The undergrad Christian college I attended primarily prepared students for vocations in the pastorate, missions, and worship (music). I double majored (missions, theology) in a futile attempt to figure out who I was. I struggled finding a vocational identity in any of those options—and by my junior year I had anxious feelings that gave way at times to angst and meaninglessness. At the time I thought all my colleagues had quickly identified their gifts and goals, perhaps this was due to the acceleration they possessed in music, public speaking or leadership. My awkwardness with the pulpit and disinterest with organizational leadership left me feeling exposed, a fish-out-of-water. I acted like I didn’t care, but in my secret moments I turned to prayer. Burrowing my way deeper and deeper into a disciplined routine of 4:00 AM daily prayer and weekly fastings.
After several months I came to discover a niche in prayer. The fact that I prayed as often as I did and differentiated myself from my peers through my prayer-life gave me a sense of identity, value and uniqueness that was based on my discipline and skill and effectiveness as a person of prayer. This was all fine and good when my striving was firing on all cylinders, but when I missed a day or didn’t feel a heavenly connection I would sulk and feel condemned or worthless. I began to notice something else, as well. When I succeeded I wrestled with attitudes of self-righteousness and judgmentalism. It was as if there was this pendulum swinging between self-righteousness and self-condemnation.
As I persevered through the life-cycle of prayer I came to understand the reason for this was a compromised faith. In fact the Problem of Prayer (mentioned in the first posting) persisted because I unwittingly was the object of my faith (and not God)—if only I was more motivated, or more studious, or more skilled, or more disciplined, or more intense, or had more understanding of God then I would be that Man of Prayer. Because I had found my identity in prayer, my worth in prayer, there were times where prayer functioned as an idol of sorts. (An idol is anything that aids you in your quest for the divine. That serves as a mediator between you and God. The real danger in idols is that eventually the idol begins to function as your god.) I placed my faith in the power of prayer. I trusted in prayer. I objectified God, seeing Him as something out there I was striving toward and for and not in and with. This approach to prayer and God fixed him in a distant and unreachable place.
On the other hand, the times in prayer when I felt closest to my Creator were times when I saw prayer more as a meeting ground, where God initiated a conversation with me—engaging me, speaking to me. I always sensed his nearness when I trusted he was the cause of that moment. And my words were rich and thick when I imagined them more as a response to his grace and less of a reaction to situations and stresses. Along the life cycle of prayer, this recurring interruption of grace surfaced again and again. Prayer is what happens after God happens to me. This grace centered praying saw the Father as the one who initiated prayer in my life through the covenant of Jesus' blood. Prayer was my response to him saying, "You are my son, I love you, you bring me great joy." He did all the striving to have a relationship with me. God was gracious, therefore I did not have to prove myself.
Prayer then becomes this moment where God whispers to us the Good News of who he is and what he has done for us through Jesus Christ and as these imaginations and dreams swing through our hearts we respond. This moment is awestruck with the revelatory awareness that as God is proclaiming who he is to us, there is this profound echo of who we are to him. This crescendo of hope is such Good News we hear ourselves joyously responding with words and thoughts too marvelous to accurately capture, and yet God revels in our feeble attempts to express ourselves. And it is there, in that moment, that we are caught up in the realization that, “prayer is not what is done by us, but rather what is done by the Holy Spirit in us” (Henry Nouwen).
Join us this Sunday as we look at the relationship between Acts 3 and 4 where we are told, "Great grace was upon them all" and the way the early church responded to God with prayers that shook the place they were meeting.
Jeffrey C. Garner received his doctorate in Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Boston, MA). He serves as adjunct faculty for Western Seminary (Growing Disciples Intentionally, Urban Mission and Ministry, Evangelism and Apologetics). He has served Lighthouse church as the teaching and vision pastor for eleven years alongside his wife (Julie) and their two children Jeru and Jed.