Pursuing piety as it’s own reward

Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (154):

“Puritan piety sometimes re-created the counsels of perfection in monastic spirituality in what it required of the normal Christian prayer life. It was considered good for the young Christian to be challenged with the marathon records of Jesus and the saints. This could be humbling, but it could also cause the young prayer-warrior to buckle under the weight of the armor he felt bound to assume. In such cases prayer was not an expression of faith in God’s grace, but a monument erected to attract his attention. Trust was not centered on the God who constantly oversees our paths and knows our needs, but on prayer itself, which must be used as a magical lever to pry answers from an unwilling God.”

The pursuit of marathon prayer-sessions persists.

Six or so years ago when we began a monthly prayer meeting at our church (after a period without any such meetings), one of the people helping to plan the meetings – filled with sincere passion – suggested that we set aside two full hours for each and every meeting. If we’re going to pray, let’s challenge people to really pray, was the sentiment I recall. Raise the bar. Based on his passion, and following the assumption that marathon prayer is better (I mean it has to be more holy, doesn’t it?), we went for it. 2 hours, on a Friday night, all prayer, straight up.

This was diving in to the deep end, to say the least. At the time (and to this day) Jesus was still in the process of teaching us what it even meant to gather God’s people in dedicated prayer. So we were setting out a goal (2 hours in prayer) that we didn’t even know how to meet. But we were also operating on a flawed understanding of what was most necessary about prayer in the first place. Subtly, subtly, the expectation works in that prayer is necessary not because of our utter need for the presence and power of God. Rather, we begin to believe it is necessary because of what it says about us or what it provokes from God – in Lovelace’s words, prayer becomes either a monument or a magical lever.

Suddenly the focus is on prayer and how it works, rather than on the God who bids us call Him Father, and invites us in to freely ask and freely receive. But to focus on prayer itself is to miss the point. Lovelace reminds us of how Jesus rebuked the elaborate prayers of the Gentiles in Mt. 6:7 – 8, and of the simple prayer He then taught His disciples. Just think of the simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer in contrast to the serious piety of marathon prayer! Lovelace writes that Jesus’ words critiquing elaborate, marathon prayers, combined with

“the short formula of prayer which follows, might seem almost dangerously indulgent to many who have been schooled in a more laborious piety”.

Dangerously indulgent indeed. Scandalous to the seriously self-righteous. Just like grace itself.

All of this, of course, is not to dismiss the need for prayer. No indeed. But it is to say that we should make sure we understand the proper basis of all prayer and what it is we are actually doing as we pray.

In my experience, the announcement of a dedicated time of prayer is not usually greeted with anticipation, as a gift, but with a sigh, as a burden. We think, “I don’t pray well enough“. We think, “I don’t pray long enough“. We think, “I don’t really enjoy sitting awkwardly in a room, ignoring the silences“. But we think, “I know I should. So I hope I’m already busy that night“.

This isn’t just our sinful nature or lack of discipline; it’s also a misunderstanding of the whole endeavor, right from the start. We may not enjoy prayer because we are thinking of prayer as something that it isn’t. One shouldn’t enjoy seriously pursuing piety as it’s own reward.

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