Prayer: It’s Not a Tool for Effectiveness

Pope Francis

I just read an article over at Christianity Today by Mark Galli, reviewing the recent Catalyst conference. I have to admit, I tend to groan when I hear the word ‘conference’ – I’ve developed a bias against them that is probably a little unfair and since what I do involves turning up to some of them from time to time to offer my thoughts on various matters, I need to check that bias regularly, including my own pride and arrogance that often fuels it. All that aside, I read Mark’s review of Catalyst and was really impressed by both his review and the approach of the conference.

The bit that got me was his discussion about prayer. This quote from the article captures it:

I suspect that most of us spend much of our lives trying to grasp the radical idea that prayer is valuable whether it makes a difference in ministry or not. It is, in the end, a gift of the Spirit, a means by which we cry “Abba!” to a loving heavenly Father, who accepts the ineffective and loves those who make no difference in the world, even those who have made the world a worse place.

His worry was that some would walk away from Catalyst seeing prayer simply as a tool to be more effective in ministry especially seeing as Catalyst is the sort of conference that attracts people who want to make a difference (people like me). It’s a valid worry. For many of us, and it’s how I used to be entirely and something I still need to check myself on regularly, wanting to make a difference in the world is the foundation of our life and everything else is engaged to serve that purpose – if it doesn’t then it gets jettisoned. In this way of life, effectiveness is our addiction and so people like me easily fall into the trap of thinking that if we’re not making a difference we’re less valuable, and even worse, seeing others in that light as well.

In this way of being prayer becomes a tool for effectiveness and the pursuit of intimacy with God is done with the motivation to serve that purpose. Intimacy with God in that sort of life is the thing we do so we can make a bigger difference. That’s how I used to see it and the reality of it meant that prayer was ultimately sidelined and an afterthought for me and something I mostly only did when in groups because it was expected. Action and doing stuff was king and I had all the justifications and Bible verses to back that up – because the Bible was mostly a tool for proof-texting my arguments and making them more effective – that has changed. It was an inner crisis in the ‘Holy Land’ that changed that for me and flipped the whole thing on its head.

You see, it’s the second part of the quote above that needs to stand out:

It is, in the end, a gift of the Spirit, a means by which we cry “Abba!” to a loving heavenly Father, who accepts the ineffective and loves those who make no difference in the world, even those who have made the world a worse place.

The need for us to ‘get’ that cannot be understated. It’s not something we can simply pay lip service to. Not only does it matter to who we are but it reflects our understanding of God’s grace. If we think our value is seated in our effectiveness then what are we saying about the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, and what are we saying to our children about their worth and value? What are we saying to them about the provision of God’s love, mercy, grace and forgiveness? That said, we don’t embrace it simply to send a better message either. We embrace it because it’s true and because at the heart of all of life is the truth that God loves us, not because we’re effective or not, not because we having booming ministries or because we’re at the forefront of making the world a better place, but simply because we exist and so does ‘he’.

I pray not because I want to be more effective; I pray because I am loved and I want to respond to that love and have my being exist within and from that love. Sometimes that involves words but most often it doesn’t. I don’t do it to be more effective or to be a better human being making more of a difference. I do it because… (words fail me here). Maybe the phrase ‘I feel compelled works’… but even that falls short of describing why. There is something at the core of my being that draws me to prayer.

I don’t say any of that thinking I’ve got it all together though. I regularly slip into the trap of defining myself by what I do and the difference I’m making. Far too often I subtly make prayer a tool of that without even thinking about it, which is why I need ritual, symbol and story constantly in my life to continually recapture my imagination and sense of being in order to draw it back to where it needs to be.