“The Paradox of Prayer”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A paradox is made up of two seemingly contradictory statements that are both, nevertheless, true. Two seemingly contradictory statements that are both, nevertheless, true. Our text for today from Luke 18 does not state a paradox, but we can still feel it. It is there, just beneath the surface, and it is this: First, that prayer comes freely from the heart and mouth of the Christian, and nothing can keep the Christian from praying; Second, and this is the part we only feel, prayer never comes easily in this world and so prayer requires practice and discipline. Here is our paradox to consider: Prayer comes freely and unstoppably for Christians by the Holy Spirit; and prayer comes haltingly and only with constant work for Christians in this world. Seemingly contradictory and yet both true.First, prayer is the joyful speech of the Christian, that refuses to be shut up and bursts unfailingly from hearts and lips. You realize your need for prayer, which is really your need for God, and there is nothing that can keep you from praying. This is how it is for the widow in the parable. Not even a hard-hearted judge could keep the widow from returning again and again and again to plead and beg for mercy. How much more for us who have a God whom we can approach like dear children approach their dear Father! Children do not think long and hard about what and how to ask; they ask for everything that comes into their minds, because they know, even if subconsciously, that they must rely on their parents’ goodness if they are to receive what they desire. So it is that you come before your heavenly Father at all times and with every request and need. There is no power in prayer, but there is all power in the God who hears your prayers. This freedom to present your requests before the Lord comes because you are forgiven. Forgiveness of your sin is necessary for the beginning of prayer, as it is for the middle and end of prayer. You know that you stand before God in prayer as a forgiven sinner, or you cannot stand before Him at all. And so, as the Holy Spirit daily kills off your sinful self and breaks your attachments to pet sins, He also brings you to your knees in prayer. It is the Holy Spirit who has called you through the Gospel, who has enlightened you with His gifts, who makes you holy, and who keeps you in the true Christian faith. As you daily die and rise again in sorrow over sin and its consequences, the Spirit unites you with Christ in faith and, since you are united with the Son who saves you, you are certainly united with the Father who made you. From this Faith, in joyful fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, your life of prayer comes. This, then, is the promise that always accompanies the prayers of God’s people. You can be sure that the Father hears your prayer, because you are baptized into Christ-you are the Body of His Son-and He always hears His Son. The widow in the parable is a picture of the Christian who always prays and never loses heart. By faith we see that the first half of the paradox is true: prayer is the free response of the baptized and Holy Spirit-filled Christian.
What happens if we lose this half of the paradox? Prayer becomes a burden, and we have to force ourselves to pray. How fickle and weak we are! When was the last time you prayed for more than a few minutes, a few seconds? We are so out of shape that when it comes to prayer, we can’t find the words to speak to our God. We can easily understand the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, who could not watch and pray with the Lord for even one hour. When we lose the freedom of the Gospel, in which we find our joy and the spontaneity of prayer, our muscles go slack and atrophy from disuse. When prayer is forced and burdensome, we tend to exercise it only on the weekend. With so much against us in the world, we easily forget who we are in Christ: the joyful, forgiven sons and daughters of God the Father. We forget that our very lives depend on prayer: every minute, every detail, every decision. “[N]othing is so necessary as to call upon God incessantly and to drum into his ears our prayer, that he may give, preserve, and increase in us faith and the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments and remove all that stands in our way and hinders us in this regard” (Luther, LC III, K/W 440-441:2). Not to pray with freedom and joy-to lose the first half of the paradox-means that we cease to find our life in God.
The second half of the paradox is this: A life of prayer only comes with work. It takes discipline and practice to pray, and without that discipline, our prayers remain mechanical and lifeless. As someone said, “Whoever does not pray at determined times does not pray at undetermined times” (Claus Harms, quoted by Köberle, 175). “Prayer is an art that just like every other art must be learned by lifelong exercise, regularity and patience” (Köberle, 176). The art of prayer is learned by repetition, discipline, and practice. The practice of prayer is shaped and formed by the prayers of saints throughout all ages of the Church, and especially as we participate in the liturgy of the Church. We read and pray the prayers of other Christians who have walked where we walk and who have experienced what we experience. First and foremost, however, our prayers are formed and shaped by the holy Scriptures. “A prayer life that does not stick to Scripture will soon become poor in ideas, poor in faith, poor in love, and will finally die” (Köberle, 177). “Only where the Word of God dwells richly in the heart can the prayer of the heart continue without decreasing or pining away” (Köberle, 177). We find this truth about the Scriptures most especially as we read the Psalms, which have been the prayer book of God’s Church for four thousand years. Praying the Psalms, as countless Christians have done before us, we learn what it means to bring everything to God in prayer. Here, Christian, is your life in this world: a life of prayer that flows from and feeds on the Word of God. This Word of God is Jesus Christ, who speaks to us in the written Word of God, the Scriptures. We find by experience that the second half of the paradox is true: prayer requires practice and discipline.
What happens if we lose this half of the paradox? Very simply, we will not pray at all. “Whoever does not pray at determined times does not pray at undetermined times.” We become poor in ideas, poor in faith, poor in love, and our prayers die before they even reach our lips. If we do not pray consciously and repetitively; if we do not practice the art of prayer at all times and in all places, we will cease to be Christians. Our lifeline of grace to the eternal God will wither along with our faith, and we will begin to be, for all intents and purposes, atheists. This is practical atheism, and it means that we may force ourselves to come to church or we may pray at various times because the words are forced out of us by extreme circumstances, but the way we live our lives in our jobs and families will not look any different than if we were never Christians at all. Here is the necessity of prayer and the command of God. The widow in the parable could have given up; the judge did not really care if she got justice. But to stop praying and lose heart-to lose the second half of the paradox-is to act as if God is an unjust judge, who doesn’t care whether we live or die.
And so we stand in the middle, caught in the paradox. Both are true: on the one hand, our Spirit-given desire is to pray as beloved children pray to their dear father. We long to know conversation with God undimmed by sin and weakness. This is because we are righteous with the righteousness of Christ, and the Father does not see sinners when He looks at us. He sees His own perfect and holy Son. “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” On the other hand, we know our own weakness. We know our own selfishness and slowness to pray. We find any reason we can not to pray and not to take God into account. And that is sin. That is the description of the sinner turned in on himself and dead to God. At this point, the two halves of the paradox come together: it is only as I return to my only source of strength, Jesus Christ in words and sacraments, that I find the means by which I can continue on in the battle between myself in the flesh and myself in the Spirit. It is at the Spirit’s urging and by the Spirit’s power that we discipline ourselves in the art and life of prayer. We pray against the devil, the world, and our own flesh, because they are against those who are in Christ. Prayer is the combat of the living with the dead. And it takes training to fight. It takes practice and discipline, and the hard work of prayer never ends. But if God is for us, who can be against us? He fights for you and for me, and He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world. This is spiritual warfare.
Here, today, as you take rest from the battle, you have this invitation from your Lord: Keep calling out, keep praying, keep shouting even, to your God. Never become weary of calling on His Name. You are covered in the blood and righteousness of His Son, and He always hears His Son. When you are too numb even to whisper the holy name of Yahweh so that He will come to your aid, the voice of Jesus Christ still pleads on your behalf. The answers may not come today. They may not come tomorrow. They may not even come in this lifetime. So how do I know that our God hears you? Because He hears His Son, and you are His Son’s body. To reassure you, Christ has given you His own holy Body and Blood. He Himself has washed you in the forgiving water of Baptism by His Word. He Himself declares to you the forgiveness of all your sins. I may speak the words, but, brothers and sisters, it is Christ Himself. Here you find the answer to your prayer and the paradox is held together by Jesus Himself as long as you remain in this world. Oh, but one day the paradox will be resolved. On that day, the holy conversation of the saints with their God will finally flow freely from wills unburdened of sin and sloth; it will go on in unending joy and peace. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/18/07