God, I normally don’t pray, but if you’re out there, please help me.
I need help with: [insert situation here: a loved one who is dying, a situation where I am in trouble, get me out of this speeding ticket, I want to date this person, I need to do well on this test, etc.].
If you help me, I promise to: [insert offering here: pray every day, stop this particular sin, always trust in you, etc.]
Please help me!
This is one of the most common type of prayer by people today. You could entitle it, “The Standard American Prayer for Help” (SAPH). It has been used in TV shows and movies, sometimes seriously, sometimes comically. I would be willing to bet that the majority of you reading this have used a prayer similar to this, probably several times in your lifetime. I know I have!
It’s amazing how quickly we can realize our need for God and the behavior we need to truly follow him. They say there are no atheists in foxholes and perhaps there are few atheists when we need a loved one to get well or when a police officer pulls us over for speeding.
While at times comical to think about, this is actually a great starting point for prayer. Even though it seems we only pray like this when we are in trouble, times like these help us remember what we tend to easily forget: who God is and how He relates to our lives.
Who God Is
Knowing God’s identity is essential to our prayer life. The SAPH prayer recognizes some of the positive identities of God. First and foremost, we recognize that God has the ability to change our reality. After all, God is the Creator of the universe; surely He can help us pass a test. But, God is more than this. During his days as a student, A.W. Tozer, an evangelical pastor of the early 20th century, would take two hours each morning in prayer to just think about who God is.
While we don’t have to take two hours each morning, it is important to think about who we are speaking to in prayer. God was created by no one. He created everything. He has no beginning or end. He knows all. He is perfect. He is able to do anything. Go back and think about these characteristics again. We take many of these concepts for granted. Recently, I attended an event where a couple of B-level movie stars were present. When they came on stage, the crowd rose to its feet, started taking pictures, and cheering loudly. During prayer, we have an audience with a God who is much more than a B-level movie star, and yet it remains difficult to remain faithful to prayer. Why is this?
The God Who Doesn’t Care
The SAPH prayer also reveals another side of our view of God that isn’t so positive. Notice how quickly we are to offer up something so that God answers our prayer. Now, it is good to show God that we are serious in being faithful to Him, but at the same time, it can appear that we think we have to give God something in order for Him to be nice to us. We set up some sort of bartering arrangement to appease a god.
NT Wright, an Anglican Bishop and biblical scholar, recounts his encounters with this perception of God at Oxford:
"For seven years I was College Chaplain and Worcester College, Oxford. Each year I used to see the first year undergraduates individually for a few minutes, to welcome them to the college and make a first acquaintance. Most were happy to meet me; but many commented, often with slight embarrassment, ‘You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.’ I developed stock response: ‘Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?’ This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word “God” as a univocal, always meaning the same thing. So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up the in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally ‘intervening’ to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven. Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of ‘spy-in-the-sky’ theology: ‘Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either.’”1
These student responses at Oxford help us understand the concept of God that so easily slips into our minds. God become a person that no one wants to believe in, even if He does exist. God is merely a dictator who doesn’t care about us.
Father or Dictator?
As Wright noted, Christianity believes in a much different God than this. We believe in a God that is a Father, not a dictator. From the beginning, humans faced this dilemma. Pope John Paul II stated, “This is the key for interpreting reality. Original sin is not only the violation of a positive command of God but also, and above all, a violation of the will of God as expressed in that command. Original sin attempts, then, to abolish fatherhood…placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship”2
This decision, to accept God as Father or dictator, is crucial to prayer. If God is merely a dictator, than we are mere slaves hoping for greater freedom. Prayer is simply a bargaining process that attempts to appease the gods and not make them mad. If God is a father, than prayer is an intimate experience with the infinite, all-knowing creator, who loves us, who cares for us, and who wants us to be happier than we want to be happy.
The first and most important step to prayer is a trusting faith. The biggest obstacle to faith is the wrong conception of who God is. It’s difficult to trust dictators.
Praying to a Father: The Soul of the Apostolate
If God is who He says He is, our perspective on prayer should radically change. (Note: Just because we have made a commitment to Jesus Christ, doesn’t mean that we are completely removed from falling into the trap of viewing God as a dictator. Our trust in God is a continual journey). The God who is the creator and sustainer of all should encourage us to not limit our prayers. The God who is love should encourage us to come to draw near to Him.
Through identifying God in these two ways, we also come to realize that everything depends on Him. It is easy to keep caught up in the things of Catholicism—sharing the faith, leading a Bible study, attending Mass—and to forget the relationship that we can have with God. We can slowly turn into Christians that try to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and forget the God who is behind every good thing that we do.
This is why Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard wrote a book called The Soul of the Apostolate: The Interior life of Grace as the Key to Saving Souls in 1907. Chautard battles the bootstrap mindset by reminding the reader that our work is nothing without an interior life. In fact, he goes so far as to state, “For you can be sure that the extent to which you yourself are able to live on the love of Our Lord will be the exact measure of your ability to stir it up in other people.”3 In another section, Chautard states, “The entire success of the apostolate depends on one thing: An interior life centered on the Blessed Eucharist.”4 His message is simple: You can’t give what you don’t have. Trying to bring others to a relationship to Jesus Christ is fruitless until you are daily pursing this relationship as well.
What is the key to not making this crucial mistake? Setting time aside each day with God, rain or shine, sleepy or tired, busy or not for prayer. Nothing could be more important. Some have a hard time finding when to pray, but this problem is simply a problem of priorities. We could just as easily say we don’t have time to eat, or sleep, or talk to our friends. We make time for the most important things in our life. People in love don’t try to find time to talk to one another; they talk to each other as much as they can. If we seek to live out what we know about God’s identity, daily prayer is a natural conclusion.
1 NT Wright, Ex Auditu (1998), 14, 42–56.
2 Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, ed. by Vittorio Messori (Alfred A. Knopf: Toronto, Canada, 1994), p. 228 (italics original).
3 J. Chautard, The Soul of the Apostolate (Tan: Rockford, IL., 1946), p. 60.
4 Ibid., p. 192.