Our dai­ly lives, our habit­u­al pat­terns of think­ing and act­ing, are insep­a­ra­ble from our prayers. For instance, if our thoughts and actions are habit­u­al­ly angry, our anger will sure­ly infect our prayers. As Ter­tul­lian, an ancient North African Chris­t­ian, writes, Prayer should be uttered from a spir­it like the Spir­it to whom it is sent … What rea­son is there to go to prayer with hands indeed washed, but the spir­it foul?” Oh my, that was direct, but it’s par for the course with Tertullian.

Ter­tul­lian is rais­ing the vol­ume lev­el for a rea­son. He is con­vinced that God’s image-bear­ers, left to them­selves, can be deeply, hor­ri­bly self-deceived. Our fun­da­men­tal self-decep­tion, Ter­tul­lian is con­vinced, man­i­fests itself in a habit­u­at­ed ten­den­cy to lie about the true con­di­tion of our lives. 

We imag­ine our­selves gen­er­ous yet rarely give any­thing away. Pure in our think­ing yet addict­ed to a week­ly jaunt through the Web’s dark­est cor­ri­dors. We can blithe­ly assas­si­nate someone’s char­ac­ter and five min­utes lat­er be sit­ting in a wor­ship ser­vice or retreat cen­ter, pray­ing for the very same per­son whose char­ac­ter we just murdered. 

Our habit­u­at­ed thoughts and behav­iors are who we are — our char­ac­ter. And it is our char­ac­ter that we bring into prayer with us. We have no oth­er choice. Does this mean we should stop pray­ing? No. For prayer is a prin­ci­pal means of heal­ing and reshap­ing our char­ac­ter into the image of Christ. 

It does mean, as Ter­tul­lian points out, that it’s impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate our lives into her­met­i­cal­ly sealed box­es — my spir­i­tu­al life in Box A, my day-to-day life in Box B. The walls of these box­es are per­me­able; they leak. What’s going on out­side of prayer in my life leaks into my prayers. 

Prayer, then, is an invi­ta­tion to open­ness and hon­esty before God. It sure­ly is not the time to show off. The church fathers took Jesus’ instruc­tions to retire to one’s room to pray alone very seri­ous­ly (Matt. 6:5 – 15). Ancient Chris­tians were reluc­tant to have indi­vid­u­als pray pub­licly, at least in terms of pub­lic, spon­ta­neous prayer, large­ly because of the temp­ta­tion to use prayer as a means of self-promotion. 

The fathers viewed with wari­ness exag­ger­at­ed pos­tur­ing, speak­ing loud­ly in prayer as though we need­ed to attract God’s notice, and any attempt to draw atten­tion to one­self rather than God in prayer. Ter­tul­lian, I think with a hint of humor, advis­es us to use a sub­dued” voice in prayer, rather than a loud one. For if we are to be heard for our noise, what large wind­pipes we would need! But God is the hear­er — not of the voice — but of the heart.” 

We don’t need to shout to wake a sleepy deity. God is always lis­ten­ing and watch­ing. To be truth­ful, it is we who often pos­sess hard­ened ear drums and blind­ers on our eyes. Cypri­an, a North African bish­op, exhorts, Be con­stant in both prayer and read­ing. First, speak with God; then let God speak with you. Let Him instruct you in His teach­ings, let him direct you.”

The fathers wise­ly under­stood that we have an audi­ence of one for our prayers. This is not to say that the fathers for­bade pub­lic prayer — Ter­tul­lian acknowl­edges that Paul and Silas sang in prison, with won­der­ful results (Acts 16:25 – 34). It is to say that ancient Chris­tians under­stood that pride too often infects even the most seem­ing­ly holy actions. We can deceive our­selves too eas­i­ly, imag­in­ing that we are talk­ing to God when we are only talk­ing to our­selves, some­times about ourselves. 

I’m remind­ed of Jesus’ words about the hyp­o­crit­i­cal Phar­isee: The Phar­isee stood up and prayed about him­self: God, I thank you that I am not like oth­er men — rob­bers, evil­do­ers, adul­ter­ers — or even like this tax col­lec­tor” (Luke 18:11). The Pharisee’s self-decep­tion and pride — his bloat­ed, exag­ger­at­ed self-esti­ma­tion — blind­ed him to the truth. Is he real­ly not like oth­er men”? Hard­ly. Indeed, this Pharisee’s state before God has placed him in a very per­ilous posi­tion. If he remains blind, he will nev­er see his need for the truth and will con­tin­ue his mer­ry, self-deceived jour­ney through life. A false self-esti­ma­tion has dis­tort­ed his prayers and trapped him in a dead zone of self-deceit. 

Pho­to by Fal­lon Michael on Unsplash

Text First Published March 2018 · Last Featured on Renovare.org February 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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