A Summer in the Psalms
We spent last Sunday with Psalm 56, a Psalm of Petition. In getting ready for preaching and teaching this Psalm I went through most of the books on prayer that I have in my library, and one that I stumbled across was a book that I inherited from my father-in-law, a book by David Hubbard, the President of Fuller Theological Seminary when I was a student there back in 1976. There are some books that are worth having because of the title, and Dr. Hubbard’s book certainly belongs in this category: The Problem with Prayer Is… (Tyndale 1972). “Prayer is a problem,” the first chapter begins. “We might as well admit it. There are many different reasons, and all of us can find one or more” (9). And all I can say is “Amen!”
As my friend James Denison, the former pastor at Park Cities Baptist Church just down the street from Northway put it, “For years I have pondered the ‘whys’ of prayer.” And I’m pretty sure that anyone who prays does.
In a really good blog that he wrote back in 2008, Pastor Joe McKeever expressed his disapproval of a fellow pastor who wrote a book on prayer and then marketed on the basis of the fact he was a self-avowed “expert on prayer” (http://joemckeever.com). “How does one become an expert on prayer?” Joe wanted to know. “At what point does he or she move from apprenticeship in the greatest of all subjects to becoming a master?” Probing the sources of his deep sense of offense at the claim of his colleague, Joe concluded that Biblically “there are no experts on prayer, and here’s why –
‘We do not know how to pray as we should’ Paul said in Romans 8:26. It appears to me that if anyone could claim status as a prayer expert, it would be this apostle. But not only does he refuse the designation, he basically says that there aren’t any, that no one qualifies for that august category. There are no experts on prayer.”
After wishing that Paul had gone into a little bit more detail on the reasons why we so not know how to pray as we should, Joe took a stab at it himself, and this is what he concluded –
“We do not know how to pray as we should because ‘we see through a glass darkly’ (I Corinthians 12:12)… Right now our vision is limited and partial and cloudy with the result being that our understanding is always going to be less than we would like…
We do not know how to pray as we should because we ‘walk by faith and not by sight’ (II Corinthians 5:7)… The very concept of faith implies missing parts of the puzzle, questions without answers, and incomplete information…
We do not know how to pray as we should because ‘we are not adequate to think anything of ourselves’ (II Corinthians 3:5). We know ourselves in such a limited way that we hardly make any grand pronouncements about areas where we (think) we have arrived…
We do not know how to pray as we should because ‘our God is in heaven,’ and ultimately, ‘He does whatever He pleases’ (Psalm 115:3). No one erecting the framework for a skyscraper (or bungalow) that is his philosophy of prayer should leave this out: God has His own purposes and His own reasons for doing things, which He may or may not tell us about.”
I agree with Joe. As many books as I have on prayer in my library and as much attention as I pay to my own life of prayer, I must honestly admit that I am still no expert when it comes to praying. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I would love to be. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity that I admire so, the theologian is not the person who reads books and thinks big thoughts about God – something that I have cultivated a certain affinity for, but rather, the theologian is the person who knows how to pray. To be this kind of theologian is my highest aspiration at this point in my life, but I know that I still have such a long way to go.
Mystery (fully recognizing that there are many things about God that I just don’t know) and modesty (freely admitting that I don’t always understand even the things that I know) conspire in me to offer all of my prayers with the provision: “if it be Thy will.” The example of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-44) and the emphatic and extravagant teaching of the New Testament – “And this is the confidence that we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him” (I John 5:14-15) – have convinced me that this is a prudent practice. But there are those who criticize it.
Roger Olson teaches theology down at Truett Seminary in Waco (the graduate seminary of BaylorUniversity). In his blog “Musings about Prayer” from November 27, 2012, he wrote –
I am personally opposed to attaching “If it be thy will” to every petitionary prayer. If the Bible says something is God’s will, then we should pray that he do it… The Bible encourages confident prayer, not weak praying that lacks confidence in God’s desire to heal, to provide and to save. So long as petitionary prayer is prayed with understanding of God’s superior wisdom and sovereignty, attaching “if it be thy will” doesn’t, in my opinion, serve any purpose when the prayer is for something God has revealed to be his will. (www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson)
And this gave me pause last week as I lived with Psalm 56. As I said in my message on Sunday morning –
In Psalm 56, three different times – once in verse 4, and twice in verse 10 – David told us that the reason why he cried out to the Lord with such confidence when he was in trouble was because of what he knew to be true of God from His word. In the logic of the familiar children’s hymn, David believed that God was there and that God cared about what he was going through because “the Bible told him so.” Beneath our practice of prayer are the things that God has told us about Himself in His Word that give us the confidence to cry out to God believing that we will be heard and that God will respond.
So, does saying “if it be Thy will” to God when we pray our petitions contradict this confidence in what God has said? Roger Olson says “yes.” Anthony Bloom said “maybe.”
In his book Living Prayer (Templegate Publishers – 1966), the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, a Russian Orthodox Bishop, explained that praying “if” could be an expression of ignorance – not knowing what God says, or even doubt – not believing that God will do what He has promised to do. Neither of these “ifs” were spiritually legitimate according to Metropolitan Bloom. They are not expressions of faith. But there was a spiritually legitimate category of “if,” according to Metropolitan Bloom, a faithful “if.”
Every prayer of petition should be an “if-prayer” when the “if” means: “I am putting into these words my desire that the best should happen, and therefore you can alter this concrete petition to anything you choose, taking my intention, the desire that your will be done, even if I am unwise in stating how I should like it to be done.” When we pray for someone to recover, or to be back from a journey at a certain time, for some purpose we think essential, our real intention is the good of the person, but we are not clear-sighted about it., and our timing and planning may be wrong. And so “if” implies that “so far as I can see what is right, be it done that way, but if I am mistaken, do not take me at my word but at my intention.” (73)
In the Epilogue of Living Prayer, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom modeled what this kind of praying sounds like –
O Lord, I know not what to ask of Thee; Thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I know how to love myself. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I dare not ask either a cross or consolation. I can only wait on Thee. My heart is open to Thee. Visit and help me for Thy great mercy’s sake, strike me and heal me, cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Thy holy will and Thine inscrutable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to Thee. I put all my trust in Thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill Thy will. Teach me how to pray, pray Thyself in me. Amen. (124-125)
I suspect that it will take the rest of my life to learn how to pray this prayer. DBS+