I don’t talk about about prayer on my blog. Not because I don’t pray, I do pray. But I have never developed a regular time of prayer that many people do, but in inspiration of Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing (but not a perfect representation of it), I have adopted a style of prayer where it is intermeshed with my meditations on Scripture and theology. While I have many thoughts about prayer, I am not the person to be giving advice on how to prayer, as my style of prayer is uniquely suited to the way I think and live.
Nevertheless, prayer is important, especially in times like we are facing today, with grave injustices against African Americans leading to the protesting of repeated and system racial injustice, all while some the protests turn into riots. It is in time like these that prayer is important and essential for us.
However, let me offer a few pointers about the value of prayer that I have discovered in times like these. Often times we pray for God to help us out with the difficult circumstances that we face, or pray for the well-being of familiy members and friends. These types of prayers are all good and well, but simply “praying for justice” is not what is essential about prayer in times like these. We need a different type of prayer that says, “God, show me who I should be, where should I go, what should I do, what should I see?” We need prayer that takes seriously the words of Proverbs 3.5-8:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
It will be a healing for your flesh
and a refreshment for your body.
So many of our prayers of help are situated against the backdrop that we know what the problems are. While in our prayers we may recognize that we don’t understand everything and that we don’t even have the power or know-how to solve the problems, our prayers do rely on our present understanding to determine our appeals and intercessions to God.
The prayer of “Who should I be, where should I go, what should I do, what should I see?” works differently from our end. It is a prayer that assumes that even if we have some understanding, we really don’t understand deeply enough. This is not a prayer that abandons our mind of any preconception, but it is a prayer that invites God to lead us in the midst so that He can take what we understand and lead us into deeper understanding and wisdom.
Why is this important? Because in the midst of the anger, in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the fear, we are often tempted to think we understand more than we truly do. We can clearly recognize a wrong, an injustice, an evil that has been committed, but how shall we respond to it? How should we understand the causes and solutions?
Too many of the ways we have learn to respond to threats are rooted in protecting oneself. This isn’t wrong, as God made us to be creatures who protect ourselves from harm. There are times that people need to take a stand to speak up for and protect themselves and others. The risk, however, is that the more complex the problem, the more people that are involved, the more people are fighting back and forth, the less of everything we see. In such a case, we may rely on our various forms of social learning and explanation about such situations, whether it be our moral and religious instruction, our training in the social sciences, our political values, etc. and those who we treat as experts in those domains to make sense of the complexity of it all. However, this leads us to rely more on abstractions we use to understand the situation, paying less attention to what is happening and assuming we know what is happening behind the visible scenery. When we are morally outraged and personally threatened, we have a tendency to treat our moral knowledge as the will of God, leading our understanding of God to be determined by our focus on injustice.
Prayers like “Who should I be, where should I go, what should I do, what should I see?” pull backs the confidence we might have just a bit, without forgetting or abandoning what we have seen and what we have learned, so that we are open in our heart to God’s leading in the midst of everything. When we see and are overwhelmed by the reality of human sin, injustice, and evil, we need to seek an understanding that goes beyond our own knowledge of sin and injustice. Such prayers invite God to direct us with a wisdom not readily recognized in order to be people who see and engage the struggles with great insight and simultaneously more just and peacemaking action.
However, in this prayer, we need to hold Jesus before the eyes of the our heart as the one in whom we are redeemed and through whom we can discover “Who should I be, where should I go, what should I do, what should I see?” To be clear, we don’t need to hold our ethical understandings of Jesus before our eyes. It is too easy to fit Jesus into the preconceived categories of human wisdom. Rather we behold in our hearts the very words, the very actions, and the very events of Jesus’s life before our eyes, including most importantly the cross and the empty tomb.
This form of prayer is the prayers of those seeking to learn, much as the Psalmist in the face of treacherous enemies in Psalm 25.4-5:
Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.