For a season in my Christian life, I was known as the go-to person on prayer. If you had a prayer request, you could rest assured that I’d add you to my list and pray for you every morning in my quiet time. For years, a day had not gone by without me spending intentional time in prayer. If you asked me what I’d do if I was tired or discouraged, I’d have told you—in all honesty—that I found nothing more refreshing or encouraging than getting on my knees and praying.
If you were curious about different kinds of prayer, I’d have told you about how I learned to pray through the ACTS acronym (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) and then discovered that one can pray through journaling and singing. I’d have shared what I learned through Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, through practicing prayer as silence and stillness, through integrating prayer into all of life a la Brother Lawrence, through using the rich and meaningful prayers of Paul (which were captured in a tiny booklet by Elisabeth Elliot), and eventually through cherishing the eloquent words of the Book of Common Prayer.
I relished reading about prayer, talking about prayer, trying different kinds of prayer, and encouraging others in their lives of prayer. And most of all, I loved the sweet intimacy of prayer itself. I read and studied the Bible every day too, but prayer was the center of my relationship with God.
And then one day, without warning, reason, or explanation, that sense of sweet intimacy was gone. The life of prayer that I’d spent years cultivating appeared to vanish. My very relationship with God seemed threatened.
A Dry Season?
I was doing all the same practices and disciplines, but they didn’t seem to be working. I continued to carve out time to pray each day, but my experience was markedly different. Some days I could not find the words to offer. Other days I could not stay focused. Afterward, I’d find myself wondering if I’d been praying at all, if I’d been daydreaming, if my worries had hijacked my prayer time, if I’d fallen asleep, or if I’d done a little bit of each.
What worried me the most was that I had no sense of the presence of God in those times. Although I’d been taught that my faith was not dependent on my emotions, I had become used to having a feeling of spiritual connection with God during prayer that I didn’t experience at any other time. When that intimacy disappeared, I was left reeling.
Was this what C. S. Lewis had been talking about in The Screwtape Letters when he wrote that God “sooner or later … withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscience experience”? Was I at long last entering this “trough period,” as Lewis called it? Was Lewis right, that “the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best”? Or was this the dark night of the soul that John of the Cross described? Could Teresa of Avila’s years of struggling with prayer, and her framework of the soul’s journey through different stages in ascent to God, help me understand what I was experiencing?
For all the wisdom that classic and contemporary resources on prayer offer, what God ultimately taught me was that my struggles with prayer arose not because I was in a state of dryness or a new stage of prayer, but because—ironically, I can now see—I had made prayer too important.
I did not need another method of prayer or to read another book about prayer. What I needed was a faithful theology of prayer. The one that had undergirded my prayer life for years was, as it turned out, distorted.
I wrote above that “prayer was the center of my relationship with God.” I now see all sorts of red flags in this. I’d prayed as if my relationship with God depended on it, when in truth my relationship with God depends not on a spiritual practice but on his grace and mercy revealed in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather than receiving prayer as a means of grace that God could use to strengthen my relationship with him, I’d understood prayer as the anchor of that relationship—and I’d put all of my weight and trust in prayer. Then, when my prayer life seemed gone, I was left unmoored and adrift.
While I certainly believed that I was saved by grace rather than works, I also thought that my daily relationship with God essentially depended upon my times of prayer—which ended up making my prayers a lot like “works.” Based on my conversations with fellow believers and students over the years, it seems many of us view prayer this way—as something we have to do—which leaves us feeling guilty or ashamed that we’re not praying enough. Or we believe we’re distant from God because we haven’t been praying. The Bible offers a different picture of prayer.
‘The Second Word’
In prayer, we are responding with gratitude to the God who has already reached out to us in Christ. We pray “Our Father” as Jesus taught us, because we are already a part of God’s covenant family. We’ve been adopted by God through Christ and the Spirit. Prayer is a family practice, not something we do to find our way in or to keep our place in the family, but something we do because we’re already part of the family. Prayer is always responsive in nature; in prayer we are responding to the God who created us, redeemed us, and called us into his family.
Eugene Peterson describes prayer as “answering speech.” He writes in Working the Angles, “Prayer is never the first word; it is always the second word. God has the first word. Prayer is answering speech; it is not primarily ‘address’ but ‘response.’ Essential to the practice of prayer is to fully realize this secondary quality.” What’s true of our entire relationship with God—that it depends on God’s prior action—is also true of prayer. The God who spoke creation into existence, the Lord who called Abram into a covenant with him, the Word who became flesh that we might become children of God, is the same God to whom we respond in prayer.
We do not enter our times of prayer as the initiators, with all the weight on our shoulders, but as responders to a God who has graciously given us all that we need to be in relationship with him. This is not simply a past-tense truth—that because of Christ’s salvific work on the cross we can be in a relationship with God—but it also includes the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives in the present. The Holy Spirit, the one by whom we call out “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6), was given to us as our ongoing Counselor to be with us forever (John 14:16). God gave us the Spirit to both unite us to God in Christ and to provide guidance as we live each day as God’s children. In light of this, Augustine often called the Holy Spirit simply “the Gift.”
Praying with the Spirit
This has real implications for our lives of prayer. Peterson writes in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places,
If the Holy Spirit—God’s way of being with us, working through us, and speaking to us—is the way in which continuity is maintained between the life of Jesus and the life of Jesus’ community, prayer is the primary way in which the community actively receives and participates in that presence and working and speaking. Prayer is our way of being attentively present to God who is present to us in the Holy Spirit.
This frees us from thinking that prayer is about our posture or our “right words.” Prayer is a part of being attentive to the God who is already present with us; to the God already at work in us, our communities, and the world; and to the God who wants us to participate in his ongoing work.
And as we pray, we are dependent on the Spirit whether we recognize it or not. For “we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Rom. 8:26–27). Paul is not simply saying, “When you can’t find the words, the Spirit will help.” Scripture is promising that the Spirit himself is interceding for us all the time! We never fully know what we ought to pray for, and that’s all right. The Spirit will take whatever we offer, however rich or impoverished our words are, however present or distracted we feel, and intercede for us in accordance with God’s will. Thanks be to God!
In Revelation 5, John describes a vision of a slain Lamb upon a throne, surrounded by elders who have fallen down in worship. Each of them is holding “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people” (v. 8). It’s amazing to imagine: Our ordinary, everyday prayers reach the very presence of God. And nothing in this passage suggests that only the eloquent prayers make it into those golden bowls, or only the prayers offered by those who have achieved absolute stillness of mind and spirit. Whatever we offer, regardless of what we feel or don’t feel, the Spirit takes our words or our groans or our moments of silence, intercedes and refines them according to the will of God, and offers them to God, like fragrant incense rising to the Lamb upon the throne.
Christ Himself Prays for Us
Not only is the Spirit actively present in our lives of prayer, but Jesus himself is interceding for us. In the Book of Hebrews, we read of Christ’s “permanent priesthood” and the way “he always lives to intercede for [us]” (7:24–25). Christ offered himself as the sacrifice for our sins once and for all, and he continues to mediate on our behalf as he serves in the sanctuary, seated at the right hand of the Father (7:27–8:2). This includes praying on our behalf, just as the high priests of the Old Covenant offered not only sacrifices but also prayer on behalf of the people. Jesus’ ongoing priesthood further emphasizes that we are never on our own when we pray. All of our prayers are enveloped into the ongoing intercessions of our Savior.
On our own, we are helpless before God and entirely dependent on the salvation made possible by Jesus Christ. Similarly, we are no less dependent on the grace of God for our lives of prayer. As James B. Torrance puts it in Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace,
The God to whom we pray and with whom we commune knows we want to pray, try to pray, but cannot pray. So God comes to us as a man in Jesus Christ to stand in for us, pray for us, teach us to pray and lead our prayers. God in grace gives us what he seeks from us—a life of prayer—in giving us Jesus Christ and the Spirit. So Christ is very God, the God to whom we pray. And he is very man, the man who prays for us and with us.
When we pray, we can rely on Jesus Christ, who is always praying for us and with us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer goes so far as to say that Christ’s praying on our behalf is what makes our prayers true prayer. Prayer is not fundamentally about us pouring out our words, our hearts, or our emotions to God. “Christian prayer,” Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, “takes its stand on the solid ground of the revealed Word and has nothing to do with vague, self-seeking vagaries. We pray on the basis of the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ. … We can pray aright to God only in the name of Jesus Christ.”
When we pray “in Jesus’ name,” we acknowledge that our prayers depend on Jesus Christ, which gives us freedom. When we’re not tangibly aware of God’s presence in prayer, it’s okay. We are always connected by the Spirit to Jesus’ ongoing ministry of prayer, whether we feel it or not. When prayer doesn’t deliver the sense of intimacy we are expecting, we can find joy in knowing that our union with Christ is secure. When suffering and grief make it difficult to pray, we can rest in the reality that the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ will continue to intercede on our behalf. When we go through seasons of dryness, we can persevere in faith, remembering that our experience of prayer is not foundational. Jesus Christ himself is the foundation, the Word of God, who always lives to intercede for us.
More than 20 years have passed since my prayer life was upended. In those years, God has rebuilt it so that it stands on the firm foundation of Christ himself rather than on my expectations or experiences. As my theological understanding of prayer has deepened, I’ve rejoiced in the knowledge that my little prayers, however humbly or feebly offered, are part of a beautiful, ongoing Trinitarian reality. I’ve found freedom in knowing that prayer is a response to God, and a response empowered by God’s grace, rather than a duty that’s dependent on me.
Through the years I’ve found that praying the words of Scripture reminds me of these freeing theological truths. In his book Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, Bonhoeffer writes, “We learn to speak to God because God has spoken to us and speaks to us. … God’s speech in Jesus Christ meets us in the Holy Scriptures. If we wish to pray with confidence and gladness, then the words of Holy Scripture will have to be the solid basis of our prayer.” Bonhoeffer’s words ring true for me. Praying with the borrowed words of the Bible was one way God rebuilt my life of prayer on a more solid basis, reminding me that prayer is answering God, not generating my relationship with God.
Praying the Psalms reminds me that my prayers are rooted in Jesus’ ongoing ministry of prayer. Jesus himself regularly prayed the Psalms during his earthly ministry. When we do the same, Bonhoeffer suggests that we encounter the praying Christ and that our prayers join in with his. Praying through the Psalms helps me to embrace prayer with “confidence and gladness,” as Bonhoeffer puts it, recognizing that my life of prayer is utterly dependent on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, not myself.
When we face discouragement in prayer, may the reality that Christ prays for us and the Spirit intercedes for us invite us into joy and freedom. Our prayers are a response to our loving God who first sought us.
Kristen Deede Johnson is dean and vice president of academic affairs as well as professor of theology and Christian formation at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Her books include The Justice Calling, coauthored with Bethany Hanke Hoang.
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