About forty-two years ago I read a bunch of books on prayer — three that I can remember specifically and more than that that I don’t remember. I wanted a “grounding” to build a life of prayer on, which seems now like learning about physics in order to be a better bicycle rider (where sufficient “grounding” comes with vigorous application of body parts to pavement).
The books generally tried to foster discipline, focus, and pattern in prayer, along these lines:
these are the six kinds of Christian prayer,
this is the order to do them in,
these are the problems to watch out for,
this is how to deal with those problems,
etc. Such formulaic approaches have their good uses, but learning them can also be something to spend time on instead of praying or riding a bicycle.
A constant member of any such list of topics on prayer is “distractions in prayer.” These distractions are not so much things like the sound of water dripping but the noise of me saying to myself “I need to fix that faucet.” They are not what we can hear through the walls of the prayer room but what we bring with us into the room, our own “unbidden thoughts,” as they are sometimes called.
The counsel in the books was generally to acknowledge any such straying thought (or sometimes to criticize myself for having non-prayer thoughts) and then move on, back into the prayer, as quickly as possible. This was supposed to be a way of denying myself to take up my cross (Mark 8:34), but here, oddly, the cross is prayer. It can be rather heroic, and the hero, if I manage to pull this off, is me.
But Denys Turner has written about these “distractions”: “I think we are wrong to slap them down, for they are a rare opportunity for our getting to know ourselves, getting to know where our hearts are.” He wants us to bring more of the drowning person’s prayer into personal prayer. Such a person ignores any preset formula, follows the distractions, and follows them completely. There is something on that person’s mind preventing the normal flow of the prayer agenda or prayer list. “[O]ur prayer lacks the urgency of the drowning man because it lacks reality, it doesn’t connect with our actual desires.”
Consider for a moment prayer within the Trinity. Jesus, God the Son, prayed to the Father for us, and the Spirit of God also prays for us (Romans 8:26-27). It is not as if Jesus or the Spirit tries to persuade God the Father to do this or that for us, because there is always already full agreement and love within the Trinity. Prayer within the Trinity is in fact expression of that agreement, and one of the things Father, Son, and Holy Spirit agree on is grace toward us.
We ourselves enter the Spirit’s prayer for us by our “groanings” (Romans 8:26 again and verse 23), by our excited realization that we are God’s children (verses 15-16), by our cries for someone to fish us out of the water, by our following our distractions to what we are really about. We thus enter the intratrinitarian love. What an amazing privilege!
It is easy for us to think, not explicitly but in our heart of hearts, that we have to qualify in some way before we can have that sort of experience. But God wants to give it to us. He is not looking for qualifications. That is the meaning of “grace,” but knowing definitions of theological terms does not exempt us from thinking about qualifications, either those we imagine we have or those we know we lack. The first sort of thought is boasting, the second is despair, and neither is a way of acknowledging grace or, for that matter, being in touch with the reality of our existence in God’s creation.
That experience of joining in intratrinitarian prayer is not an “exalted experience.” It can be like groaning, like crying in a crowded place for daddy, or like trying to keep head above water long enough to call out for help. It feels, in fact, like weakness, because it is, by definition, a place of weakness. It is so not in the sense conveyed in the song “Jesus Loves Me”: “we are weak but he is strong.” Instead, the primary way in which we are joined with God is in the weakness of a God reduced to a human and then executed publicly and bloodily (reading “take up your cross” in the light of Philippians 2:5-8).
Jesus did not resign from the Trinity to go get crucified because weakness is God’s modus operandi. It is how God gets things done. It is how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other: submission to the other is part of that intratrinitarian glue that we call love.
God meets us when we are weak (drowning, for instance) because that is when we are not-so-ready to rely on self. But that is not all: God also meets us when and where he is weak. He meets our fundamental needs most completely and directly as a dying man. He meets us when we are weak because weak is what he is. Jesus on the cross is not God disguised but God revealed, shown for who he truly is: made into a weak one by his own love for us. It is paradoxical to our minds but quite taken for granted in God’s mind that weakness and death is how he gets things done. If we have trouble locating God when we pray, it might well be because he is lower than our gaze.
- Denys Turner, “How to Be Distracted,” in Faith Seeking (London: SCM, 2002), 104-10.
- Among theologians who bring kenosis (the “emptying” in Philippians 2:7) and mutual submission into intratrinitarian relations, see particularly Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), e.g., 206-7, 219-20, 350.