Prayer is communion with God. It is an enacted relationship, a reaching out to Jesus. “Prayer is the natural outgushing of a soul in communion with Jesus”, says Charles Spurgeon.[i] One cannot pray and remain cut off from the presence of God. The intimate presence of God, understood and experienced in our lives, is the very subject and the object of prayer. Prayer is the “expression of a relation to God, a yearning for divine communion. It is the outward and upward flow of the inward life towards its original fountain.”[ii] It impossible to pray, to truly pray, without the expressed desire to connect with our Lord. It was for this very reason the disciples originally asked the question “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11)
When we deny this communion, we treat prayer as nothing more than a divine loophole. It becomes a dry and lifeless religious activity. “Prayers” rattle off our tongues devoid of any interest or engagement of heart. The prophets of old continually challenged the faithful for just this reason. Isaiah, for example, confronts Israel’s own lack of faithful connection to God, despite maintaining the strict adherence to religious activity. Through Isaiah, God cries out against such hypocrisy: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers I will not listen;” (Isaiah 1:15). The sinfulness of the people had led to a complete dismissal of God’s presence in their midst. They had forsaken the Lord. From this rebellion came a complete abdication of Israel’s desire to be found in God’s presence.
Isaiah’s challenge is particularly relevant as Israel maintained the outward form of religious observance. Despite their inward rejection of God, they believed their adherence to “what” and the “when” of religious observance would win them divine benefit. They mistakenly believed that they were cultivating the spiritual life God desired for God’s people, even though they were, in fact, far from it. Their fervent prayer-activities lacked any sort of desire to connect with the living God.
The challenge for Israel then, and for us today, is to understand that the mere outward observance of prayer can never bring one into the full presence of the Lord. Dutifully going through the motions of religious activity lacks the necessary element that gives life to our prayers: desire. We must want to connect with God. We must desire to be found in God’s presence, to be heard from the one on high. We must willfully, and lovingly, open ourselves to the presence of our Redeemer.
The power and essence of our prayer lies not in the words that are used, or the specific liturgy performed. Prayer is rooted in the intimate connection of spirit to Spirit. In prayer we open ourselves to the presence of Jesus, through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. In those times when words fail us, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with inward groanings, making it clear that the power of prayer is found in our spiritual connection with God, and not in the use of fancy phrases or religious terminology.
There are no magic words in prayer. Merely speaking religious jargon can never create authentic prayer. In fact, resting on such phrases – without the inward desire necessary for prayer – simply highlights the hollowness of our inward spirits. A profound example of this is seen in Israel’s debacle with the Golden calf. What is particularly interesting in this account is how Israel usurps divine terminology. As the idol-calf emerges from the fire, Israel proclaims, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). The central tenant of Israel’s understanding of the nature and identity of God has now been attributed to a mere idol. What is perhaps even worse is that it is not just the activity of God that gets usurped, but even God’s own name. Aaron instructs the people “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD” (vs. 5). Aaron uses the divine name, revealed to Moses, to describe a lifeless hunk of gold.
What we see in Exodus 32 is a people who use the correct terminology yet lack any connection with the Spirit of God. Prayer was but a self-focused appeal to special phrases, divine names, and spiritual slogans. As James Houston writes, “Unless prayer recognizes and celebrates Yahweh as King . . . then worship denigrates into idolatry.”[iii] An appeal to the correct usage of words and forms does not constitute right prayer. It matters not the words we say, if our hearts are far from the living God.
God looks at the heart more than any exterior experience, utterance, or action. It is this acknowledgement, this communion, which is essential to the activity of prayer. Cultivating a life of prayer must begin here. We must inhabit a continuous and unrestrained reaching out, a furious longing to be overcome in God’s presence. This unrestrained longing is not a longing to possess or to wield, but a desire to be poured out, to offer the whole self. We must long to be in the presence of the Lord, who both comforts us, and challenges us. This immersion in the presence of God, is the power and the essence of prayer.
[i] Spurgeon, Charles “The Secret of Power in Prayer, Part 1” in A 12 Month Guide to Better Prayer (Barbour Publishing, Ohio. 2009) Pg.27
[iii] Houston, James. The Transforming Friendship (Regent College Publishing, Vancouver 2007) pg.87