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By: Jacques Ellul
The true content of prayer is not expressed in what is said, whence, among other things, the great mistake of analyzing prayer on the basis of the apparent content of the discourse, and the distinction between the prayer of petition, of praise, of intercession, etc. That sort of thing can be useful from the pedagogical point of view, but it falsifies the true nature of prayer.
Prayer is not a discourse. It is a form of life, the life with God. That is why it is not confined to the moment of verbal statement. The latter (verbalization) can only be the secondary expression of the relationship with God, an overflow from the encounter between the living God and the living person.
Prayer is not to be analyzed like a language. It has none of that form or content, for it receives its content, not from what I have to say, but from the One to whom it is spoken. For prayer to be what it is meant to be, it depends on Him and not on me, still less on my ability to speak the adequate language. Of course, I can pronounce a discourse supposedly addressed to God. I can arrange the sentences, but it is neither the harmony of the form, nor the elevation of the content, nor the fullness of the information which turns it into a prayer. Insofar as it remains a discourse, it is in fact subject to the language analysis with which we are familiar, but that is always as discourse, that is to say, as "nonprayer."
It becomes prayer by the decision of God to whom it is addressed. A transformation takes place whereby it is a prayer of Christ or a prayer of the Holy Spirit. That is how we should understand the famous statement of Paul, in which he says that in the last analysis we do not know what the content of our prayer should be (Romans 8:26,27), but that the Holy Spirit himself "intercedes with sighs too deep for words." This phrase has too often been interpreted as though the Holy Spirit added a little something to our prayer. That is quite incorrect. It is the entire prayer which is the prayer of the Holy Spirit. Only when the Holy Spirit intercedes, and in a way which cannot be expressed, that is, which transcends all verbalizing, all language, then is the prayer prayer, and it is a relationship with God. Prayer is a gift from God, and its reality depends upon Him alone.
From: Prayer and Modern Man. New York: Seabury Press. 1970.
By: Jacques Ellul
Do you have to have a reason to pray? Am I really going to pray because I have a reason which is rational, clear, explicit and conscious? Am I to pray because...? Must prayer have a cause? Prayer is a spiritual act, and I should accept it and live it as such. Since it is a spiritual act I do not need proof, nor do I need to look for reasons. I pray, or I do not pray.
But in times of dryness, of hardening, of morbidity, of despair, of alienation, of negation, of disobedience, of rejection, when there is nothing left "in our hearts" which tells us to "seek His face," I cling to "a reason" outside myself, which I find compelling, which pushes me along, in other words, like a hand in my back forcing me ahead, constraining me to pray. It is the commandment which God in His mercy has granted to make up for the void in my heart and in my life. "Watch and pray." That is the sole reason for praying
We must be clear about the meaning of the term "commandment." A commandment is always an individualized word spoke by him who commands to him who should obey. It is a person-to-person relationship. Man prays because God tells him to pray.
The commandment as the foundation for the reality of prayer brings us to the only discernible subjective and human motivation, namely, obedience. But we must be careful. Our intellect, always defective in the things of the Spirit, will trick us into thinking that if there is obedience then there must be an obligation, a compulsion, a duty to pray. Then we fall back into the confusion between law and commandment. Obedience in Christ is the opposite to a duty or an obligation. There is no compulsion. There is the hearing of a word which I receive and which commands me, before which it is mine to obey without pressure or penalty. There is not a duty to pray. The idea that there could be a duty sterilizes prayer, which is characterized by spontaneity and involvement. To declare it a duty to pray kills the possibility of prayer, for such duty is impersonal and sterilizing.
If the commandment to pray is the reason for prayer, that is to say, to lead us to obedience, then that is possible only if we receive it in faith. Prayer presupposes faith. To raise the problem of prayer, of the difficulty of praying, etc., is in reality to raise the problem of faith in the contemporary world. If, for the Christian, prayer becomes impossible, dead, troublesome, uncertain, that is but the evidence for the absence of faith. Prayer is a mirror in which we are called to contemplate our spiritual state. Since it is a real encounter with God we can in prayer see ourselves as God sees us. Since it is a real encounter with God, the lack of prayer forces us to consider the lack of reality in our faith.
Prayer is never other than a sequel, a consequence, a response, to the word of invitation If it is not God who is speaking, then there is nothing. The relationship is begun before the idea of praying occurs to us. I never have the initiative. Otherwise, prayer would in fact be a discourse, a monologue.
From: Prayer and Modern Man. New York: Seabury Press.