Prayer is essential for the Christian. It’s the mark of a meaningful relationship with God, and a daily, even constant, necessity: it’s as vital for the soul as food and water are for the body. It’s also a wonderful privilege, for it means that you can talk to the Creator of the universe at any time and with complete honesty; you don’t have to pretend with God – you can come to him just as you are!
Concerning the time of prayer, Scripture and the testimony of countless saints in the history of the Church commend the early morning as an appropriate time for extended prayer. The Gospels show Christ rising early, “while it was still dark,” to pray to God the Father, giving us not only a clear example but impressing on us our great need for prayer, since even Jesus, the perfect man, felt the need to pray. This prayer was also key to the power and peace which followed Christ through all his activity, showing how one may be very busy while remaining peaceful and focused at heart. I believe this is what the great German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was getting at in his book, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Augsburg, 1970):
“The entire day receives order and discipline when it acquires unity. This unity must be sought and found in morning prayer…the morning prayer determines the day. Squandered time of which we are ashamed, temptations to which we succumb, weaknesses and lack of courage in work, disorganization and lack of discipline in our thoughts and in our conversations with other men, all have their origin most often in the neglect of morning prayer.
“Order and distribution of our time become more firm where they originate in prayer. Temptations which accompany the working day will be conquered on the basis of the morning breakthrough to God. Decisions, demanded by work, become easier and simpler where they are made not in the fear of men but only in the sight of God” (64-65).
We’ve all heard the well-intentioned exhortation: “Just listen to your heart.” In one sense, we should listen to our heart, by which I mean, pay attention to your mind and soul. It’s helpful to regularly take stock of the movements of your soul in response to the events and people you interact with. This is what Socrates meant when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” However, Scripture teaches that the heart is “deceitful above all things,” so it’s foolish to simply follow your heart and live according to what you feel it tells you without regard for wisdom, love, and duty to guide you to what is good for yourself and others.
The passage below, from Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Dutton, 2013), shows us that we should not only listen to our hearts, but turn this listening into prayer – honest, real conversation with God – by pouring them out before him. This is encouraging, for it means that we’re not left to ourselves to plumb the depths of our heart and then wonder what to do with the mess that we find, but we can offer our naked soul before the God who hears our every cry, notices our every tear, and promises to be with us through it all.
“Psalm 42 is an intense, sustained, and eloquent prayer. He is ‘pouring out his soul’ to God. What does that mean? First, to ‘pour out your soul’ means to get into one’s own heart. It is an ancient and healthier version of what is sometimes now called getting in touch with your feelings. It means to look honestly at your doubts, desires, fears, and hopes. But notice that this is not abstract self-examination but, rather, something he does before God. This man is not over in a corner looking at himself, he is exposing his inner being to God. This is crying, longing, reflecting, remembering – all before God.”
So it was a significant event in my reading life when, as I turned the last pages while sitting in the plane during our recent flight, I realized I had found my favorite book: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (Harper, 1954).
This was actually the second time I read this book. I first read it two years ago, in preparation for a fellowship program that I didn’t end up doing (I got married instead!). The first time I read it, it was excellent. But it was as if I took a few bites, tasted it. The second time, I enjoyed the full meal, and it was so rewarding that before I finished it I was already anticipating the next time I would read it.
Bonhoeffer – a German theologian and pastor who was murdered by the Gestapo for plotting to assassinate Hitler – wrote the book while teaching an underground seminary in Nazi Germany. He instructs on doing life together in Christ, as a community of Christians or as a family, and deals with topics such as prayer, common devotions, daily work, solitude, and serving one another. It’s a small book, running just over a hundred pages, but it is rich in wisdom and practical instruction. If you want to grow as a member of your community or your family, I cannot think of a better book you can read than this one.
Here are three excerpts to pique your interest. More posts will follow.
“Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts” (29).
“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (30).
“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door” (38).
From J.D. Greear’s Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (B&H, 2011), this is a four-part prayer aimed at saturating oneself in the truths of the gospel. As he says, “There’s nothing magical about this prayer. It’s not an incantation to get God to do good things for you,” but “simply a tool to help you train your mind in the patterns of the gospel. The point is not the prayer; the point is thinking in line with the gospel” (40).
Pray this consistently, and watch how God transforms you:
“In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes You love me less.”
“Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.”
“As you have been to me, so I will be to others.”
“As I pray, I’ll measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.”