Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Tautological Prayer

I live with a three-year-old, which means I am routinely subjected to a logic that defies reason. When asked why he hasn’t done a particular task, he provides an answer that, judging by the confidence in his voice and the certainty on his face, makes perfect sense to him, but with words that leave the rest of us scratching our heads. When asked about his day at school, his stories are rarely easy to follow, often leading us down a wandering path with many turns but no clear destination. He is still learning the nuances of the English language, so he regularly says the opposite of what he means—me: are you sure you don’t need to go to the bathroom? him: No!—which confuses anyone who is not accustomed to his own reversed logic.

Of all my son’s peculiar patterns of speech, one seems to have captured the hearts of everyone in our family and many others in our congregation. With unrestrained enthusiasm, he proudly declares something, which the rest of the world understands as obvious, as if it were a discovery worthy of publication in a leading scientific journal. “Guess what!” he will say to a total stranger in the grocery store; “I have a mommy!” To anyone who might be listening, he will declare, “I’m three, so I’ll be four on my birthday.” With no apparent appreciation for the ridiculousness of his statement, he will announce to the family, “When I get dressed, I will be wearing clothes.”

The other day, he said something along those lines and stared up at me as if I were supposed to say something in response. He repeated himself, again waiting for my reply, so I looked at him and said, “That is a tautological statement—an argument that cannot on its face be refuted and thus actually says nothing.” So he went and found his mother and said the same thing to her instead. My son’s tautologies—self-evident declarations—flooded into mind the other day when I read Psalm 37, and I wondered to myself whether the psalmist used that logic on purpose.

In a familiar prayer that reminds the reader to “wait patiently upon the Lord,” the psalmist declares in verse 4, “Take delight in the Lord, and he shall give you your heart's desire.” Think about that for a moment. To take delight in something means to take great pleasure in it—to enjoy it, to look forward to it, to relish it, to desire it. If I take delight in the Lord, how can the Lord not give me my heart’s desire? That way of thinking is a little like me telling my children that they can have whatever they want to drink with dinner…as long as what they want is milk. Sometimes nuances get lost in translation, but I think the logical certainty of that theological statement was clear to its author, which makes the invitation all the more powerful. God will give us whatever we want as long as we want what God will give us.

What do your prayers sound like? What do you say to God? Lately, my children have been teaching me a thing or two about prayer. As a part of our nightly routine, each member of the family is invited to name something or someone for which we might pray. (Sound familiar?) The requests are simple: for my family, for people who are sick, for a good week. These prayers are not demanding or instructive, as if to inform God what it is that God needs to do. Instead, they are simple, and their simplicity invites God to work in our lives and in the lives of those we love in ways that we can see and feel and know. The truth behind those prayers, of course, is that God will do God’s work regardless of our intercessions, and we pray in order that we might recognize that work. That principle might be obvious—even tautological—but within it is remarkable power.

Prayer doesn’t change God; prayer changes us. God is not a first responder, who waits by the phone in case someone in need should call. God knows our needs even before we ask him (Matthew 6:8). In other words, God is already at work before we are even aware that a need for God’s intervention exists. Regardless of our ability to see it, God’s plan of salvation is always unfolding all around us. Prayer is one way for us to seek a deeper understanding of that plan. In its purest form, prayer is an attempt to align our hearts and minds and wills with God’s perfect saving work in the world. It is our attempt to take delight in the Lord so that we might want that which God is already giving us.
Strip away the complexity of your prayers. Let go of any need to rationalize for yourself or for God the desires of your heart. Trust that God is at work in ways that surpass your ability to see them, and believe that God’s blessings will always surpass your ability to ask for them. Allow prayer to be a way for God to draw you closer to himself instead of a way for you to bring God closer to what you want.

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