The Church of England in the UK has released a prayer for those who have been made redundant (along with other prayers for people affected in other ways by the financial crisis). It has been fascinating to hear various clergy on the radio here in the UK answer the question ‘why?’ as people have queried how this prayer can be of any benefit to anyone. It's a question that has at its heart the deeper question of ‘Why bother praying at all?’, and so provides a great opportunity to call people to repentance and faith in Jesus. It hasn't been used as such, as far as I can tell, but it is always difficult to know how people have been edited. Certainly the impression given by most of the sound bites I've heard or read have gone along the lines of, “We need to give people the words to share with God how they are feeling”.
The great thing about this sound bite is that it helps people realize that God is interested in them and their feelings. In an unfriendly economic environment where people so easily feel disposable and unappreciated—even if they're gainfully employed—it is good to say clearly that God is interested in us as people, not as numbers or economic entities. None of us are ‘useful’ to God apart from his work in us to enable us to serve him. He doesn't need people the way the economic system does, and so doesn't demand from us the anonymity and productivity that burdens so many, particularly during times of financial crisis. It can be a great relief to be conscious of this as we speak to God. He isn't part of the economic system that has let us down; he is completely separate from it and not tied to it, and his interest in us is not based on our performance.
However, one of the difficulties with this sound bite is its implication that prayer is primarily about ourselves and our feelings. Here, God is an unskilled therapist at best, and akin to a small domestic animal at worst. He only ever listens; he never speaks or critiques us in any sense. He is always on our side. This is profoundly misleading because prayer is not first and foremost about our feelings, but about our expressing to God that we depend on him utterly and that we want him to rule our lives. Certainly, when we know God as our Father because we trust Jesus for salvation, we instinctively tell him our feelings, fears and joys. But we do this as part of learning to trust him with our whole lives. Telling God we have been made redundant and how this makes us feel is normal for a Christian.
But, as the redundancy prayer shows, prayer is more than a means of self-expression. The redundancy prayer includes the plea, for example, to ‘help me to think clearly, and calm my soul’. When we ask God to keep our minds and order our ways, we ask him to rule our lives. It is far more radical than simply ‘sharing’, which does not imply change and which certainly contains no suggestion that God has authority or rules over us in any way. Talking to God about our redundancy means we're depending on him. We might look for other opportunities to work, and so forth, but if God does not provide them, then we have nothing. By calling out to God for his help, we are expressing that to God, and we are saying that this is how we want it. We don't want to depend on our own abilities, strengths or capacities; we want to depend on God. We want him to rule and order our lives, even in the tough times. In prayer, we say most eloquently that we are weak, but God is strong. Even in our praise of God for who he is, we still express our dependence. Indeed, we are dependent on Jesus to bring us to God and to forgive the sins we may inadvertently commit even in the most fervent of prayers. Even praise can only be done because of what Christ did for us apart from our actions. Prayer is our plea to God expressing our desire to continue in his strength with his presence always with us, relying on him for comfort in the distress of redundancy and other difficulties of life.
The Christian view of prayer is countercultural to western society, which values individualism, autonomy, strength, beauty and wealth. Our culture instinctively sees prayer as a meaningless act apart from its impact on the person praying. Whatever value prayer has is entirely due to whatever comfort or strength a person derives from the act of praying. But prayer is a bold act of faith—faith in a living and active God whom Christians know as Father because of the death of his Son for us. Prayer cries out for God in a harsh and difficult world, and is a radical statement of belief in the goodness of God, despite such a world. It cuts against the grain because it says of ourselves “We are weak and need God” and of God “He is strong and can save, and he orders the affairs of our world”.
An explanation of Christian prayer is an explanation of the message of Christ Jesus—that being weak, we need God and will come to him on his terms, through his appointed Saviour, confessing our sins and joyfully embracing his rule over our lives. What would your sound bite on ‘why pray’ include? Why do you pray?