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