BY DR DAVID SMITH
Readers of this blog may know that I have spent a lot of time over the past couple of years writing a book on the biblical tradition of the prayer of lament. But in addition, I recently worked on a set of Bible reading notes dealing with Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, which of course includes Jesus’ teaching on the subject of prayer.
So let me begin with the words of Jesus. At the very heart of what might be called the ‘manifesto’ of the kingdom of God, Jesus deals with three aspects of what we can describe as ‘spiritual disciplines’: giving to the poor and oppressed, prayer and fasting. A friend of mine told me recently that he avoids using terminology about ‘the soul’ because, he said, it has become a kind of jargon that few people really understand. Instead he will occasionally ask colleagues, ‘How is your inner life?’ He reports that when phrased in this way, even non-Christian friends respond to a sensitive enquiry, recognising that there is more to being a human person than what appears on a surface level.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Jesus’ teaching on these subjects is precisely his repeated insistence on the private, internal life of his disciples and, conversely, repeated warnings about parading religious devotion in public in order to enhance one’s esteem with other people. He talks about ‘acts of righteousness’ and immediately says they should not be performed (an appropriate word!) ‘before men’. The sharing of resources is to be done in secret, never as a means of gaining honour; the discipline of prayer is a matter for your own room with the door closed; and fasting (which Jesus clearly regards as a regular spiritual discipline) is to be directed solely to ‘your Father, who sees what is done in secret’.
The connection between this teaching of Jesus and mission has nothing to do with effectiveness in evangelism, as though this is a kind of method to achieve greater success. The concern of Christ is
instead with the kind of people we become and the manner in which that then challenges the normal values of the world in which we live our lives. In 1937 the English missionary Charlie Andrews sailed to India for the final time and received a letter on his arrival from a Hindu friend who said, ‘During all these twenty years I have never asked you about Christ, for your own personality has been more than enough for me’. He went on to request Andrews to write a life of Christ in simple English and added: ‘You are the only person who can write this book, for you have lived like Him all these years in India’. Before his death Andrews wrote a small commentary on the Sermon on the Mount which he described as ‘an amazingly perfect description of the Christian character at its highest point’.
What though if your inner life is in turmoil? Is prayer possible when we experience crisis, whether personal tragedy or some larger catastrophe which shatters our hope and shakes the very foundations of our faith? This, of course, is the point at which the biblical tradition of the prayer of lament is so crucial. The Bible does not tell that when our hearts are breaking we have to say, ‘Praise the Lord anyway’. Praise and lament are closely connected in Scripture, and both form part of a normal relationship with God. The conclusion we draw is that biblical prayer is not only crucial for the inner life of the Christian, but also that it must be honest before God, unafraid to admit failure, doubt and struggle. As someone has said, the questions ‘Why?’ and ‘How Long?’ are as authentic in the Bible as the cry ‘Hallelujah’.
This article was originally featured in the April 2020 edition of Reach magazine. To subscribe to Reach, or any of Pioneers UK’s other digital publications, click here.