Like as the heart desireth the water-brooks; so longeth my soul after thee, O God. My soul is athirsts for God, yea, even for the living God; When shall I come to appear Before the presence of God? (Psalm 42.1-2)
What is prayer? Prayer is the articulation of human desires, human longings and human aspirations, in particular, to God and for God. That’s what the psalmist tells us in Psalm 42.1-2:Like as the heart desireth the water-brooks; so longeth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, yea, even for the living God. St. Augustine says the same thing in the opening paragraph of his ‘Confessions’, to praise you is the desire of man … and [because] you have made us for yourself, … our heart is restless until it rests in you.For Augustine and the psalmist, prayer expresses that we are homesick for God. As it says in Ps. 63.2, ‘My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth after thee: in a barren, dry land where no water is’.
Prayer is the articulation of our desires because we are fundamentally desiring creatures. What determines who we are, think and do is whatever, or whomever, our heart desires. Modern science, the internet and social media tell us that what makes us who we are is information. They assume (or, better, want us to assume!), information or knowledge comes to us in a neutral, unfiltered form. But that is far from true. Modern communicators of information – the media for example – are really PR tricksters who use their truth to shape your desires towards the object of their choice. And those objects of your desire turn you into who you are – consumer, liberal, conservative, moralist, etc. That is why, in the Gospel of John, the first question Jesus asked those who would follow Him was not, what do you know? He didn’t even ask, what do you believe? Instead, he asked, what do you want? What do you desire.
Since our desires can easily be misguided so can our prayers be misguided. Thus, prayer is the right ordering of our desires. It’s very easy to think we’re desiring God in our prayers, but often that is not the case. Our prayers often consist of shopping lists of requests. Please do this or do that for me God. I’ve even heard people pray to God for parking spots! But true prayer is desiring, not what we want, but simply God. The goal of true prayer, as the psalmist tells us, is to long after thee, O my God, oriented by a soul that thirsts after God? But, how do we get to such a point in our prayer life? We need to consider three things: First, prayer teaches us about God; Second, prayer is a life-long pilgrimage; And, three, prayer is conversion.
First, you need to know ‘who God is’ before you can desire Him. That doesn’t mean you need to completely understand who God is before you can desire Him. Yet, the level of your desire for Him is proportional to what you know of Him. But how do we come to know Him in prayer? The BCP gives us the answer. Morning and Evening Prayer services were created to teach us about God through its prayers and Scriptural readings. Their richly theologically informed prayers and lectionary – that guides us to read through the Psalms once a month and the bible once a year – are meant to inform us about the God of the Gospel. Of course, they can only inform us if we participate in them. No longer do local church bells ring every morning and evening to gather people to pray these offices of MP and EP. But you can still use these offices in your private prayer life.
Second, prayer is a life-long pilgrimage. The process through which prayer rightly orders your desires on God takes time, in fact a life time. Why? First, because it takes time to get to know the OT and NT stories of God’s faithfulness to us. It takes time for the Church’s prayers and Hymns to shape how we pray. Second, it takes time to level out the ups and downs of prayer life. Sometimes, at least in my prayer life, I feel like I’m in ‘a barren, dry land where no water is’ (Ps. 63.2). I may feel like that because I’m too busy, too tired, or just because. When this happens, don’t despair. The psalmist reflects similar arid times in his prayer life. That’s why reading the psalms are so helpful. Remember, what Paul says in Gal. 2.20, I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me. Christ continues to live in you and hear your prayers even during those dry periods of your prayer life.
Lastly, prayer is conversion. Prayer recognizes that we have competing desires in our hearts. We live in a world that is constantly wanting to direct our desires towards other gods. The messaging and habits of our day to day lives – at work, in the mall, on our cell phones and tablets, while watching TV (especially commercials), conversations with our friends and family – shape our desires, often without us knowing they are. That again is why corporate prayer in the context of worship is so important. Listening to the public reading of Scripture and praying the prayers of the church with others on a regular basis corrects and converts the direction of our desires towards God.
Yet I have still not answered a very important question, ‘Why should we direct our desires towards the God of the Gospel in our prayers?’ For the answer we turn to the Cross. On the Cross Jesus prayed to His Father, ‘my God, my God why hast thou forsaken me’. Do you hear the anguish and loneliness in Jesus’ cry to his Father? His cry, His desire for His Father fell silent. Why? So, your prayers do not. Jesus cried out and was rejected so when you cry out to God you will not be rejected. And remember who you are praying to? Paul says, ‘for you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father’ (Rom. 8.15). You are praying to your ‘Abba’, in English, your ‘Papa’ or ‘Daddy’ as His child. And listen carefully to what Paul says. He does not say, ‘you may receive the Spirit of adoption …’. He says, ‘you have received the Spirit of adoption …’. What better reason is there to prayer to God?