfortunate reality, and they have tainted the very warp and woof of human nature, but it is important to realize that sin is not as foundational to us as is our original, God-given nature. Despite everything that sin might do to deface the likeness of the image of God in us, it can never take away the sheer fact that we are the made in that image. The most basic reality of our existence is that we are the highest creations of the greatest God imaginable; more valuable and more awe-inspiring than the brightest star, the highest mountain, or the most beautiful masterpiece ever composed.  

Our identity as humans includes the fact that we are ruling beings, set between the physical world and the spiritual, in a place of privilege that no other creature can claim. As the image of God, we not only reflect certain aspects of God’s character, we also share in his reign. Immediately after the passage where God creates humanity according to his own image comes the commission to the human race to rule over the earth (Gen. 1:27-28), that is, to administrate a piece of God’s rulership as his regents over the created order. This identity and this vocation, at the very basis of who are as human beings, is important in our understanding of prayer. 

Many theologians, across many centuries, have raised the question of why Christians are asked to pray at all. Particularly, why are Christians asked to intercede for others, when clearly God has enough power and authority to do exactly as he wants to do with regard to those situations, with or without our prayers? If the things that happen in this world depend on the prayers of God’s people, at least in some measure, then why on earth would God put such a high task into our hands, who so often fail, when he could do it better on his own? On the other hand, if the things that happen don’t really depend on our prayers, then why are we bothering to pray about them?  

Part of the answer to these questions seems to be that it is the very position of humanity, as it has been from the beginning, to exercise some measure of the rule of God over this created world. We humans were created to be the regents of God’s reign, and in Christ that forsaken identity is restored to us. We have authority in this world simply because of who we are as the image of God, and when we pray for others, we are exercising that authority and fulfilling our first vocation. The early church viewed the creation narratives as placing both a kingly and a priestly power on Adam and Eve—regents of God’s reign toward physical creation, and mediators who are called to dispense the blessings of God toward all things. We are, in the words of Peter, “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9)–exercising authority as divine ambassadors in the reign of God and acting as the means and mediators of his blessings toward creation.


So, with regard to intercessory prayer, God certainly could do everything himself, but he has chosen instead to raise us up to places of dignity and authority. This is done in order to make us part of his great work—not only recipients of redemption, but active agents in bringing about the restoration of all things that was won and sealed by Christ. If God simply did everything himself, without regard to prayer, then being human would mean less than what it means right now. Because of these realities—the dignity and authority inherent in who we are as humans—standing became the normal posture for prayer. (In fact, some early church fathers counsel against kneeling too much in prayer.) We can stand in prayer because we act in prayer as the regents of God over all creation. We can raise our hands and lift up our eyes to God because he has arrayed us in his own splendor, and he has called us his sons and daughters. We are the image of God himself, granted unimaginable dignity and value, and we can claim that identity in prayer. Contrition and self-abasement need not be the only way we draw near to God; rather, we can “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb. 4:16). 

Prayer, then, is not just one of a number of items on our Christian checklist. It is the essential expression of our foundational nature. It is the way we fulfill our vocation as human beings and as Christians. In prayer, we exercise the royal prerogative granted to Adam, setting loose divine power to work in and upon the created world. And in prayer, we also exercise our priestly calling, to bring ourselves, our societies, and our world before the throne of God in intercession and blessing. To pray is to be human. In the words of John Stott, "Prayer is the one authentic human act." If then, you are not a praying Christian, then you are disavowing one of the most fundamental parts of your calling. To understand God’s will for you, and to get a sense of who you really are (both of which are questions that drive much of our spiritual introspection these days), you must begin with prayer, because prayer is the answer to both: prayer is God’s will for you, and prayer makes you who you really are.

(Paintings--Top: "Child at Prayer," by Eastman Johnson, c.1873; Top Middle: "Jesus Goes Up Alone on a Mountain to Pray," by James Tissot, c.1890; Bottom Middle: "The Lord's Prayer," by James Tissot, c.1890; Bottom: "Creation of Adam in Paradise," by Jan Brueghel the Younger, 17th cent.)

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