A Summer in the Psalms
The very best book on the theology of prayer that I’ve ever read is Donald Bloesch’s The Struggle of Prayer (Harper & Row – 1980). I’ve got other books in my library that are better on the practice of prayer – Richard Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (HarperSanFrancisco – 1992) for instance. But Bloesch’s The Struggle of Prayer is hands down the best book on the theology of prayer that I’ve ever come across. In fact, it’s not just on my list of my favorite books about prayer; it’s on my list of my favorite books of all – a top ten volume.
At a time when the contemplative spiritual practices are in rich ascendancy – a move I fully and passionately support and in which I personally participate – Bloesch’s book is a reminder that such practices, while spiritually valid and valuable, are nevertheless not prayer by Biblical definition. The Bible has category for meditation. Some of the soundest teaching on meditation by the Biblical standards that’s out there was written by the late Peter Toon, an Anglican priest. Almost all of his books on meditation are available free on-line at http://www.anglicanbooksrevitalized.us. When you start looking for material on meditation you’ll run across lots of spiritually shaky stuff pretty quickly – we’ve always got to be discerning. This is why I would urge anyone who is interested in exploring Biblical meditation further to go on the journey with a really good guide, and Peter Toon is one of the best. But even should you take the trip with Peter, when you’ve meditated, you’ve meditated and not prayed.
Meditation is spiritually legitimate and even enjoined by the Scriptures. But Biblically, prayer is different from meditation, and that’s Donald Bloesch’s big point in The Struggle of Prayer. He argues that Biblical prayer is not “mystical rapture nor ritual observance nor philosophical reflection,” but rather “the outpouring of the soul before a living God, the crying to God ‘out of the depths” (8). The image that immediately comes to my mind when I hear this is that of the Patriarch Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord through the long night at fork of the creek named Jabbok (Genesis 32:21-32). The picture at the beginning of this week’s blog is an artist’s vision of this Biblical moment. It’s the image of a struggle – painful and laborious – and Biblically it’s an image of prayer.
As Donald Bloesch wrote –
True prayer involves… wrestling with God in the darkness. Wrestling not whining, for it springs from strength, not weakness. It means refusing to let go of God without a blessing; as Jacob wrestled with the angel of God, so the Christian wrestles with his God in prayer. To be sure,, we also wrestle with the powers of death and hell and the law of sin within us. But at the same time we wrestle with God, as Job persisted in doing: “If he would slay me… I should still argue my cause to his face” (Job 12:15 NEB). A similar attitude d reflected in Luther’s version of Jeremiah 20:7: “O Lord, thou hast persuaded me against my will, thou art stronger than I.” The Canaanite woman who implored Jesus to heal her daughter and who persisted even after he at first refused also exemplifies this theme of striving or wrestling with God (Matthew 15:21-28)… Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane exemplifies the man of prayer striving with God. His prayer was “not stoic resignation to the inescapable, but a profound acceptance of the ways of God that are not the ways of man.” He did not meekly submit, but pleaded for his life. He surrendered to the will of his Father only after striving to change this will. (76-77)
“Striving to change this will?” Do we really wrestle with God in prayer to somehow change His will? I’m an expert in “struggling” with God in prayer, but mainly because I’m such a slow student. Paul was talking about me when he said that “we don’t know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26) and that we don’t “naturally” understand the things of the Spirit (I Corinthians 2:14). Most of my striving with God in prayer is the result of my own failure to apprehend the ways and will of God. Last Sunday in church our focus was on the seven Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 & 143). These Psalms all assume that the primary problem I have with prayer is me. The rebellion of my sin directly interferes with both my access to and discourse with the God who has made it abundantly clear in His word that He is holy. There is wrestling every time I pray because God has made a commitment in Jesus Christ to pursue and subdue me. Like a calf roper in the rodeo, every experience of prayer that I have begins with my sense that God has to ride me down and tie me up. Just like Jacob I can be unruly and need to be hobbled before God can do much with me. This kind of striving with God in prayer I get. It’s my experience. I’m an expert in it. But Donald Bloesch is pretty adamant that this is just part of the story of the struggle that we have with prayer.
Prayer is not simply petition, but strenuous petition. It is not just passive surrender but active pleading with God. It involves not only submission to the will of God but seeking to change his will. It consists not merely in reflection on the promises of God but in taking hold of those promises (cf. Isaiah 64:7). It is often said by those who are attracted to mystical or to philosophical prayer that our petitions change our attitude toward God but that they have no real effect upon God, who is unchangeable and impassible. My contention is that prayer does effect a change in God’s attitude to us and in his dealings with us. Prayer is reciprocal: it has a definite impact on both parties involved. That God permits prayer to exert an influence on him is attested throughout the Scriptures (Abraham’s bargaining for Sodom – Genesis 18:22-33; Nineveh’s repentance after Jonah’s preaching – Jonah 3:10; Moses’ intercession after Israel’s idolatry – Psalm 106:2; the staying of the plague when Phinehas prayed – Psalm 106:30; Amos stopping the judgment of God from falling on Israel – Amos 7:1-6). In this light we can understand Spurgeon’s contention that “prayer is able to prevail with heaven and bend omnipotence to its desires.” Prayer in the sense of striving with God in order to alter his ways with his people is utter nonsense to the philosopher… Against the philosophical understanding of prayer Karl Barth insisted that real prayer presupposes a living God who hears and acts – “He is not deaf, he listens; more than that, he acts. He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. This is what the word ‘answer’ means.” Christian faith, to be sure, affirms the essential trustworthiness of God’s declared will and purpose for the world; God cannot deny or contradict himself. Yet Scripture makes clear that God has chosen to work out his purposes in cooperation with his children. His ultimate will is inflexible, but the ways by which he seeks to implement this will are flexible. He does not change his final purpose, but he does alter his methods for realizing this purpose. He is unchangeable in his holiness and righteousness, but changeable in the giving of his grace. Prayer, as Fosdick observed, cannot change God’s intention, but it can change God’s action. (73-74)
And so, if this right, the struggle of prayer goes two ways. We wrestle with God and His will, and God wrestles with us and our fervent requests. When we break the terms of the covenant that we have with God (how God has “structured” our relationship), the penitential Psalms become the script we voice. They teach us how to say “I’m sorry.” And when it feels like God is just not keeping up His end of the covenant that we’ve made with Him, a different category of Psalms – the Lament Psalms – provide us with the vocabulary that we need to give voice our deep frustration and disappointment. They teach us how to say “How long, O Lord,” and to ask the urgent “Why?” And it is between these two poles of the Psalter – the Penitential Psalms and the Psalms of Lament – that the struggle of our prayer gets waged. DBS+