First, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the way of prayer. - John Wesley
I've noticed something about prayer over the past few years: sometimes we pray because we sincerely want to be in God's will, and at other times we pray because we sincerely want God to be in ours. I've done my share of each of these. There have been times when I have prayed with the deepest intention of being open to God and becoming more completely his. This isn't limited to praying about things going on in my own life, but can certainly include times when I pray for others. Though it isn't always the way we go about it, we can pray for others in a way that holds them before God, asking for his kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth in their lives, just as it is in heaven. Whether for myself or for others, the times when I have prayed in these ways could be described as seeking "God's will: nothing more, nothing less, nothing else."(1)
Then, of course, there have been plenty of other times when my praying has boiled down to trying really hard to convince God to give me something that I wanted (usually followed for a while by a lack of praying, because the request I had been making didn't come according to my terms). During these times, Richard Foster's words describe my prayer precisely: "Our needs, our wants, our concerns dominate our prayer experience. Our prayers are shot through with plenty of pride, conceit, vanity, pretentiousness, haughtiness, and general all-around egocentricity."(2)
I've heard people say that there is no bad way to pray, and generally I agree. So, despite how the previous paragraphs may appear, I do not mean to communicate that one of these kinds of prayer is good and the other one bad. Foster's point in describing the selfishness of our prayers is that we should lay them out before God without regard to their level of egocentricity, considering that we cannot go around selfish prayer, but that we must go through it in order to lay aside our own wills in favor of God's.
However, in light of the issue we discussed yesterday (that we don't like to wait, because we don't like to give up control), it's important for us to realize that while there may be no bad way to pray, some ways of praying are more helpful than others–particularly when it comes to how our aversion to waiting on God drives us to resist giving control to him. While we should indeed feel free to come to God honestly with our concerns without feeling any need to censor them, if we want to cultivate our ability to wait on God, we will need some practices that help us to intentionally surrender the illusion that we have total control over our lives and instead entrust ourselves to God and his kingdom.
For the remainder of this week, we will look at different practical ways that we can wait on God throughout the rest of Advent. While it may seem counter-intuitive to talk about waiting on God as doing things, much of Christian tradition insists on the wisdom of this approach. Waiting on God requires our intentional cooperation, and it's inevitable that if we don't decide now on some ways we will deliberately wait on God between now and Christmas, we will arrive on December 25th with souls prepared (or ill-prepared) to the same degree as they have been in the past.
So, for today's suggestion of how we might wait on God this Advent through prayer, I pass on a helpful approach from James Bryan Smith's great book, The Good and Beautiful Life, and you might want to try this at least once per week throughout the remainder of Advent(3):
- Set aside ten to fifteen minutes.
- Think about all of the things you might be anxious about.
- Write them down in your journal or a notebook.
- Ask what you can do to remedy each of these situations.
- Make a note to yourself to do the things you can do.
- Turn everything else over to God.
- Write your request to God, and be specific.
Much of the point of waiting on God through these kinds of practices is that doing them helps put our lives into contact with God's kingdom. When we pray in this way, we can realize that our actions do not need to be done in our own strength, but that the things that have been worrying us are no threats whatsoever to God's kingdom, and therefore we too can safely entrust ourselves to him.
A Prayer for the Day:
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer (1) Danny E. Morris and Charles M. Olsen, Discerning God's Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1997) Kindle Edition, Location 1273. (2) Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) 9. (3) James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2009) 183-184.