Prayer’s Apprenticeship

More than a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post on the way God intertwines his divine freedom with our human asking (Prayer’s Co-creations). In that piece, I contrasted a view of prayer in which one tries as hard as one can to pray God’s specific will (either like trying to hit the small point of a bull’s eye, or just tossing up some prayers and hoping some of them will be answered like winning some sort of “prayer lottery”) with a view that encompasses God’s divine freedom with our true experiences and desires as his and our co-creations. I gave the two examples of the wedding feast at Cana in which Jesus turned the water to wine, and of the Syro-Phoenician woman who was first rebuked by Jesus for her request to heal her daughter before then granting her prayer. I made the point there that, at least with the Cana wedding, it appears as though God shifted his divine plan of redemption so as to include the gracious mercy of meeting a humble human need.

I want to think further on this idea of God’s enfolding our prayers into his divine plan, but this time from the standpoint of the one praying, using the metaphor of apprenticeship.

We are indeed a priesthood of believers, and if there is one way in which we imitate our Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus, it is by our intercessions and prayers. Jesus went often alone to pray, and in our own praying we exemplify our discipleship to him. Prayer, perhaps like no other aspect of Christian faith and life, is that one arena of human doing in which the divine freedom and human needs and desires meet. Jesus teaches us many things about God the Father with regard to prayer: that we are intentionally and with perseverance to seek, to ask and to find, because we have a Father that hears us; that our Father will not give a stone to those who ask for bread, or serpents to those who ask for fish; that we may pester our Father, like the widow going to the unjust judge, over our desires for justice and well-being; that our Father is one who can be trusted even more than a friend whose sleepy reluctance is overcome by our persistence; and by Jesus’ own example, that our Father appears to be willing to “change” his mind and redirect his saving of all his creatures to enfold and encompass our simple needs, desires and wishes.

This is our starting point.

If it is startling enough to be told

And this is the confidence that we have toward 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 that we have asked of him. I John 5:14-15

how much more surprising it must be to also be told “He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them.” (Psalm 145:19)? The Septuagint is more pointed: “He shall do the will of those who fear Him . . . .” We know to ask God the Father “Thy will be done.” This almost seems to say that God looks on our prayers and affirms “thy will be done.”

How can this be?

Let us be clear, we are not talking about God as the great Santa Claus in the sky, cheerfully doling out our daily wish lists. More crudely, he is not some eternal heavenly vending machine, faithfully giving us what we want. But it is beyond doubt that we are promised that our faith-suffused prayers will be granted (“if you believe . . .”). And let us also be clear that the human experience is definitive: God does say “No” to many of our prayers.

So what does this mean that God does our will?

We must first see that the affirmation God will do our will is founded on an essential quality: that we fear him. That is to say, God does the will of those with whom he is in communion. And those with whom he is in communion do his will. Put most crudely: we do his will, he does our will. So long as our hearts are set on him (“seek ye first”) we know that we can have the confidence of receiving gifts from a loving Father in answer to our prayers (“and all these things shall be added”).

But it is more than this, because this communion with God in Christ is not static, a forensic category of some kind. It is, rather, dynamic, a relationship in which we go “further up and further in” as the years go by. This is an apprenticeship of sorts. And it may look something like what happens as one grows within the tradecrafts: we are given more and more responsibility as co-creators with God in the outbreaking of his Kingdom in the lives of the people around us. “Acquire the Holy Spirit,” the hermit Seraphim of Sarov said, “and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” At first the apprentice does the simple tasks as commanded by the master. But these tasks soon turn into specific skills, and as skill is added to skill, the apprentice moves from being told what to do into a new relationship with the master in which they join together in the work, each one’s labor adding to the whole, and, over time, the master bringing into the work the ideas and unique proclivities of his apprentice. Each man’s work will have a particular “signature” though the apprentice’s work will be shot through with all the signs of the master’s handiwork. But in time, the apprentice will find himself not only following the master’s commands, but will, in soul-shaking amazement, find that the master at times follows along with the apprentice. This is, of course, what the master wants: a mature artist whom he has made a member of his household, a child by adoption, but an heir and co-ruler under the master’s authority.

So, too, we may see prayer as an apprenticeship. And we begin with the template of the Father’s will, knowing that if we ask according to that will, our prayers will be granted. But it may be–and the lives of the Christian saints seem to state unequivocally that it will be–that as we grow from children under tutelage into the heirs of the household, the Father will more and more condescend to “do the will of those who fear him.” This diminishes not one iota the authority and sovereignty of the Father. But it does bring into realized being a priesthood of believers.

At the core of prayer, its whole purpose, is our union with God in Christ. It is not a running scorecard on how many of our prayers are granted. But that is the point of this apprenticeship: as we pray and seek God’s will, as we lay our desires before him, as he grants some and not others, as our life experiences and the Holy Spirit teach us wisdom and the truth about ourselves and our world, when we do ask, we pray more truly, and we enter in to the co-creating work of salvation, our own and those around us–and we do see our prayers answered. And, more humbling, we see God condescend to our wills and make those prayers salvation-conveying means, for us and for others, to encounter his grace. We begin to see prayer not simply as fulfilling our desires–and let us be clear, God specifically honors this aspect of our prayers–but more and more we will see it as entering into the very same work God is already doing, not only in our own lives but in the lives of those entwined with us. We see our prayers answered, and we begin to see that God is bringing us into the greater joy and responsibility of co-creating with him by those prayers.

He does the will of those who fear him. This is our apprenticeship of prayer.

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