Ethics and prayer (part 2 of 2)


Together, the seven petitions in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) express our restless discontent with the way things are in the world, in our communities, and in our hearts.  They offer a daily rhythm, challenging us to refocus on what matters most, calling us to remember the unfailing goodness and mercy of God.
As German theologian Karl Barth put it, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
The point of the sixth petition, “Lead us not into temptation,” is not so much a call to moral vigilance in the face of threats posed by the pleasures of the flesh but a general call to holiness and godliness.  This is part of the fruit of knowing God’s will – ordering our lives, our passions, our minds, so we can serve God fully and freely as genuine disciples.
The last petition, “Deliver us from evil” (or, “from the evil one”) is a prayer for fortitude in a turbulent and bruising world.  It is not a plea to be rescued from the world but for divine protection in the world – not as exiles with hearts and eyes cast elsewhere, but as active citizens of two intersecting realms.
Earlier in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus described our witness, our holy influence, as “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16; see also 13:33).  We offer glimpses of God’s kingdom and the reign of Christ, an ethical vision for justice and human flourishing as God intended from the beginning.  God alone can deliver us from everyday evil, whether banal or shocking.
In his book, God’s Companions, Samuel Wells speaks of the responsibility of “becoming the kind of person who can pray.”[1]  He suggests that the practice of prayer instills in us three qualities.  First, it invites what I call solidarity: it “pushes the disciple to discover more about the person [or issue] being prayed for.”  We learn, we begin to understand, we engage with empathy.
Second, as we increasingly focus on the needs of others, we also search the depths and boundaries of our own compassion, naming our own neediness and recalling how our needs have been met through God’s grace and mercy.  I call this humility.
As we pray in this way, we also anticipate the rhythms of God and the world.  Our engagement with others and other people’s needs leads to personal humility and a bigger vision of God and God’s ways, and this nurtures hope.
Praying the Lord’s Prayer brings hope and peace to people’s lives.  As Wells says, “The person who prays methodically has accepted God’s invitation to order the world in which they live eschatologically.”  Prayer enhances solidarity with those in need, strengthens our character and deepens our humility, and births hope.
Further, prayer has the capacity to transform our minds, cultivating what Wells calls
a healthy skepticism in the face of the urgency of the news media: the simple enquiry “who or what might I pray for in this news story?” dismantles the hasty scramble for blame and the thirst for clashing opinion in unyielding conviction.[2]
Prayer may also fulfill a legitimate public purpose.  In Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster observes that “In prayer we wait in the power of God for the evil to dissipate and the good to rise up … From prayer we discern the actions we are to take to overcome evil with good.”[3]
Ethical prayer compels us to take principled action on issues across the socio-political spectrum, including abortion and ebola, family violence and foreign aid, gambling and gay marriage, Halloween and homelessness, the war on drugs and the war on terror.
It is morally wrong to use public prayer as a propaganda tool.  But it is right to pray about political issues, events and personalities.  In 1 Timothy 2:2, Paul urges us to offer public “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving … for all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
And there are the words of Yahweh to King Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:14, following the dedication of his new temple in Jerusalem:
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
Ethical prayer is not about good technique but integrity and persistence.  It is dangerous, exhilarating, counter-cultural, subversive.  It is not preparation for an ethical life but ethics in action.  Lord, teach us to pray.
Rev Rod Benson is a Baptist ethicist and social justice advocate based in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.
[1] Samuel Wells, God’s Companions: Reimagining Christian Ethics (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 84-85.
[2] Ibid., p. 85.
[3] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith (London: Harper Collins, 1998), p. 173.


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