I upgraded my cell phone this week. There were a number of reasons for that, but the biggest one is that the phone I picked up two years ago recently started disappearing calls. I don’t mean just dropping calls, where at least the phone would have some awareness that it did something wrong; it was more that the phone, in mid-call, would suddenly revert to a completely inert state. I’d look at the thing and you could almost hear it saying, “What—was I supposed to be doing something?” So, I got a new phone, because when you have that happen four or five times in the course of a single conversation, it gets old pretty quickly, and there’s too much opportunity for information to be lost.
Not too many years ago, that last paragraph would have been completely unintelligible; but the cell phone has radically changed our culture’s experience of the world. Before Sara and I got married, we spent most of a year and a half apart; my last semester at Hope, she was in Europe. We talked once during that entire time, though we found other ways to communicate as well. By contrast, I remember the Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes telling a story maybe five years ago about his daughter, a student at Georgetown who spent a semester studying in Rome. That semester, a friend of hers did the same in Budapest; they both had cell phones, of course, so they could randomly call each other up and set up an impromptu date for lunch the next day in Vienna. Ten years before, even if I could have afforded to call Sara, I would have had no way to get hold of her; now, for the vast majority of Americans, “Of course you can reach me—I’ll have my cell.” Doesn’t matter where, when, why—we’re connected, we’re online, we’re accessible.
This is far from true everywhere in the world, of course; but where it is, it’s a staggering change in human society. And yet—classically human—many Americans al-ready take it for granted. People get bent out of shape because the camera on their phone isn’t good enough—really, how silly is that? The main point of the thing is to be able to talk to people, not to be able to ignore them while you amuse yourself. But when we have to struggle to communicate with others, when we have to work to hear their voice and be heard by them, to know and to be known, we value it more. The problem with cheap communication is it cheapens communication.
The same thing, I think, bedevils our prayer life. We’re accustomed to the idea that of course we can always pray—of course God is always online, though we might wonder sometimes if he’s wandered away from his phone; in our culture, even people who don’t have a relationship with God, don’t really want to, and in fact don’t even particularly believe in him still have the idea of prayer, and in fact may pray rather often in some vague way. We take it for granted, as if in fact it’s perfectly natural that we should be able to pray, and to do so whenever, wherever, and however we want.
Before Jesus sent us his Holy Spirit, that idea would have been completely unintelligible. It wouldn’t even have been nonsense, because you have to be able to grasp an idea before you can call it nonsense—it would have been unfathomable. You don’t just go up and talk to a god, even a minor one—you might get blasted. You certainly, from a Jewish point of view, didn’t do that to the Lord of creation. You had to make sacrifices to atone for your sin, you had to purify yourself, and then you had to approach God through the proper channels and in the proper forms. When the temple was destroyed and that was no longer possible, they adapted because they had to—but very carefully, and only with the greatest of respect.
What we too often fail to understand—and we talked about this some when we were going through Hebrews—is that we still need an intermediary when we pray, someone to approach God on our behalf; what has changed is that, by the work of Jesus Christ, God is now his own intermediary. It is Jesus who is our great high priest, who presents our prayers to the Father, and it is his Holy Spirit who brings them to Jesus. It is only in the Holy Spirit, and by his presence and work, that we pray at all.
Yes, whatever we say to anyone, God knows what we say before we say it; but it’s only by the Holy Spirit that our words, our thoughts, the movements of our hearts become prayers. If we address our words to him but our minds and hearts are full only of ourselves, then we aren’t praying, even if we call it prayer; and by the same token, God can choose to answer us even when we don’t think we’re speaking to him. It’s all in his hands.
The key here is, Christian prayer is a work of the Holy Spirit, first, last, and at every point in between. It’s not by our power, but his; it is by our will, but also fully by his; and it’s not by our wisdom, but by his leading. It is the Spirit of God who inspires us to pray, and who enables us to pray, and who teaches us to pray. This is important, because Christian prayer is not natural, and it isn’t easy; as we see in Romans 8, Christian prayer is rooted in surrender, in allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us and move through us—it is in fact an expression of the Spirit’s transforming work in our lives.
That’s a counterintuitive thing to say, because our natural understanding of prayer is that it’s all about getting what we want—asking for what we want, and sending thank-you notes when we get it. Sure, as Christians, we come to understand that prayer is a conversation, that it’s about talking with God—but talking about what? Most people, you follow that up, it eventually comes down to getting what we want.
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with telling God what we want—that’s important—and being grateful when he blesses us is important as well; but that’s not what prayer is about. That’s part of why the Holy Spirit has to teach us, because we don’t know what we ought to be praying for, or why. Naturally, we’re motivated by delight in the pleasures of this world, and the desire to avoid its pains. That’s not unreasonable, but it shouldn’t be first. The Spirit teaches us first to delight in God, and to seek to please him, and focuses our minds and hearts on Jesus Christ; and in the process, he turns our hearts from wanting what we want for ourselves to wanting what God wants for us and the world.
The Holy Spirit gives us the desire for God, which motivates us to pray—not because we think we ought to, not because we want God to give us something or do something for us, but because we want God, and we want to please him. He teaches us to pray in the reality that we have been made children of God and heirs of his glory, and that the glory and freedom that are ours in Christ are worth far more than whatever suffering we endure along the way; and though it can be hard to live by faith and hope in what we don’t see, the Spirit teaches us to live in hope, and to pray in hope, trusting that our hope in Christ is firmer and more certain than anything we do see now, even though it requires patience.