The simplicity and profundity of Prayer

In almost every doctrine in Scripture there is a simplicity that belies its profundity. They can be summarised and defined in a single sentence of a catechism answer and yet be the theme of substantial books. They can be explained by children and yet preoccupy the minds of the greatest theologians. So, whatever the particular truth in view, we ought to approach it with a deep sense of there being more to it than may at first meet the eye.

This is certainly the case when it comes to the doctrine of prayer. Although, in answer to the question, ‘What is prayer?’ the Westminster Shorter Catechism can state, ‘Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies’ (WSC 98), not only is there more in that statement than we might realise; there is infinitely more over, under and around it than we can fully comprehend.

To be aware of the richness and truth bound up with the act of praying is to feed and fuel the communion we enjoy with the triune God (as well as with his people) in this blessed activity.

It is tempting to gravitate towards seminal passages about prayer – especially in the teaching of Jesus – to dig more deeply into this God-given privilege. But, as with so many things in life, our richest source of instruction is often to watch and listen to those who are older, wiser and more experienced than ourselves. We not only learn what is involved in the mechanics of the different facets of life by osmosis; we discover their richness, beauty, complexity and efficacy as well.

When it comes to our prayer life – corporately as families and churches, as much as in our individual Christian experience – we should regularly challenge ourselves with the question, ‘Do I only say my prayers, or do I really pray?’ It is the kind of question Jesus encouraged his disciples to face when they asked him to teach them to pray. Because, in answering them, he warned against the ‘many words’ and ‘vain repetitions’ of the pagans that fell on the deaf ears of God.

How, then, do we learn and cultivate the art of praying? In a very real sense, it comes through listening to the multiplicity of prayers recorded for us in the Bible. Not least the 150 examples of them in the Psalms. Not only do we discover in them the kaleidoscopic variety of prayer, we also begin to appreciate the dimensions and dynamics of what it means to pray. And, as our horizons in appreciating what prayer is are enlarged, so too will our enjoyment, ability and confidence in praying.

A perhaps unexpected example of this is found in Psalm 123 – one of the Songs of Ascent. Even though it never mentions the word ‘prayer’ it provides us with a rich theology of prayer in a way that exposes the depth and wonder bound up with the apparently simple act of talking to God.

Interestingly, as noted by Michael Wilcox and referenced by Alec Motyer, the authorship of this psalm is linked to Nehemiah who, on the one hand, was faced with an impossible task and overwhelming opposition; but, on the other hand was clearly a man of prayer. And, if he was indeed the one who penned these words, then his experiences colour its content vividly.

The song begins with the simplest and yet profoundest of declarations: ‘To you I lift up

my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!’ (Ps 123.1). What is he doing? – Lifting up his eyes to God. What Motyer describes as ‘an upward glance, a simple redirection of thought.’ So uncomplicated; yet so staggeringly immense in terms of where it takes this man. He, praying on earth, is engaging with the One who is the heavenly ruler of the entire created order. He, a mere creature, interacting with his great Creator; he, a guilty sinner, addressing the holy Judge of all the earth. This is what happens every time we pray – yet we are not consumed!

He goes on – using a Hebrew device that indicates that what is true for him is true for all of God’s people – to demonstrate his tenacity in prayer. Like Jacob, his distant ancestor who wrestled with God at Peniel, the psalmist will not relent ‘…till [God] has mercy on us’ (Ps 123.2). This God, before whom the angels and heavenly beings cover their faces; this God who is at no man’s beck and call – but yet is willing to be prevailed upon by his redeemed children.

What is so striking about this insight into prayer is the fact that the psalmist looks up to God in the blinding glory of heaven; but with the expectation that God will look down reciprocally and graciously to meet his gaze. He dares, by faith in God’s promise, to ‘lock eyes’ with God in the confidence that God will not return his look with anger.

The key to this staggering confidence does not rest in any kind of self-confidence in the psalmist himself. Quite the opposite: the multi-layered references and allusions to God as the covenant-making and covenant-keeping LORD make it crystal clear that this man is simply taking God at his covenant word: ‘I will be your God and you will be my people.’ And he clings to the fact that at the heart of this covenant bond there is the promise of ‘mercy’ – the Hebrew word that is equivalent to grace. He comes to God – ‘nothing in his hands he brings; simply to the [promised] cross he clings.’ And that is enough. All he needs to dare to engage with God in a way the angels of heaven could never dare to do, is captured in that promised grace.

As J.I. Packer points out elsewhere, ‘LORD’ is the ‘pet name’ by which God wants to be known within the closeness of his family. A name that becomes even more intimate by the time we get in the New Testament when Jesus tells his disciples, ‘When you pray, say, “Our Father who art in heaven…”’ (Mt 6.9).

Nothing could be so simple; yet nothing could be so mind-blowingly profound. The more we come to know about God in his trinitarian glory and saving operations, the more we will appreciate the deep wonder of the privilege of prayer – and be encouraged to make full use of what it entails.

Mark Johnston