Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©

Chapter 9 Prayer and its relationships

The different aspects of prayer have been considered in chapter 4 and so the relationship of praise and prayer, thanksgiving and intercession, confession and petition.

The particular relationships of prayer to be considered in this chapter are:

  1. Prayer and the Bible,
  2. Prayer and action,
  3. Prayer and sacrament,
  4. Prayer and fasting,
  5. Prayer and silence.

1. Prayer and the Bible

"Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path"
'Prayer is turning to the Word of God. Prayer is nothing but response to God's Word and therefore it is nothing without the Word that precedes. We must avoid the danger of making prayer an independent and autonomous concern of our devotional life.'
(John W. Doberstein)

Christian devotion has traditionally linked the reading of the Bible and meditation on the Scriptures with prayer. There are important reasons for this. Basically, as we have seen earlier, our relationship with God must be a two-way process. We must listen to God as well as speak to him. Indeed we may say that we should listen before we speak. George Martin puts it, 'Being in the presence of Jesus and treasuring his words in our hearts is the first step of prayer.' (1) Jesus himself spoke (in Jn.8:31) of the vital need of "continuing" in his word, in a verse that the New Jerusalem Bible translates as "if you make my word your home, you will indeed be my disciples."

In the first place, as the whole of this book seeks to indicate, it is the Bible that teaches us how to pray rightly. Martyn Lloyd-Jones rightly criticises the glib answer that some people give to every difficulty with the words 'Pray about it'. He stresses that we should first seek to know God's way and will on a matter, and in the light of that to pray (2).

Secondly, the Bible encourages and inspires prayer. Daniel Jenkins says,

'The connection between the life of prayer and our reading of the Bible is thus the most intimate possible. The life of prayer cannot be lived unless it is fed upon the Bible and the Bible likewise cannot be properly heard and understood except in the context of prayer.'(3)

Jenkins emphasises that our reading of the Bible 'if it is to provide the rich and abundant and constant nourishment for the life of prayer which it is able to' needs to have behind it 'a sustained and disciplined attempt to understand it and grapple with it' (4). We need also the help of the Church, as God's people, in understanding it. 'The Bible' he says further, 'has thus to be read in a context of prayer but likewise, prayer without the Bible evaporates. The Bible states the only conditions upon which man can approach to God' (5).

Finally, it need hardly be added, and the foregoing pages have abundantly illustrated, the Bible is full of prayers, whether we think of the Psalms or other passages of praise and prayer in the Old Testament, or the prayers of Gospels and Epistles in the New. These biblical prayers both teach us lessons about prayer and can be taken on our lips and made our own to the incalculable enrichment of our spiritual lives. (See the list of passages in the Appendix.)

2. Prayer and action

"We receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments, and do what pleases him"
(1 John 3:22)
'In the Lord Jesus Christ we see most clearly the union of prayer and life, the harmony and continual interpenetration of the two spheres of life - communion with God and the work on earth'.
(Adolph Saphir)

The relationship between prayer and action is one of the most important considerations of Christian living. 'Action is the stream - prayer is the spring' Thomas Merton says. William Temple put it, 'The proper relation in thought between prayer and conduct is not that conduct is supremely important and prayer may help it, but that prayer is supremely important and conduct tests it' (6).

James 2 is the most forthright statement in the New Testament about the relationship between faith and works, and so we may say between prayer and action. Faith must be shown in loving concern for others, or it is not true faith. Thomas Merton in his writings has considered very deeply the relationship between prayer and love for others. 'Merton's primary concern is to show that the importance of such prayer lies in the fact that man cannot really give himself in perfect charity to his fellow man until he himself has become transformed in Christ and has developed a rich interior life of union with God'(7). Merton's 'theology of prayer is appreciated most fully only when understood within the context of the central message of his spirituality, namely, life is a seeking of God and finding him by love and sharing that love with others. Only in a life such as this can man satisfy both his desire to be himself with the fullest possible freedom that is his as a son of God and his desire for unity, peace, and love with his fellow man' (8).

In Contemplative Prayer Merton asks, 'Is the Christian life of prayer simply an evasion of the problems and anxieties of contemporary existence?' He says, 'Prayer does not blind us to the world, but it transforms our vision of the world, and makes us see it, all men, and all the history of mankind, in the light of God. To pray "in spirit and in truth" enables us to enter into contact with that infinite love, that inscrutable truth which is at work behind the complexities and the intricacies of human existence.' We do not pretend we know all the answers, but must have the 'humility of faith'. We do not just ask things for people - making religion "the opium of the people". We do not make prayer the vehicle of 'a purely secular ideological program'. We seek the kingdom of God, the provision of "daily bread" for all. Without such prayer - what Merton calls 'contemplative prayer' - religion can be exploited. Prayer lifts action to real charity. 'Prayer does not despise even the seemingly lowest aspects of man's temporal existence. It spiritualises all of them and gives them a divine orientation.' (9)

In another place he says, 'Serious and humble prayer, united with mature love, will unconsciously, spontaneously manifest itself in a habitual spirit of sacrifice and concern for others that is unfailingly generous, though perhaps we may not be aware of the fact.'(10) Lesslie Newbigin somewhat similarly emphasises the integration of prayer and work for the kingdom of God, insisting that true public worship is not escape from real life, but bringing our real life in the world into the presence of God.(11)

In relation to 1 John 3:22 quoted above, it can be said that prayer and obedience to the will of God are the two means which God uses in his work in the world. We think of the impact of a godly person on our lives - a life that inspires, words that help - and our lives are different as a result. We seek to have that kind of influence on others. We can do so by our words and actions, but also by our prayers. Our prayers, as God's promises assure us, are used as instrumental to the working of his will and purpose in the lives of others. When we pray for others we can believe that the Holy Spirit, by his powerful, wise, loving presence, by using the words of Scripture, or by using the lives of others, makes a difference in those for whom we pray. This understanding of the potential of prayer and of action to touch the lives of others may be compared to the work of preaching. "How can they hear without someone preaching to them? asks the apostle Paul (Rom. 10:14). Preaching was essential, Paul stressed, but we know also that the apostle was insistent on the place of prayer in relation to the preaching of the gospel.

Karl Barth relates prayer and obedience of life by linking the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments, the first three petitions of the prayer to the first four commandments, and the last three to the rest of the Ten. We are called to commit ourselves, he puts it, to God's cause and in the light of that we make our petitions (12).

The incarnate life of Jesus shows supremely the linking of prayer and service, the integration of communion with God and work in the world. We see his withdrawal from the world to pray, and his return to the world to serve. He goes up to the Mount of Transfiguration taking three disciples with him, and then returns with the disciples to the valley of human need below. As it has been put,

'Christ's time in the desert was certainly not withdrawal from responsible action but the way toward responsible action. His life was literally consumed serving others. The desert was the place where Jesus engaged in the deepest struggle of all. That is where he faced the heart of the matter. The most profoundly private moment was the most public. The actions that followed were determined in that moment apart.'(13)

As Jesus lived, so we are called to live. Daniel Jenkins puts it,

'The Church's intercession for the world has to be expressed in service of the world for the sake of the Gospel, in identifying herself with the world in its need and misery and waywardness and guilt even as our Lord identified Himself with sin-stricken humanity, that the world may be truly caught up in her intercessions and they prevail on its behalf.'(14)

We fail very deeply if we fail to integrate prayer and action. Prayer can hardly be true prayer if we are not more strongly motivated through it to serve others in love, sharing the love that we find in communion with God. On the other hand a life of action without the deep undergirding of prayer leads many servants of Christ to burn-out. Loren E. Halvorson says 'There are many times that I have acted without prayer and have regretted it. There are other times when I went off to prayer and wondered later if I should not have acted first. There are times when I pray because I do not know what to do. But there are other times when I pray because I know only too well what I should do.'(15) 'The church that prays and then does not act is as unfaithful as the church that acts but forgets prayer' (16).

3. Prayer and sacrament

Sacrifice in the Old Testament might be described as a sacramental expression of prayer. When Jacob was to go down to Joseph in Egypt we read of the way that he "offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac", and in response the Lord assured him that he should go down to Egypt (Gen.46:1-4). Both the regular and special occasions of sacrifice might be considered sacramental, the sacrifices being an outward expression of a turning to God in gratitude and in need, in dependence on God for the mercy and grace of acceptance.

With regard to the two sacraments of the gospel in the New Testament, we have no record either of a baptismal service or a service of Holy Communion. Yet the link of both with prayer is obvious.

On the human side baptism called for repentance and faith to be expressed (Acts 2:38), and of necessity they had to be expressed to God in prayer. Ananias was sent to Saul of Tarsus as he was turning to God in prayer, and so the new covert to Christ was baptized (Acts 9:11 and 18). Romans 6 associates baptism with identification with Christ in his death and resurrection, and that surely implies the turning to Christ crucified and risen in penitence and faith.

Acts 2:42 links the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers in the summing up of the regular life of the first Christians after Pentecost. The breaking of bread, linked in language and meaning with what Jesus in the days of his ministry had done, involved thanksgiving to God. So the Lord's Supper was a thankful remembrance of the death of Christ (1 Cor.11:25).

The use of the word 'sacrament' from the Latin sacramentum involves the thought of an 'oath' or 'promise' associated with Baptism and Holy Communion. So the place of vows in biblical understanding can be considered here. In the Old Testament there are often vows associated with prayer. Psalmists speak of the making and the fulfilling of vows (e.g. Ps.22:25, 65:1 and 66:13). In Ecclesiastes 5:1-6 instructions are given both about reverence in prayer before God and the fulfilling of vows made before him. The New Testament does not give a comparable place to vows, but we read of the apostle Paul placing himself under a vow in Acts 18:18, and then in Acts 21:23-26 being willing to share with those who were fulfilling their vows in the temple.

4. Prayer and fasting

Several times in the Bible there is a specific link between prayer and fasting. In the Old Testament we read of David, conscious of his sin, giving himself to earnest prayer and fasting (2 Sam.12:16). The returned exiles under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah humbled themselves in penitence before God conscious and the unfaithfulness and sin of their people. Ezra and Nehemiah personally, and then leading the people in an act of penitence, prayed with fasting (Ezra 8:21 and 23, 9:5, Neh.1:4, 9:1, and cf. Dan.9:3). For a similar reason fasting is particularly significant in the Book of Joel. There the prophet's challenge to the people was, "Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests --- Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord. (Joel 1:13-14).

Fasting is an expression of earnestness in prayer, the giving of one's whole self to communion with God, putting all considerations of satisfying our natural desires in second place. Great men and women of prayer down the ages have made fasting a part of their commitment. In the New Testament we read this of Anna in Luke 2:37. When there was earnest intercession in the church of Antioch to know the will of God in taking out the gospel into the world we read that they waited on God, "worshipping the Lord and fasting", and then when called to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work, "after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off" (Acts 13:2-3). Later we read of Paul and Barnabas in the churches of Galatia appointing elders in each church and "with prayer and fasting they entrust them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe" (Acts 14:23).

To Thomas Merton asceticism means the recovery of our true selves, liberation from the desires that debase and enslave our souls, the 'control of our thoughts and our desires'. This is the renunciation of things that impede prayer, liberation from any fixation on ourselves. Renunciation of the world is the renunciation of the ways of those who love the transient and unimportant things of life. Then we gain the true kind of love for the world. He puts it,

'Our ability to sacrifice ourselves in a mature and generous spirit may well prove to be one of the tests of our interior prayer. Prayer and sacrifice work together. --- Serious and humble prayer, united with mature love, will unconsciously and spontaneously manifest itself in a habitual spirit of sacrifice and concern for others that is unfailingly generous, though perhaps we may not be aware of the fact' (17).

Amy Carmichael, of a very different Christian tradition from Thomas Merton, expresses it helpfully when she says that prayer with fasting

means a determined effort to put first things first, even at the cost of some inconvenience to oneself. It means a setting of the will towards God. it means shutting out as much as possible of all interrupting things. For the thing that matters is that one cares enough to have time with God, and to say no to that in oneself which clamours for a good meal and perhaps conversation. It is that which is of value to our Lord. Such a setting of the will Godward is never a vain thing.'(18)

Fasting, however, is never to be an end in itself, and Jesus counsels especially that people are never to want to be conspicuous in their fasting (Matt.6:16-18). Nor did Jesus allow criticism of his disciples for not practising fasting in the ways and at the times that John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting (Mk.2:18-20). In the Old Testament there is also a warning that fasting in prayer loses its meaning and worth when there is no justice and self-giving concern for others associated with it. Fasting accompanied with quarrelling was not fasting of the kind that would make a person's voice "heard on high". "Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? -- to lie in sackcloth and ashes. Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? -- Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer'; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am" (Isa. 58:3-9).

5. Prayer and silence and solitude

Prayer, both personal and in the community of believing people, is most frequently vocal, as praise and petitions are brought before God. Men and women of prayer down the ages have recognised, however, the place of silence with God, and good reason for seeking solitude, aloneness with God, even for quite long periods. But, as Leroy T. Howe puts it, 'as Jesus' own example shows clearly, solitude is rightly for the sake of renewing one's strength for worldly responsibilities; unless it aims toward a more creative participation in the world from which one temporarily detached himself, prayer reduces to an escape mechanism whose inner essence flagrantly denies the grace of God itself.'(19) Max Warren develops helpfully the principle , following the example of Jesus himself, there should be in the Christian life a rhythm of withdrawal and return, withdrawal from the world for spiritual renewal, and then return to the world to serve there in the name of Christ (20).

Silent meditation has great importance in a world full of words. We are bombarded with the world's messages, with voices all too human, in advertising, in political and religious opinion, in entertainment, and in a host of other ways. "Be still," says the word of the Lord through the psalmist, "and know that I am God" (Ps.46:10). But it is important in the stillness to allow one's thoughts to be filled with God. Meditation that is linked with prayer must be focused on God. There is a kind of meditation recommended as an antidote for the busyness of our world that is not necessarily centred on God. In quietness one's thoughts can be turned in many directions other than God-wards. This is the importance of the word of God being the focus of meditation, so that silence can be truly a centring of the whole being on God and not on any false gods.

This is an appropriate place to consider mysticism, though it is too vast a subject for any adequate treatment here. Mysticism is a word that has different meanings for different people. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church says, 'It has no limits historically or geographically, nor can it be contained philosophically or theologically.' More helpfully it goes on, 'It concerns the interior life of the Spirit ---. Immediate relationship with the ultimate is the essence of mysticism.' (21) Defined in such terms it is, of course, not necessarily Christian. Christian mysticism seeks that intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and as it focuses on God approached through Jesus assisted by the Spirit, it involves true prayer. Christian mystics have spoken and written of stages to be passed through in coming to mystical experience.

The Bible says little of mysticism. Prayer in the Bible is mostly articulated in words, though Romans 8:26 speaks of intercession that is "too deep for words". It may be right to speak of the experiences of revelation of which the apostle Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 12 as mystical experiences, and similarly the praying "in tongues" where the spirit prays and not the mind (1 Cor.14:15).

Some Christian thinkers, however, question whether mysticism is true prayer. Daniel Jenkins speaks of the danger that it could be

'nothing more than a dialogue of our souls with themselves and ultimately resolves itself into "intense soul-emotion". Prayer, like all parts of man's life, needs to be redeemed by the power of Jesus Christ before it can function aright and to imagine otherwise is to open the way to sentimentality, superstition and unbelief. It needs to be drawn into the real world where God really meets man and that real world is not to be found in the shadowy sphere of half-belief where most of us prefer to dwell but only in Jesus Christ, Very God and Very Man.'(22)

He says later,

'the more precise meaning of mysticism, is that it is a form of religion which, through a careful spiritual discipline, claims to achieve union between man and God in the depths of man's own being, a union consummated when man's identity is lost in the divine life. Christians are rightly suspicious of mysticism because it seems to imply, and in many forms of mystical prayer undoubtedly does imply, that the union is possible without the mediatorial work of Christ and that its own spiritual discipline alone is necessary. Christians also are compelled to say that the union mysticism strives for is not the true relation between man and God (23).

John W. Doberstein puts it that

'The theological foundation of evangelical meditation -- rejects any mysticism that puts the initiative with the worshipper. Man cannot by searching find out God. Prayer is turning to the Word of God. Prayer is nothing but response to God's word and therefore it is nothing without the Word that precedes it. We must avoid the danger of making prayer an independent and autonomous concern of our devotional life. ---Our task is not to "practice" and "cultivate" prayer and the so-called spiritual life, but rightly to hear God's Word and give him due answer in prayer.' (24)

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes similarly ,

'A "transcendental meditation" without an object can only lead to flight from life, if not to a psychiatric clinic. Christian meditation is not transcendental, it is at the core always meditation on the crucified Christ in the light of his resurrection.. It has Christ as its "object"; it encounters him as one who stands over against the meditator' (25).

James Houston, however, believes that there is a truly Christian mysticism, 'different from the mysticism of another faith', as 'The true Christian mystic always lives within the realty of certain Christian truths.' These truths he lists as: God as Creator, the Trinity, the incarnation and mediatorial work of Christ, our relationship with God as dependent wholly on God's initiative, and the recognition of the church as a the community of God's people (26).