Writing on prayer is not a task lightly undertaken, mostly because it might give the impression that I believe my own prayer life is impressive or worth imitating. I do not think it is either of those things. But in my own Christian life and meditation on Scripture, I have learnt that our attitude towards prayer should reflect a biblical antinomy, which J. I. Packer defines as an unavoidable and insoluble tension between two undeniable truths. What is this antinomy? It is that God invites us to pray boldly yet in humility, or as my title states, resigned to his sovereignty yet stubbornly imploring him to answer our pleas.
Both of these approaches are present in the book of James. In James 1 we are called to ask God for wisdom so that we might persevere in steadfast faith through trials; there is no promise these will be removed for God uses them to mature us. On the other hand, we are told that our Father is generous (1:5), giving perfect gifts to his children (1:17), so we must ask him without doubting (1:6). We might contrast the two biblical characters employed by James to further his point: firstly, James tells those who suffer to imitate Job, remembering that the Lord is compassionate and merciful even when we are enduring testing and hardship (5:11); secondly, Elijah is presented in relation to prayer for he fervently prayed against rain for over 3 years and then God watered the earth when Elijah prayed for the draught to end (5:17-18). Below I will explore these two biblical attitudes towards prayer.
Prayer should be resigned
St Bernard of Clairvaux, a French monk from the 12th century, has written a short devotional work titled, The Steps of Humility and Pride. Naturally, the discipline of prayer can be found under the subsection on humility. He says the Christian is called to a “spirit of obedience”, patiently enduring hardship and discerning God’s will. Citing John 2, when Mary informs Jesus that the wine is finished, Bernard points to Mary’s approach, which demonstrates devout humility in seeking Jesus’ will rather than the testing his power. Now you may or may not agree with Bernard’s exegesis, but in the same section he writes this: “We prefer to wait patiently for his will rather than daringly to demand what may not be his pleasure to give. In the end our modesty may perhaps gain for us immeasurably more than we deserve.” There is great wisdom that ought to be heeded in Bernard’s writing, for God gives according to his pleasure and will, not ours. Therefore, our prayers must be humbly resigned as hearts full of faith rest in their Father who knows infinitely better than his children.
Prayer should be stubborn
There are numerous places in Scripture where bold and persistent prayer is mentioned (Luke 11:8; Acts 12:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:10; 1 Peter 3:12; 1 John 5:16), but let us turn again to James “You do not have, because you do not ask” (4:2). One of the problems experienced in the church James wrote to was what Motyer calls “the deadly sin of inconsistency”. This was manifest throughout their lives as the letter attests but specifically, for our purposes, affected their prayer lives. Earlier James says Christians must approach God in faith, without doubting or double-mindedness (1:5-8). When they brought their requests before God they were to do so in confidence, assured that their God is powerfully present and attentive to their needs. Expectant petition can appear impious, but as D. A. Carson reminds us, in The Call to Spiritual Reformation: “[It] honours him because he is a God who likes to give his blessings in response to the intercession of his people.” Remember Paul’s words to the Ephesians, ‘In Christ we have boldness and access with confidence through faith’.
Christians, who prayer regularly should struggle with this biblical antinomy, these apparently conflicting attitudes that God expects from us, as we bring our petitions and intercessions to him. However, far from discouraging prayer they should both ease our anxieties embolden our faith.