Prayer for Those Who Suffer :: A Lenten Reflection

“Evil is not inexhaustible. It is not infinite. It is not worthy of a lifetime of attention,” notes Eugene Peterson. And yet suffering has a way of consuming everything—disconnecting us from community, filling every moment of our attention, and shutting out hope.

Simple answers to suffering are not only insufficient, they are unbiblical. In Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains how the laments of Scripture seek to connect the one who suffers with the fullness of God:

The Psalter has rich instruction for us about how to come before God in a proper way in the various sufferings that the world brings upon us. The Psalms know it all: serious illness, deep isolation from God and humanity, threats, persecution, imprisonment, and whatever conceivable peril there is on earth.

They do not deny it, they do not deceive themselves with pious words about it, they allow it to stand as a severe ordeal of faith, indeed at times they no longer see beyond the suffering, but they complain about it all to God.

Bonhoeffer, who suffered for years in Nazi prisons, is both comforted and sobered by this reality: “Only God can help. But then, all our questions must also again and again storm directly against God.” This is the testimony of the Psalms of lament—if only God can help, then the complexity of our emotions, depth of our pain, and fulness of our cry must be brought before him. Bonhoeffer concludes:

There is in the Psalms no quick and easy surrender to suffering. It always comes through struggle, anxiety, and doubt. No single human being can pray the psalms of lamentation out of his or her own experience. Spread out before us here is the anguish of the entire Christian community throughout all time, as Jesus Christ alone has wholly experienced it.

These raw cries of pain are central to the Christian experience. In Lamentation and the Tears of the World Kathleen O’Connor celebrates the expression of suffering in prayer as an act of faith:

Laments are prayers that erupt from wounds, burst out of unbearable pain, and bring it to language. Laments complain, shout, and protest. They take anger and despair before God and the community. They grieve. They argue. They find fault. Without complaint there is no lament form. Although laments appear disruptive of God’s word, they are acts of fidelity. In vulnerability and honesty, they cling obstinately to God and demand for God to see, hear, act.

Today’s Reading
Job 41 (Listen – 3:03)
2 Corinthians 11 (Listen – 4:46)

This Weekend’s Readings
Job 42 (Listen – 2:41)  2 Corinthians 12 (Listen – 3:54)
Proverbs 1 (Listen – 3:12)  2 Corinthians 13 (Listen – 2:19)

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Prayer for the Self-Centered :: A Lenten Reflection

“We are losing the power for self-expression, because genuine self-expression is an answer to an ultimate question, but we do not hear the ultimate question any more,” remarks Abraham Joshua Heschel. The rabbi, in his book Man’s Quest for God, explores the ways perpetual self-concern displaces the divine:

It is hard to define religion; but surely one thing may be said negatively: religion is not expediency. If all our actions are guided by one consideration—how best to serve our personal interests—it is not God whom we serve but the self.

True, the self has its legitimate claims and interests; the persistent denial of the self, the defiance of one’s own desire for happiness is not what God demands. But to remember that the love of God is for all men, for all creatures; to remember His love and His claim to love in making a decision—this is the way He wants us to live.

In many ways the season of Lent is an invitation to retune our hearts to this reality—which Heschel summarizes: “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” This binary doesn’t answer our need for self-fulfillment as much as it displaces the importance of the desire entirely.

True prayer expands our hopes, desires, and joys beyond the limits of our own lives. Feelings are, by nature, self-centered—true prayer is God-seeking and kingdom-focused. Rabbi Heschel explains:

Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy. For when we betake ourselves to the extreme opposite of the ego, we can behold a situation from the aspect of God.

The focus of prayer is not the self. A man may spend hours meditating about himself, or be stirred by the deepest sympathy for his fellow man, and no prayer will come to pass. Prayer comes to pass in a complete turning of the heart toward God, toward His goodness and power. It is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns, the absence of self-centered thoughts, which constitute the art of prayer.

Feeling becomes prayer in the moment in which we forget ourselves and become aware of God. Thus, in beseeching Him for bread, there is one instant, at least, in which our mind is directed neither to our hunger nor to food, but to His mercy. This instant is prayer.

Today’s Reading
Job 40 (Listen – 2:09)
2 Corinthians 10 (Listen – 2:45)


How to Grow in Prayer :: A Lenten Reflection

“Most of us find it hard to pray,” observes J. Oswald Sanders. True enough, but Sanders, in his book Spiritual Leadership, does not let us accept our difficulty in prayer without highlighting the reality it uncovers: “We do not naturally delight in drawing near to God. We sometimes pay lip service to the delight and power of prayer. We call it indispensable, we know the Scriptures call for it. Yet we often fail to pray.”

There are two things needed to grow in prayer, writes Sanders:

Mastering the art of prayer, like anything else, takes time. The time we give it will be a true measure of its importance to us.

All Christians need more teaching in the art of prayer, and the Holy Spirit is the master teacher. The Spirit’s help in prayer is mentioned in the Bible more frequently than any other help he gives us. All true praying comes from the Spirit’s activity in our souls.

Time and teaching—with these two, Sanders sets the tone for prayer as the intersection of the practical with the spiritual. Cultivating a fruitful prayer life is both an action and a response. Sanders explains:

We are to pray in the realm of the Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is the sphere and atmosphere of the Christian life. Much praying is psychical rather than spiritual, in the realm of the mind alone, the product of our own thinking and not of the Spirit’s teaching. But real prayer is deeper. It uses the body, requires the cooperation of the mind, and moves in the supernatural realm of the Spirit.

God has ordained prayer, and we can be confident that as we meet revealed conditions for prayer, answers will be granted. God sees no contradiction between human free will and divine response to prayer. Our obligation to pray stands above any dilemma concerning the effects of prayer.

As we grow in prayer our dependence on God deepens while, simultaneously, our strength in his Spirit grows. Chambers concludes with this fruitful balance:

The praying Christian wields no personal power and authority, but authority delegated by the victorious Christ to whom that faithful believer is united by faith.

Great leaders of the Bible were great at prayer. They were not leaders because of brilliancy of thought, because they were exhaustless in resources, because of their magnificent culture or native endowment, but because, by the power of prayer, they could command the power of God.

Today’s Reading
Job 39 (Listen – 2:47)
2 Corinthians 9 (Listen – 2:26)


Prayer for Disquieted People :: A Lenten Reflection

“The original meaning of the word theology was union with God in prayer,” remarks Henri Nouwen. Today we view theology as an academic pursuit and prayer primarily as something to do, rather than something to enter into. In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen reflects on the power of entering union with God in prayer:

Through contemplative prayer we can keep ourselves from being pulled from one urgent issue to another and from becoming strangers to our own heart and God’s heart. Contemplative prayer deepens in us the knowledge that we are already free, that we have already found a place to dwell, that we already belong to God—even though everything and everyone around us keep suggesting the opposite.

It is in prayer that we find rest for our disquieted souls, Nouwen believes; and from prayer that we begin to lead in our own lives, families, and vocations.

The central question is: Are the leaders of the future truly men and women of God—people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word, and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness?

What we find in prayer has immediate ramifications in shaping our thoughts, words, and actions. In a salient example for American culture today, Nouwen explains:

Words like right-wing, reactionary, conservative, liberal, and left-wing are used to describe people’s opinions—and many discussions then seem more like political battles for power than spiritual searches for the truth.

Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christian leaders have to learn to listen again and again to the voice of love. Dealing with burning issues without being rooted in a deep personal relationship with God easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject.

But when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.

Today’s Reading
Job 38 (Listen – 3:33)
2 Corinthians 8 (Listen – 3:25)



Prayer for Busy People :: A Lenten Reflection

How can you spot the difference between a thriving prayer life and a moralistic or legalistic prayer life? Timothy Keller contrasts these two views, for which he uses the shorthand gospel vs. religion, by observing:

Religion: My prayer life consists largely of petition, and it only heats up when I am in a time of need. My main purpose in prayer is control of the environment.

Gospel: My prayer life consists of generous stretches of praise and adoration. My main purpose is fellowship with God.

Central to the practice of healthy, gospel-centered prayer is the awareness of God’s presence in and around our lives. However, the busier our lives become the more difficult identifying God’s presence can be.

This is not a new problem, when Saint Ignatius of Loyola developed a work called The Spiritual Exercises in 1522-1524 C.E. One of the enduring prayers from this work, the Prayer of Examen, was designed to be prayed even when the necessities of life made other forms of prayer impossible.

Today we give you an adapted version of the prayer. For a fuller explanation of the prayer download Prayer of Examen (PDF).

1. Recall You Are In The Presence Of God

As you sit in silence, renew your awareness of God’s love for you as your one true and perfect Father.

2. Review Your Day With Gratitude

Review your day (or the previous day) from beginning to end. Identify and give thanksgiving for God’s presence throughout.

Process your day’s high and low points. Search for encounters and experiences where you showed grace and your heart was at peace, and those where you did not. Is there anything God is asking me to (1) start doing, (2) stop doing, (3) start believing or thinking, (4) stop believing or thinking, (5) to commit to, (6) or to stop committing to?

3. Renew The Gospel In Your Heart And Life

As you recall actions you’ll find yourself naturally thankful where you have lived a holy life and naturally convicted where you have not. The good news (gospel) is that, although you are guilty and unworthy, through Christ you are fully accepted and loved.

4. Look Forward With The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven, holy is your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

Today’s Reading
Job 37 (Listen – 2:27)
2 Corinthians 7 (Listen – 2:58)