Sep 23, 2020

A Backwards Way to Pray (and Why It's Often Better)

 by Heather Smith

From my quasi-Baptist upbringing I absorbed many assumptions about prayer.  Some of them were admirable, and some questionable.  I was indoctrinated that God cares about all aspects of our life (He does) and we should therefore submit all our worries to Him in prayer (we should).  Various devotional programs emphasized setting aside daily time for prayer (a wise discipline that was unfortunately doled out as Law rather than Gospel).  But perhaps more than anything else, I was taught that prayer must come from the heart.  A spontaneous flow of ineloquent ramblings was the sure sign of sincerity, and I was actually cautioned against written prayers since these ostensibly could not reflect the genuine desires of the speaker’s heart.  

However, the more years I am steeped in Lutheran liturgy and practice, the more I come to appreciate written prayers, particularly the collects of the Church.  Far from leading me into a cold, rote faith, I find they direct my heart to Scriptural truths that I would otherwise overlook.  Whereas the type of prayer I was taught as a child identifies my worries, my needs, my desires and asks God to fix these problems, the ancient prayers of the Church work backwards.  They ask God to give us what we pray for—by fixing how we pray.  

This struck me powerfully in the historic collect for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity:  

“Let Your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of Your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions, make them to ask such things as shall please You . . .”

What a radical prayer!  My heartfelt spontaneous prayers would certainly never stumble upon the idea of setting aside the requests I have in mind and instead petitioning God to make me ask for better things.   

However, once I recognized this through-the-looking-glass view in one collect, I began to see it week after week:

“Almighty and everlasting God, always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than we either desire or deserve, pour down upon us the abundance of Your mercy, forgiving those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things that we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Christ our Lord . . .” (Eleventh Sunday after Trinity)

“Almighty and everlasting God, give us an increase of faith, hope, and charity; and that we may obtain what You have promised, make us love what You have commanded . . .” (Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity)

“O God because without You we are not able to please You, mercifully grant that Your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts . . .” (Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity)

Give us the things we are not wise enough to request.  Grant us true good by making us love Your commandments. Change us so that we may love You rightly.  Week after week in the historic liturgy of the Church we pray for God’s merciful correction of our truly backwards hearts.  

Moreover, it is not simply the ancient Church who believes this is the right way to pray.  It is our Lord Himself.  As Luther explains so simply in the Small Catechism, more than half the Lord’s Prayer asks for things that God would give us anyway:  God’s name is certainly holy in itself.  The kingdom of God comes by itself without our prayer.  The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.  God certainly gives daily bread to everyone, even to all evil people, without our prayer.  

Why, then, does our Lord urge us to pray for these things?  It is so that we might learn to recognize the wondrous works He does among us.  Far more wondrous than healing from disease or averting financial ruin or blessing with a job is the primary work of the Triune God.  Namely, to strengthen and keep us firm in His Word and faith until we die.  

Left to its own devices, my heart wants to brush aside this miracle.  “Yes, yes, I know Jesus died to save me from sin, and that is the most important thing but, God, what I really need right now is . . .”  And so our Facebook feeds fill with urgent prayer requests for ourselves and those we know, sick acquaintances or bereaved friends, and it is so easy to offer a glib response of “praying!” or an emoji of folded hands.  

Certainly, Scripture commends prayer for those who are ill or troubled (James 5:13-15), but what should be the content of the prayer we offer?  If we simply ask God to provide physical healing, do we not sell short His magnificent mercy and power?  In prayer we are speaking to the very God who became incarnate, suffered unimaginable tortures, conquered the power of sin, and freely shares His victory over death with us.  Of course He can provide bodily health, but the life He most desires for us is far greater than an extension of our sin-ridden earthly years.  

So He teaches us to pray “Thy will be done.”  Those four humble words are our passport through the looking glass into the realm of right prayer.  Let us live or die.  Grant us health or illness.  Give us what we ask or withhold it.  But this one thing we must have, dear Lord:  We must have You.  You, Lord Jesus, are our true life and salvation, “Our health while we are living, / Our life when we shall die” (“Christ Is the World’s Redeemer, LSB 539, st. 1).  Whether we pray for ourselves or for others, whether spontaneously or from a written prayer book or simply in the words our Lord Himself taught us, let us ever be praying for true faith to cling to Christ our Savior.  

Yet if our selfish hearts betray us and we in frustration insist upon our own will above God’s, we have great comfort.  He gives what we neglect to ask and withholds what we foolishly demand.  He is gracious to us, and He turns our backwards hearts around so they may know and adore Him aright.  

"Nadzieja" by Ludwik Stasiak (1858-1924)
(This image is in the Public Domain)


Heather is a pastor's wife in rural Illinois, prior to which she was a teacher in a classical Lutheran school in Wyoming and spent time in the Washington, D.C. area working on a master's degree in English.  She has an abiding love for reading, baking, deep intellectual conversations, and persistent Lutheran matchmakers.

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