A Word for Angry Pray-ers
This week, guest author Peter Hartwig will be writing for the blog. Peter has an M.Phil. from the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and is currently completing his M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary. He also serves as Theologian in Residence at National Community Church in Washington, DC. He is a good friend, a partner in ministry, and a thoughtful theologian. I hope that you will benefit from what he has to share. Today's thoughts follows from his post on Monday entitled "The School of Prayer."
No one ever taught me how to pray, and that is because I have always been a nice lad.
I am the oldest child and only son of a man who pastors a relatively large, conservative church, which is to say I have felt internationally beloved since the day I was born. I’m not talking rabidly conservative, but so long as I lived up to a shortlist of don’t-do’s (sex, drugs, alcohol) I was a paragon of adolescent Christian virtue. To make matters worse, ours was a Pentecostal church, a church that believed in a particular experience of God: the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the gift of tongues. There was a general presumption that once you got fully ghosted, which I was at some point in my teen years, you were kosher.
The social expectations of conservatism, the moral expectations of evangelicalism, and the spiritual expectations of Pentecostalism — I managed to meet them all, categorically. So, by the time I was a teenager, I was set aside on a shelf labeled No Further Attention Required.
No one ever taught me to pray and that is because no one ever thought I needed to be taught.
This is why, I think, I see myself in the older brother of Luke 15. He is good at nothing if not meeting expectations... at least, that is how he sees himself. Think about his tantrum he throws when he learns his younger brother has come home:
Look! These many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!
The father’s celebration of the prodigal unmasks a rage just beneath his brother’s surface. He has always done well (much better than that kid who left home) but he has never had a party and he is angry about it. He feels he has been set on a shelf labeled No Further Attention Required.
He is angry at his father. If you listened only to the son’s little rant, you would get the sense that the father is callous, joyless, and tight fisted — he gives only commands, never gifts, “not even a young goat.” But the larger story clearly shows us that the older son is wrong. His father, in actual fact, is generous and compassionate, radically so. He is not at all concerned with keeping his wealth to himself and he is willing to be publicly embarrassed for the love of both his sons.
This anger, in reality, is the result of an illusion. The older brother has spent his whole life living in his father’s house. But all those years, he has lived in a state of self-hindering falsehood; he has missed the father’s real personality. The older brother does not know who his father is and he does not know how to live in his own home. That, I think, is precisely what his father is trying to teach him when he say: My son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours.
We can live in God’s house our whole lives, and all the while miss the joyful truth of being at home with God. We can spend our lives with a dutiful attitude towards doing what we think God demands of us under the illusion that God is unwilling to celebrate us, that all God cares about is our meeting his demands. We can be Christians in most every discernible sense and still live without the freedom of being God’s.
For most of my life, I have prayed in the posture of the older brother, feeling like I am shooting at a target in the dark. I had a vague sense that there is a right way to do pray and no way to know if I was doing it right. Of course, raised in the Pentecostal tradition, I had a few fairly dramatic metrics: prayer in tongues, hearing God, receiving revelation. But what is a nice young lad to do when all these, at one point or another, have occurred and still prayer primarily remains an experience of anger, anxiety, and absence.
What does it mean to pray well? Why does it feel like I pray poorly?
I wish that, at some point, I had been stopped by a fellow traveler along the way and asked what my life of prayer was like. I wish I had been asked whose house I thought I was praying in and what I thought Them to be like. Instead I sat o sat on the shelf No further attention required. I had labored in prayer for most of my life under high and vague expectations. What a grace it would have been to be seen by God or anyone else for that matter, to hear My Son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours.
What I needed, in other words, was guidance in prayer. But what I decided to do, instead, was study theology.