For some Christians prayer is simple. They ask God for that which their heart desires, trust God to answer with a “yes”, “no” or “not yet”, and then celebrate the yes’s. They pray for parking spots, for jobs, for good weather for church events, for the leadership of our nation, and for the success of God’s mission. I admire the trust that God is good and is at work in our lives and our world, but am far less confident that the universe is as simple as this approach suggests.
When Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” he recognised that there are occasions in which God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven. God wills humankind to be generous and kind to one another, yet violence and neglect are two constants of the human experience. God wills the earth to be a place that is conducive to human flourishing, yet mudslides, earthquakes and storms destroy homes and take lives.
It is this clash between our lived experience and our hope that causes many Christians to end up at the opposite pole to the “yes,no,wait” Christians. They give up on prayer. They pray for justice for those who are oppressed and exploited, only to see the oppression continue. They pray for the healing of a friend’s sick child, only to watch life cruelly slip from the child’s body. The thought that God would answer a prayer for a parking space becomes not only trivial but offensive. What kind of God would be concerned enough about the distance I have to walk to get to the shops, yet be indifferent to the suffering of the oppressed or the loss of a child? For these Christians prayer becomes an exercise in futility and a cause for doubt.
I have spent parts of my life in both camps. I suspect that both suffer from a common problem: the assumption that God operates, or could choose to operate, as the sole form of agency in the universe. Agency refers to the freedom to act in ways that impact what happens inside us and around us. The world in which we live is one filled with a myriad of agencies. Not only God but every human being, every living creature, every spiritual entity, and the forces of nature, all exercise agency of some kind. Sometimes agency has very localised and limited impacts, and at other times the impacts cascade around the universe. Sometimes the agency is exercised in a blind fashion. The forces of nature that produce earthquakes and mudslides do not consciously choose the direction in which they head. Sentient creatures like human beings often exercise choice without any awareness of the profound consequences that their actions may have. Other times agencies exercised with deliberate intent. We launch missiles in order to destroy targets; we speak harsh words in order to put people down an positive words in order to build them up.
In such a world, God is a very large and influential force of agency, but not the sole source of agency. Which means that until we live in a world in which every act of agency is exercised in the direction of God’s good purposes we will see good, bad, and indifferent experiences of life.
The obvious objection to this is that God’s agency could override all others if God so willed. It seems however that God chooses to respect the agency of others. I can’t pretend to understand the reasons behind this, but I’ve had enough experience of holding responsibility and authority to know that how I chose to exercise it was often very different to how those who didn’t have the responsibility and authority thought it should be exercised.
This does not mean God doesn’t exercise agency. On one hand it seems to me that God has built a drive towards the good into the very structures of reality. Billions of years of evolution point to a drive to life in increasingly complex forms. Wars come to an end. Communities band together to confront threats to their well-being. Dictatorships fall. On the other hand, the Christian gospel asserts that God is acting redemptively, bringing life and the universe to a place of shalom, well-being, peace and goodness.
I take it then that God is exercising agency, drawing people and the world towards the good, and because God is God I have confidence the world will reach the goal of all things being united under Christ.
It is with this in mind that I approach the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is organised around the idea that God is “our Father in heaven”, a compassionate, generous, and loving head of the global community who is working toward the flourishing of all members of that community.
It is this vision of the coming reign of God that informs the way I pray. I petition God to bring his reign into my life at those very points I experience brokenness; into our communities at the points they experience brokenness; and to creation at the point it experiences brokenness. My prayers therefore will range from very personal life issues through to social, political and economic systems and the state of the environment and everything inbetween. No issue will be considered too small for God’s attention nor too large for mine. In each and every instance my prayer will be for God to reign.
My cry will be for God’s kingdom to arrive in fullness, while recognising that this side of the return of Jesus we experience God’s reign in ways that only anticipate that fullness. Alongside the work of God in our lives and world we will still struggle with the presence of evil, suffering, and the frustration of God’s purposes. Prayer then takes on the character of protest at the brokenness that exists in our lives and world and of hope that the time is coming when all brokenness will be healed. It will align me with the ways of God and take me out of talk about God to engagement with God. Nonetheless, because God has begun to reign we will expect to see the partial fulfilment of our prayers in often surprising and life-giving ways.
I have written a short book on the Lord’s Prayer to accompany a preaching series we are currently undertaking in my church. You can download it for free in Kindle, EPub or PDF format by clicking the link below.