“Are you too comfortable with God?”
The speaker’s comment took me by surprise and brought back a flood of emotions. Throughout the years, I’ve often wrestled with balancing the transcendence and intimacy of God. I’m not alone. In the same passage, the psalmist both states God is “the great King above all gods” and “we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care” (Ps. 95:3, 6–7). Yet, to be honest, over the years I’ve increasingly moved toward intimacy and away from transcendence. It’s interesting to compare my view of God with a pillar of the faith and his posture toward the Almighty.
In Exodus 33, Moses boldly prayed that God would show up. He worried about leading the people of Israel into enemy-occupied territory and asked for confirmation. “Lord, would you allow me to see your glory?” Moses pled. Exodus records God’s remarkable response. “Yes, you may see my glory, but only under the following conditions.” God tells Moses he will be placed in a cleft in the rock, God’s hand will cover him, and Moses will only be allowed to see his back. Why all the precautions? Without precautions, God’s glory would overwhelm Moses and may even be dangerous.
What separates Moses from me is our view of God. Moses viewed God as holy and majestic; I view God as a gentle, soothing presence. When Moses thought of God he trembled; I think of God and am comforted. Moses was awestruck; I am at ease.
Feeling completely at ease with God is not wrong so much as it is imbalanced. In constantly relating to God as my heavenly Father and friend, I have slowly lost my sense of awe. Over time, I’ve stripped God of attributes that make me feel uncomfortable—holiness, sovereignty, omniscience—and fixated on the ones I take comfort in—kindness, trustworthiness, love, and patience. God has become a glorified version of the best of human characteristics: a God who is reliable but not majestic; a God who is reassuring yet not fear inducing. My lack of awe is most evident in my prayer life. Over the years, I’ve adopted a casual approach to prayer where I primarily communicate with God while doing other things—walking the dog, driving to work, or sitting in my favorite chair sipping coffee. In short, most of my prayers are distracted and lacking any sense of the divine.
When mentioning my concerns to my students, they nod in agreement. “If it weren’t for praying while going on a run, I don’t think I’d ever pray” confided one student. To be clear, God absolutely hears us in all conditions—jogging or sitting alone in a chapel—but, do I really believe I’m talking to God? Slowly, a plan started to form between my students and me. What if we took Advent and sought to reclaim a sense of awe in our times of prayer? During this time, we’d temporally suspend casual prayer while walking to campus or driving in a car. We’d do it during the entire Advent season. One student suggested we should do a test run before Advent. We agreed to take two weeks to work on changing up how we prayed to a God who is both our Abba and also a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29).
Reclaiming Prayer: A Test Run
The first thing we did to bring a sense of awe back into our prayers was to remind ourselves of what prayer is—communication with God.
In his advice to pastors, Eugene Peterson offered this counsel: “That is why so many of the old masters counsel caution: Be slow to pray. This is not an enterprise to be entered into lightly.”1 And yet, that’s exactly what I found myself doing on a regular basis. I would start my car, take a sip of coffee from a travel mug, and start praying. There was no pause, just a rush to engage God in communication. The most important thing about prayer, suggested theologian Martyn Lloyd- Jones, is what you do before you pray. Jones advocated a time of introspection before prayer. “We should say to ourselves: ‘I am now entering into the audience chamber of that God, the almighty, the absolute, the eternal and great God with all His power and His might and majesty, that God who is a consuming fire.’”2
Just as a runner warms up before he or she takes the first step of a race, perhaps my students and I needed to have a warm-up time before we pray. What if, before we prayed, we took a minute or two to read a Psalm? What frame of mind would reading Psalm 111 put us in as we prepare to pray?
“Great are the works of the Lord;
they are studied by all who delight in them.
Splendid and majestic is His work;
and His righteousness endures forever.”
God, in complete righteousness, has created every majestic and splendid thing we can imagine. Would reminding ourselves of this truth cause us to pause before we prayed? My students also recommended that a pause could come in the form of playing a worship song from Maverick City Worship, or Housefires. Others suggested the mere act of turning off their phone and sitting in silence for a minute could be mental preparation.
Using the Prayers of Others
During this test run most of us realized we were in a prayer rut. All our prayers were almost identical. Virtually all of them focused on things that most affected us as individuals—my relationships, my work, my hopes, my schoolwork, and my aspirations. Clearly, our focus was on self and not kingdom realities or priorities. In short, we needed help. “If we insist on being self-taught in prayer,” suggests Eugene Peterson, “our prayers, however eloquent, will be meager.”3
Just like students sometimes needing a tutor for a difficult class, it became clear to us that we needed to be tutored in prayer. Our search brought us to John Ballie. Ballie was an accomplished teacher and preacher who sought to coach believers in the discipline of prayer. Since 1950 over a million copies of A Diary of Private Prayer have been sold around the world.
The weight of his prayers is impressive and clearly different from ours. Here’s a sampling:
“Here am I, O God, of little power and of mean estate, yet lifting up heart and voice to Thee before whom all created things are as dust and a vapor. Thou art hidden behind the curtain of sense, incomprehensible in Thy greatness, mysterious in Thine almighty power; yet here I speak with Thee familiarly as a child to a parent.”
“O God above me, God who dwellest in light unapproachable, teach me, I beseech Thee, that even my highest thoughts of Thee are but dim and distant shadows of Thy transcendent glory.”
“Almighty God, who of Thine infinite wisdom has ordained that I should live my life within these narrow bounds of time and circumstance, let me now go forth into the world with a brave and trustful heart.”4
Ballie was overwhelmed by God. Each of his prayers begins with the awesomeness of God, not his own personal requests. While we didn’t try to make our prayers sound like Ballie, we did try to start our prayers by lingering on God’s awe-inspiring attributes—wisdom, holiness, love, grace, sovereignty, omnipresence, and so on. We also found it helpful, like Ballie, to write out our prayers rather than creating them on the spot.
Engaging the Body
As modern Christians we have sorely neglected the role of the body in our spiritual lives. We think that position of our body has little to do with anything. To counter this tendency, we decided that when we prayed, we would do so standing up and with arms raised. Our decision to pray with arms raised was motivated by Paul’s instruction to Timothy that believers should intercede for kings and people of authority by “lifting holy hands” (1 Timothy 2:8).
To illustrate this point, I showed my class the 1962 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is a depression-era attorney defending a black man accused of rape in the then racist South. To no one’s surprise, an all-white jury convicts. As a dejected Finch leaves the courthouse, a group of African Americans stand as he passes. Everyone stands silently, except Finch’s daughter, who remains seated. An elderly black man leans over and whispers to the girl, “Stand up, Jean Louise. Your father is passing by.” They stood in awe of Finch’s courage and dignity. Does God deserve any less? Our decision to stand while praying was an attempt to express our awe toward a righteous and courageous God.
Does God hear us any better by standing with arms raised? No. But perhaps we become more attentive? In communication courses I teach, I tell students that the goal of a good communicator is mindfulness. Mindfulness is being fully present in the moment. I find that standing with arms raised helps me to be mindful that I’m communicating with a God who deserves my attention and respect. When I lower my arms, or am distracted, I simply take a pause and lift up my arms again and resume.
All in all, I was pleased with how my students reacted to this attempt to reintroduce a sense of awe back into our prayers. The experiment continues. While not required, many of my students have decided to join me in adopting this same approach to the entire Advent season. Doing this with them makes us co-learners and has prompted many conversations inside and outside the classroom.
A friend of mine knows the Unites States Ambassador to a small island nation. In addition to two drivers, a butler, three housekeepers, twenty-four-hour security, and a personal chef, the most unique person on her staff is the protocol officer. This person’s job is to explain to people like us how we should relate to her. He explains that we should refer to her as “Her Excellency” or “Madam Ambassador” and should limit our physical contact to a handshake unless she initiates an embrace. My friend can’t help but chuckle when he hears these instructions, because “Her Excellency,” is his mom. My friend not only stands in awe of his mom’s accomplishments and title but is bowled over by his special relationship to her.
For believers, Jesus tells us how we should relate to the Father. In the first six lines of his model prayer, he tells us that God is a king who resides in heaven with all authority and power. But He is, and will always be, “our Father.” Our job, as believers, is to never loose a sense of awe at our special relationship to “His Excellency”—our Abba.5
- Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 30.
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies on the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 33.
- Peterson, Working the Angles, 37.
- John Ballie, A Diary of Private Prayer, ed. Susanna Wright, updated and rev. ed. (New York: Scribner Publishing, 2014) 41, 73, 85.
- Over 16 years ago I tried a similar prayer experiment by myself and wrote about it in the now out-of-print Discipleship Journal (Sept/Oct. 2006, Issue 155). I have periodically returned to this exercise but have now included my students on this prayer journey.
Thanks for this, which brings to mind A. W. Tozer’s reason for writing “The Knowledge of the Holy”.
May the Lord bless and keep you and your students.
Thank you so much for this very important reminder, particularly at the beginning of Advent. It meshes well with other readings in my current list. May your Christmas season be filled with awe and joy.