Prayer is dif­fi­cult to write about, large­ly because it’s dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend. I speak to God, yet I don’t see God. At times I’ve sensed God speak­ing to me in prayer, yet I’ve nev­er heard an audi­ble voice.

Here are some of the ques­tions I’ve asked or encoun­tered from oth­er peo­ple about prayer: 

Is God real­ly listening? 

Am I talk­ing too much? 

Does the Lord wish I would just qui­et down a bit? 

Isn’t prayer sup­posed to be a two-way conversation? 

If it is a dia­logue, how do I know when God is speak­ing to me? 

How can I dis­cern God’s voice from the oth­er voic­es echo­ing in my mind? 

And what of the prob­lem of dis­trac­tion? The moment we sit down to pray we start think­ing of so many things oth­er than prayer! So much inter­fer­ence! So much sta­t­ic! Things we haven’t thought about in years bub­ble to the sur­face of our con­scious­ness. The to-do list for today that we’ve been ignor­ing for hours sud­den­ly becomes a high pri­or­i­ty. What is one to do? 

How might ancient Chris­tians help us with our ques­tions and con­cerns? How, for instance, did the church fathers define prayer? 

Clement of Alexan­dria describes prayer as con­ver­sa­tion with God and observes that con­ver­sa­tion with God is like and unlike con­ver­sa­tion with oth­er human beings. When I com­mu­ni­cate with oth­er image-bear­ers, I most often use words to com­mu­ni­cate the thoughts with­in my mind — whether through my voice or through my pen. 

With­out words, com­mu­ni­ca­tion between humans is extreme­ly lim­it­ed. My body lan­guage or facial expres­sions may pro­vide a clue to what I’m think­ing, but unless I speak a thought into the air or tap it onto a com­put­er screen, mutu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion remains sore­ly crip­pled. Even the deaf must learn a lan­guage in which they com­mu­ni­cate to those who can and can’t hear: their hands speak their thoughts. With­out their move­ments or sig­nals, no com­mu­ni­ca­tion happens. 

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion with God seems quite dif­fer­ent from com­mu­ni­ca­tion between human beings. For one thing, as Clement per­ceives, God knows our thoughts before we ever express them. Silence may seal off oth­er folks from what we’re think­ing, but it’s use­less against God. 

God knows absolute­ly the thoughts of all,” Clement writes. What the voice com­mu­ni­cates to us, our thoughts speak to God. For, even before the cre­ation, He knew what would come into our minds. So, prayer may be uttered with­out the voice.”

Of course, the ques­tion imme­di­ate­ly aris­es: if God knows that I’m think­ing any­way, why both­er talk­ing? If God knows what I’m going to ask for in prayer — and knew this before time began — why both­er ask­ing? Does my ask­ing make any dif­fer­ence to God? God’s omni­science seems to fore­close gen­uine dia­logue with humans, unless more must be con­sid­ered than the extent of God’s knowledge. 

Ancient Chris­tians viewed prayer through the lov­ing per­son­al rela­tions with­in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spir­it. Before time ever exist­ed, before God’s cre­ative Word com­mand­ed the first atom to pop into exis­tence, Father, Son, and Holy Spir­it relat­ed to one anoth­er lov­ing­ly — always giv­ing, always receiv­ing, always lov­ing — in an incom­pre­hen­si­ble, time­less fash­ion. To be God, then, is to be love in communion. 

The Tri­une God has freely cho­sen to share this love with his image-bear­ers. God did not cre­ate because God was lone­ly; God has always expe­ri­enced rela­tion­ship and love with­in the being of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spir­it. Yet in the act of cre­ation God has cho­sen to share the rich­es and won­der of Trini­tar­i­an love, to allow it to rip­ple through the uni­verse, to invite a response of love from his lit­tle image-bear­ers. Yes, the knowl­edge the Trin­i­ty pos­sess­es is vast. God knows all things that can be known. But God’s knowl­edge is insep­a­ra­ble from God’s love.

So, what might be the impli­ca­tions of divine, lov­ing knowl­edge for our ques­tion: If God knows already, why ask?” As Richard Fos­ter has help­ful­ly per­ceived, the answer to our ques­tion could be as sim­ple as this: love often likes to be asked some­thing, even when it knows the answer. Such is the nature of love. 

We like our chil­dren to ask for things that we already know they need because the very ask­ing enhances and deep­ens the rela­tion­ship … Love loves to be told what it knows already … It wants to be asked for what it longs to give.” 

Pho­to by Har­li Marten on Unsplash

Text First Published July 2019

📚 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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