The Soul of Prayer

Eugene H. Peterson is the James Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia.

This article appears as the Introduction to P.T. Forsyth's book, The Soul of Prayer. It can be ordered for $10.65CDN (includes GST and shipping) from the Regent Bookstore, 5800 University Blvd., Vancouver BC Canada V6T 2E4.

Beginners at prayer — children, new converts — find it easy. The capacity and impulse to pray both are embedded deep within us. We are made, after all, by God, for God. Why wouldn't we pray? It is our native tongue, our first language. We find ourselves in terrible trouble and cry out for help to God. We discover ourselves immensely blessed and cry out our thanks to God. "Help!" and "Thanks!" are our basic prayers. Monosyllables. Simple.

God speaks to us, calls to us, has mercy on us, loves us, descends among us, enters us. And we answer, respond, accept, receive, praise. In a word, we pray. It's that simple. What more is there?

But prayer doesn't stay simple. We spend years slogging through a wilderness of testing and begin to question the childlike simplicities with which we started out. We find ourselves immersed in a cynical generation that corrodes our early innocence with scorn and doubt. Along the way we pick up notions of prayer magic and begin working on sleight of hand rituals and verbal incantations that will make life easier. It isn't long before those early simplicities are all tangled up in knots of questions, doubts, and superstitions.

It happens to all of us. Everyone who prays ends up in some difficulty or other. We need help. We need a theologian. For those of us who pray and who mean to continue to pray, a theologian is our indispensable and best friend.

The reason that we who pray need a theologian at our side is that most of the difficulties of prayer are of our own making, the making of well-meaning friends, or the lies of the devil who always seems to be looking after our very best self-interests. We get more interested in ourselves than in God: we get absorbed in what is or is not happening in us; we get bewildered by the huge discrepancies between our feelings and our intentions; we get unsettled by moralistic accusations that call into question our worthiness to even engage in prayer; we get attracted by advertisements of secrets that will give us access to a privileged, spiritual elite.

But prayer has primarily to do with God, not us. It includes us, certainly — everything about us down to the last detail. But God is primary. And the theologian's task is to train our thinking, our imagination, our understanding to begin with God, not ourselves. This is not always reassuring, for we want someone to pay attention to us. But it is more important to pay attention to God. Prayer, which began simply enough by paying attention to God, can only recover that simplicity by re-attending to God.

Prayer is the most personal thing that any of us do, the most human act in which we can engage. We are more ourselves, our true, image-of-God selves, when we pray than at any other time. This is the glory of prayer, but it is also the trouble with prayer, for these selves of ours have a way of getting more interested in themselves than in God. The plain fact is that we cannot be trusted in prayer. Left to ourselves we become selfish — preoccupied with our pious feelings, our religious progress, our spiritual standing. We need guides and masters to refocus our attentions on God, to keep us ever mindful of the priority of God's word to us.

In the process of re-attending to God, all the intervening doubts and cynicisms and seductions in which we have become entangled by our self-attentiveness have to be attended to. We require an alert theologian at our right hand. A good theologian brings the requisite skill, single-mindedness, and patience that can help us re-establish the primacy of God in our prayers.

Peter Taylor Forsyth is just such a theologian. A British Congregationalist, he was dead before I was born, but I have kept him at my side for thirty-five years as a friend and ally in my own life of prayer and the lives of my friends. I find him utterly trustworthy and immensely energizing.

He is also eminently quotable: "The reason of much bewilderment about prayer is that we are less occupied about faith in God than about faith in prayer (p.17) … We petition a God in whom all things are fundamentally working together for good to such a congenial cry. So far from crossing Nature, we give it tongue (p.23) … The Christian at prayer is the secretary of Creation's praise (p.32) … Prayer is the salvation of prayer. We pray for better prayer (p.38) … [Prayer] settles at last whether morality or machinery is to rule the world (p.55) … In prayer we do not so much work as interwork. We are fellow workers with God in a reciprocity (p.57) … There is nothing so abnormal, so unworldly, so supernatural, in human life as prayer, nothing that is more of an instinct, it is true, but also nothing that is less rational among all the things that keep above the level of the silly (p.59) … A growing child of God is always hungry (p.60) … Love loves to be told what it knows already. Every lover knows that (p.63) … Prayer is for the religious life what original research is for science — by it we get direct contact with reality (p.78) … Cast yourself into His arms not to be caressed but to wrestle with Him. He loves that holy war" (p.92).

Maybe the thing that I like best about Forsyth is that he is a theologian who stays a theologian. He cannot be distracted, will not be diverted. Here is a no-nonsense theologian who goes for the jugular. In Forsyth's company we are aware of both the glory and the gravity of what we are doing when we go to our knees in prayer.