by Rodney A. Ellis
“Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples. (Luke 11:1)” As far as we know John had offered no secret handshake or genuine decoder ring, but he had instructed his disciples in ways of prayer. Jesus’ disciples wanted him to do the same. So he taught them, offering those famous words that have been recited for two millennia, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” He provided a prayer, spoken faithfully and dissected theologically over the centuries.
It was a prayer to the uncontrolling God.
What does it mean to our prayer lives that God is uncontrolling? How does that differ from praying to a God of coercion? The implications are doubtless many. Among them are: we speak to a God who persuades us, we speak to a God we may persuade, we may know better what we may expect of our God, and we may know better how to watch for our God’s answers to prayer.
Prayer to the God who persuades us
The way we see God matters for many reasons. One of those is the way we relate to God in prayer. If we pray to a controlling God we pray to the ultimate domination system, a model of rule consistent with that of Caesar. If we pray to an uncontrolling God whose core essence is love, we speak to the Father who longs for us to come willingly, uncompelled, and see his kingdom spread in a cooperative, non-coercive manner.
How does God persuade us? The uncontrolling God isn’t waiting with an ethereal paddle to wallop us into submission. I suppose a wallop might be efficient, but it would be pretty severe. It seems to me the loving, uncontrolling God would prefer gentle coaxing to wallops. Therefore, seeing God’s true nature can help us approach him with more of the love he desires and less of the fear a domination system imparts.
Prayer to the God we may persuade
God’s loving, uncontrolling nature also shows us he can be persuaded. We can influence God to change his mind. The Scriptures offer several examples of this, providing evidence that the future is not fixed by the unmovable will of the Almighty. (Remember Abraham’s prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah and Jesus’ prayer in the Garden that the cup might pass from him?) Rather, the witness of scripture suggests we are collaborative partners with God, influencing him and being empowered by him in the work of establishing the kingdom on earth.
The idea that we are collaborative partners with God has a significant impact on our prayer lives. In essence, we go to God not only trying to discern his will, but also suggesting solutions ourselves. We are wise, of course, to leave the ultimate decision up to the Almighty. Where, after all, were we when he laid the foundations of the world? Still we are free to argue, debate, and recommend. By joining in this kind of interaction we are better able to understand God’s reasoning and participate more fully and intentionally in God’s vision.
Knowing better what we can expect of God
How can we expect God to react to our prayers? We go to him to praise, to confess our sins, to give thanks, and to make requests. We can expect him to receive our prayers taking our mutual well-being to heart. We cannot expect God to intervene in everything, or blame him when we are faced with tragedy. Rather, in recognizing his nature we can see he simply cannot coerce outcomes in certain situations. We can, however, trust him to gently influence the direction and decisions of both creatures and nature.
I just returned from a trip to Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Ravaged by a couple of centuries of leadership issues and ill-advised international aid, most of its people live in absolute poverty, often uncertain as to where they will find tomorrow’s food and shelter. Why does God not simply wave his magic wand and change things for the Haitians? I believe there are two answers. One is he cannot; he is forbidden by his loving nature to violate the free will of those who would be affected by such a decision. The second answer, in my opinion, is that God wants to work collaboratively with us to solve the problem. Understanding how God works can motivate us not only to trust his enticing power, but also to be more active in righting the wrongs in the world.
Knowing more about how to watch for God’s answers to prayer
Confession time. I have been known to pray the occasional “smite prayer” asking God to strike down my enemies. After all, I have rationalized, if it was good enough for David it is good enough for me. The problem with the smite prayer, of course, is that it’s pretty out of line with God’s loving nature. It’s also out of line with the uncontrolling way he works in the world. A God who is love is not eager to smite. Rather, he is eager to work alongside us as co-laborers bringing about his will. This is a single example of the way our expectations of how prayers are answered change when we see God as he is.
Prayer to the loving, uncontrolling God means looking for opportunities to influence rather than dominate. It means being alert for the gentle breath of the Spirit rather than constantly looking for hurricane blasts.
“Teach us to pray,” the disciples asked, and Jesus did. Yet prayer is about much more than knowing the right words to say. It is also about knowing the God to whom we pray. Our God is love, and therefore cannot be controlling. Let us go to him nestled in the tender embrace of his love and persuasion.
Rodney A. Ellis (Rod) is former a lot of things. Most recently he is a former mental health practitioner and soon to be former Associate Professor of Social Work at The University of Tennessee. He plans to move to Haiti following his retirement in December, 2016 to continue the work he and a small but amazing team have begun establishing Mindfulness programs in the schools and orphanages of that country. His major focus will be supporting the work of a school established by the American Haitian Foundation. He is also the proud pappy of an 18-year-old son, Cody.