Re-imagining prayer as rest, rather than a battle
Many are familiar with this exhortation to pray in 2 Chronicles 7:14-16:
"If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Less known are the two verses that follow: “Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place . . . My eyes and my heart will be there for all time.”
The passage relates to the dedication of Solomon’s Temple and has inspired the consecration of many Christian churches.
Christians gather weekly to pray. When I was a child, our faith community referred to church attendance as “going to prayers.” Jesus said, “It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13).
Why do some writers image prayer as battle and promote prayer solely as spiritual warfare? They make it either a battle with the devil or a wrestling match with God. They promote prayer as a technique for defeating the enemy or getting what you want.
Whatever value there might be in this, I have always considered that approach to prayer to be uninviting. I have never sensed God as close-fisted or that my time in prayer should be spent worrying about the devil, let alone fighting him.
The fact that I was present at the place of prayer was itself a victory over the enemy. After all week fighting the devil and temptation, I had made it home safely into the Father’s house at the time of prayer. I was safe in his holy presence one more time.
How horrible it must be to fight daily against the world, the flesh, and the devil only to arrive at the place of prayer to fight against the devil or God himself! Such imagery keeps many people away from prayer.
When I was younger, I was derailed for a short time on this. I went to prayer as if to a fight. Satan wanted to hinder God’s answers to my prayers so I yelled at Satan.
Conversely, God had to be convinced by loud passionate pleas as if he responded to prayers according to volume and intensity. I talked to God as if he were far away and deaf. My earlier praying consisted of me talking loudly, not listening quietly.
I tend to listen more these days. I pray more quietly. I spend more time in prayer. God seems closer. Prayer is like rest from the battle, not the battle itself. I seek prayer as I seek rest. What rest does for the body, prayer does for the soul. It is a Sabbath rest for the soul. Prayer is not something to endure, but to enjoy.
We need to rethink our image of prayer. Rather than it being primarily spiritual warfare, why not think of it as rest and a recovery of strength for the battle? Going to the place of prayer should be like looking forward to Saturday after a hard week at work.
Indeed, the Jewish author, Abraham Heschel, thought of the Sabbath as a sanctuary. He called it a “palace in time which we build.” To borrow his idea, the hour of prayer is a sanctuary built, not will bricks and mortar but with time. God is not limited to space; God does not live in houses.
As Heschel said, “The day of the Lord is more important to the prophets than the house of the Lord.”
God dwells in eternity and when we set aside time, close our eyes to all the things in space, and push them away, we create a dimension where we can be in God’s healing presence.
The Christian life is a quest for the divine presence. Like that day in the Solomon’s Temple, we are called to pray so that God will forgive our sins and heal our land.
But, it is more than a mere exhortation. It is a gracious invitation to come into the holy presence. When we pray, God’s eyes and God’s heart are there! God’s eyes penetrate through our pretence to our sin and our moral sickness. We are naked and helpless before God in prayer.
But, God’s heart is there also—forgiving, merciful, loving, and kind beyond imagination. God is there with us in prayer to heal us as those who come home to rest in the sanctuary of the divine presence.
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