The Singular Trouble of Prayer

The Singular Trouble of Prayer September 18, 2016

I might have recently admitted here that I’ve not been living much of a Victory in Jesus life of prayer. I always mean to pray, as I grope my way into each anxiety laden morning. I have the best of intentions. But by the time I am collapsing into bed at the end of the day I’ve found that the whole enterprise slipped through my fingers. Or rather my mind.

This is very bad. A Christian who doesn’t pray is like a child trying to hold his breath. It’s a stupid thing to do. And it can’t last very long. You may be able to forget it, or worse avoid it for some days or weeks, but eventually you’ll collapse in a heap of prayer, desperately and frantically listing off all the things.

If you are in that place, as I seem to continue to be, you should feel very bad and guilty–and berate yourself for not praying at all, and promising to pray for people and forgetting, and setting a time to pray and choosing to eat cake instead, and hearing yourself lecture other people about the importance of prayer when you yourself are not regularly praying–you should go on feeling terrible. But you could also take a scrap of hope from the bible itself, and particularly that charming jerk of a believer, Jonah.

The most perfect picture of the human experience of prayer, I think, is Jonah. Look at his posture towards God throughout his short book. He knows the truth, in his case because God says it to him, he doesn’t have to read the bible or anything. The truth doesn’t suit his priorities and inclinations. He runs away from the presence of the Lord. The Lord’s presence finds him in spades. He is afflicted by God and tastes the bitterness of death. He prays the most extraordinarily beautiful prayer–the central prayer, really, of the whole bible, that single prayer in Jonah 2 is a jolly good summery of God’s saving project of humanity. But then, after praying this fantastic prayer and being physically and spiritually rescued, he goes yet very grudgingly to do what God says. And then he has a bitter and volatile conversation with God under his withered vine and that’s it.

I particularly love all the things that Jonah doesn’t pray for. He doesn’t pray for wisdom. He doesn’t pray for guidance. He doesn’t pray for help to do God’s obvious audible will. He doesn’t pray for food. He doesn’t pray for strength and hope. And most especially, he doesn’t pray for the Ninevites. He doesn’t care about them at all. He is completely self focused. His is completely wrong. And yet God saves that great city and much cattle.

The singular trouble of prayer, once you have fallen out of the habit of doing it, is that you can go on living in a law laden box. The bible is so very clear that you should pray. And then you can’t help, if you aren’t a complete Jonah, signing yourself up to pray for people you do care about. And so then you can go along just feeling bad, not doing the thing you know you should do, not being able to face the presence of the Lord or anyone really, piling up more guilt for yourself. And guilt, for me anyway, usually manifests itself in anger. Selfishness and Anger.

Go pray for your own list, I feel like snapping from the bottom of Sheol. I don’t even have time or inclination to pray for myself, why should I pray for you or anything?

And that’s where the Prayer of Jonah is the single best prayer. Not to knock Jesus of course. But how together do you have to be to prayer The Lord’s Prayer when you can’t much tolerate The Lord’s Presence. No, to even get there you have to go through the Prayer of Jonah which, as I’ve said in lots of old blog posts is…ready?

Oh God, help me.

Or the variation, O God Save Me.

That’s it. Salvation belongs to the Lord. And boy do I need saving. Not just yesterday, but now, from myself, and probably again tomorrow. As many times as you can fall in the pit of human sin and stupidity is as many times as you need Jonah’s prayer. As many times as you can’t face any of the things you know you’re supposed to face, in the weakness of ordinary day to day life, that’s how many times you need Jonah’s prayer. Jonah’s prayer, I think, makes it possible for you to pray Jesus’ excellent prayer where you ask for stuff and care about other people.

I guess now is as good a time as any to pray it. So I’ll leave you and go do that. Have a lovely day, and go to church, don’t go to Tarshish.

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