Approached by God (III) – Prayer starts with God

A character in a novel I was recently reading claimed that St Augustine was the smartest man who ever lived. Generally I try not to pay too much attention to the opinions of fictional persons, but it got me thinking, after all, that’s a pretty big rap.
Here’s a section from Book 1, Chapter 1 of Augustine’s Confessions:

Grant me, Lord, to know and understand which is first, to call on you or to praise you? but then, which is first, to know you or to call on you? for who can call on you, not knowing you? for the one that doesn’t know you, may call on you as other than you are. Or, is it rather, that we call on you that we may know you?

For a reputed genius, Augustine sure had a lot of questions. But then, maybe that’s the point. It’s certainly one of the best things I’ve ever read regarding prayer.

Prayer starts with God.
Augustine recognised that prayer starts with God. Too often my thinking about God is the other way around. The word pictures I use, and the ones I hear commonly in Church or in our campus fellowship always ascribe the movement in prayer to us: we ‘approach God in prayer’, we ‘come to God’.

I don’t want to get into trouble here, this language is based on usage in the Bible, it’s not always unhelpful to describe what we are doing. However, if our language betrays a mind-set that views God as passive in prayer and ourselves as the actors, then we are certainly not on the same page as the Biblical writers.

And if we sit down and think about it we know that making God passive in prayer is rubbish. Augustine was right to recognise that he had no idea how to begin in prayer to God. He goes on in that passage to conclude that his prayer only began because God himself had acted to give Augustine faith and knowledge of himself. Prayer begins with the action of God.

This is the muddle in which I frequently find myself: at the bottom of a tall prayer-ladder, with God at the top, and the climbing of all the rungs is up to me. It’s nothing but a noxious mess.

The antidote, I’m discovering, is to start over with my thinking about prayer. I need to start over in the light of the knowledge that Christian prayer starts with God.

From here I can see three implications:

1. Prayer is a work of God in and for his people

2. Prayer takes it’s shape from the shape of our relationship with God

3. Prayer gets it’s direction from the mission of God

more of this soon…

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