The way we pray is determined by our image of God. The most popular image in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is that of a supernatural theistic God who dwells somewhere “up there” or “out there” and reigns with unlimited majesty and power. This is the image of a transcendent God—separate from and greater than all of creation, including humanity. The blended God(s) of the Canaanite and Hebrew traditions—Elohim and Yahweh—whom we encounter in the Hebrew Bible, were conceived of in anthropomorphic terms, nearly always with male gender. Ezekiel and Daniel viewed God as a human-like being seated on a heavenly throne (or a flying war chariot) surrounded by a royal court of lesser divine beings. I was taught in catechism classes that the biblical God is omnipresent (present everywhere), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipotent (all-powerful). Because of these characteristics, our prayers are directed to a God who is nearby, accessible, and listening, who already knows what is in our hearts and minds even before we speak, and can answer our prayers by powerful supernatural means when necessary.
For many Christians, a supernatural theistic God is a daily reality in their lives, but for many others, this kind of God is simply not there. They long to feel God’s presence and God’s love, but instead they experience emptiness and isolation. They worship God in church, but find that God is not present in the sanctuary. They pray fervently to God in private moments, but realize that their prayers often go unanswered. In the end, there is only silence. The biblical character of Job cried out to God in despair, “I cry to you God, but you do not answer. I stand before you, and you don’t even bother to look.” (Job 30:20)
Barbara Brown Taylor (b. 1951) describes this emptiness in her book Leaving Church: a Memoir of Faith, in which she relates her experiences at a small Episcopal church in rural Georgia.
On my worst nights I lay in bed feeling like a single parent, unable to sleep because I knew I did not have enough love in me to go around. God was the boundless lover, but for many people God was the parent who had left. They still read about him in the Bible and sang about him in hymns. They still believed in his reality, which made it even harder to accept his apparent lack of interest in them. They waited for messages from him that did not arrive. They prepared their hearts for meetings that never happened. They listened to other Christians speak as if God showed up every night for supper, leaving them to wonder what they had done wrong to make God go off and start another family.
Mother Teresa (1910–1997), who ministered to the needs of the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying in India for over 50 years, felt a similar absence and silence in her life. It began soon after she set up her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in the late 1940s and continued until her death in 1997. She interpreted it as a loss of faith.
If there be a God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.
The image of a transcendent all-powerful, interventionist God is still the most prevalent one in America today. But for some people, it has ceased to be a reasonable working hypothesis.
There is another image of God in the Bible. The First Letter of John in the New Testament declares that God is love. Specifically, the Greek phrase theos ein agapē (theh’-ohs ain ag-ah’-pay) proposes that God is ‘self-giving love,’ which is the meaning of the Greek word agapē. Therefore, the writer of First John proposes that ‘God’ is the name we give to the spirit of self-giving love found at the depths of our humanity and experienced in the relationship of human love toward one another.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (1 John 4:16)
The author of this letter tells us three things: (1) God is love; (2) love is the incarnation or indwelling of God in humanity; and (3) we know and experience God through the experience of human love.
When the Bible declares that God is love, it means that these two language symbols—‘God’ and ‘love’—are identical. If God is love, then the converse is also true: love is God. In this understanding, ‘God’ is a human symbol that personifies self-giving love as a divine entity. God is the name we give to a powerful force that lies deep within each of us and is experienced in relationship. For millennia, humans have projected this image of God onto a supernatural being. However, God is not a loving being. God is love itself.
Scholar Don Cupitt (b. 1934) has written:
In the New Testament, in the First Letter of John, we are told that the words Love and God are convertible. You can’t slip a knife between them. If you love your fellow human being, you know God and are in God, whereas if you don’t love, you don’t know God… The word God doesn’t designate a distinct metaphysical being; it is simply Love’s name.
Anglican bishop John A. T. Robinson (1919–1983) said:
Love is often defined as an emotion—a strong affection, a feeling of devotion, an attraction based on sexual desire, a deep feeling of passion, or an ecstatic enjoyment. But love is far more than our emotions, which are fleeting and exist only at the surface of our being. Someone has said that “love is not a feeling; love is a verb.”
Love at its deepest level is an action, an activity, a commitment. True love is self-giving concern for another. One working definition is that love is “a choice to do what is best for another person.” Love in a family involves caring for those we love—feeding, clothing, sheltering, and educating them. It means providing them with the means of life and growth. Love in the broader human family means extending these means to others in our communities, our nation, and the world.
But love is more than providing the means of life. In The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck (1936-2005) defined love as the “will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” In our human experience, love is a relationship that nurtures all kinds of growth—physical, psychological, and spiritual. So, I would modify Peck’s definition to say that love is giving oneself to nurture another’s full humanity, concerned with his/her healing, wholeness, growth, and transformation.
If God is love, then the purpose and meaning of life is to nurture the wellbeing and potential of those around us. The presence of ‘divine’ love within us calls us to become fully-human agents of love in the life of the world.
If this proposition is true—that God is love—then what does it mean to pray? First of all, we must recognize that love is not all-powerful. Love is fully entwined with human weakness. Love is a frail human action, not a supernatural power. Love can accomplish many things, but it cannot do all things. Love can alter a situation, but it cannot change reality. If love changes anything, it changes us and those that we love.
Countless people pray daily for God to change conditions in the world. Their prayers often may sound as if they are reminding God what God’s job is (to bring peace among warring nations, to bring healing to the sick, to be with those who suffer, etc.). They want to put everything in God’s hands and let God deal with the mess we have created here below. This kind of prayer often allows the petitioner to sit passively aside, waiting for God to act, ignoring the reality that the God of love works through us and as us in the world. Our hands, feet, and voice speak for God in the world. The power we call God can only work through us in the world. It not appropriate, nor is it realistic, to ask God to do things in the world independent of us.
Rather than asking God to act, our corporate prayers should instead ask for empowerment to do these things ourselves. We should pray that we will have the courage to take actions against war; that we will take the time to comfort the sick with our own presence; that we will work to create systems of justice that will alleviate poverty and hunger; and that we will dedicate our lives to transforming our communities, nation, and the world toward love, compassion, and justice. Phillip Brooks (1835–1893), a Massachusetts Episcopal Bishop, suggested that prayer should be to empower us to the tasks that lie in front of us. “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger [people]! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for power equal to your tasks.”
If God is love, then the most important form of prayer is contemplative intercession on behalf of others. The German theologian, pastor, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) believed that in the future, a “religionless Christianity” would be defined by two actions: contemplative prayer and action for justice in the world. For Bonhoeffer, contemplative prayer, especially intercessory prayer, was important because in praying, one experiences a powerful sense of empathy and solidarity with the people one brings before God. Intercession helps develop a sense of compassion within us—feelings of sympathetic concern for others. Thinking deeply about other peoples’ suffering—not just our own problems—helps to put the needs of the world in perspective. Compassion opens the heart and inclines us to responsive action.
In contemplative prayer, Bonhoeffer said, “I move into the other [person’s] place. I enter [his/her] life… [his/her] guilt and distress. I am afflicted by [his/her] sins and [his/her] infirmity.” Bonhoeffer believed that this sense of identity with the situation of others was the necessary motivating force that would lead us to “act upon and affect the lives of men and women throughout the world.”
Intercessory prayer is not just for religious people. Atheists and agnostics can and should pray for others. This is a compassionate process that works for everyone, whether or not one believes in God’s existence. “You can pray for someone even if you don’t think God exists,” said Gordon Atkinson, a Baptist pastor and writer. Intercessory prayer is the process of bringing individuals into one’s consciousness and identifying with the situations of their lives—their joys and their sorrows, their trials and successes, their fears and their failures—that makes one more sensitive to their circumstances. It draws forth empathy and concern from within us. Intercessory prayer is in itself an act of love and it serves as a prelude to love and compassion in action. It is a motivation that compels us to act on behalf of others.
Prayer can be powerful instrument of insurrection and transformation. It can rouse us to action. Theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) reportedly said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) once said something similar: “Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.” Austin O’Malley (1858–1932), a Dublin football player and teacher, put it this way: “Practical prayer is harder on the soles of your shoes than on the knees of your trousers.”
Contemplative prayer becomes the motivating force for a life of compassionate action directed toward the wholeness, growth, and transformation of others, and the healing of the world.
Note: The opening quote is from a book by Marguerite de Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls, written circa 1290. Porete was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310 for espousing views inspired by the First Letter of John. The idea that the human self could be in union with God was deemed heretical even though it was biblical. Known as autotheism (from the Greek autos, meaning self and theos, meaning God), this heresy undermined the distinction between fallen humans and their creator.