Searching for the Ear of God

Prayer is the little implement
Through which men reach
Where presence is denied them.
They fling their speech

By means of it in God’s Ear;
If then He hear,
This sums the apparatus
Comprised in prayer.

—Emily Dickinson

 

A Simple Question

My first attempt at Christian evangelization came as a confused, not-so spiritual eighth-grader in the public school system. In a small-town neighborhood in central Ohio, it was at least culturally normal to go to church on Sunday and to profess Christianity. It will suffice to say that my friend was the odd-man-out as an atheist—and most people knew it.

My friend knew that I came from a Christian background and often asked me questions about my faith, some of which I just had no idea how to answer. But I apparently did well enough, evidenced by the fact that she just kept asking. On the bus one day, though, she completely stumped me:

“I think God exists, and I tried church, but I don’t know. It’s just all so confusing, and it makes me want to give up.”

“Have you tried praying about it?” I was thinking of my old AWANA Bible verses I memorized for candy and stickers as a kid.

“Jesus said, ‘Ask, and you shall receive!’” I continued.

“No, because I don’t know how to pray. How do I do it without sounding stupid?”

Now what was I supposed to say to that? How could I have possibly known as an eighth grade kid? I myself reckoned with the reality I faced: I also thought prayer was sort of stupid. It certainly felt stupid, primarily for two reasons. Firstly, I often believed that prayer was just talking to an empty room, into a phone with no one on the other end. This is a matter of pure faith, which all of us struggle with at various points in our lives. Greater still than this, however, was that even if God was listening, I felt pathetic in trying to reach Him—I had a sense of the absurdity of my smallness. I knew that I was talking to the Creator of the universe and, frankly, I cannot think of another task quite so daunting. An honest inquiry: who am I to speak to God? Who is anyone, for that matter? It is as if I am a worm on a hook, pleading the fisherman to do my bidding; an ant in a child’s ant-farm, requesting to be set free. How is it that a human could possibly be elevated to a level at which he himself can converse with or petition his own Creator? Are his concerns not infinitely petty to Him? Is prayer not stupid?

And so came my underwhelming reply: “I don’t know.”

Of Kings, Gods, Prophets, and Righteous Men

Mentioned in the section above are the two elements of prayer that tend to cause the most distress: the uncertainty of whether or not God is listening, and the sheer impossibility of reckoning with human insignificance—both of which are beautifully and eloquently addressed in the Psalms. Essentially, the Psalms are a collection of documents put together for Jewish worshipers in the Old Testament. Commonly used for examples of prayer, worship, praise, and petition to God, the Psalms can poignantly present the human condition and awe in the sight of God. For example, in Psalm 22, King David cries out to a God he is not sure can hear him:

Psalm 22.1-3:
“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.
O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer;
And by night, but I have no rest.
Yet You are holy,
O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel.”

Jesus uses the first line of Psalm 22, also termed the Song of David, as he was postured and bloody on the cross in Matthew 27: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” For those worried about the feelings of emptiness they may experience in prayer, they can hopefully find solitude in the reality that even the greatest king in Israelite history and God the Son once felt abandoned. King David illustrates this feeling as he reflects on God’s apparent lack of a response to his pleas: “‘Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer.” Perhaps David would have been reassured by Jesus in John 14:12-14: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.’” We can read this today and know that God indeed hears us; the difficulty is now in understanding how.

Given that God has not abandoned us as David fears in Psalm 22, another poignant difficulty arises in our attempts to pray: our feelings of insignificance with respect to God. This too was among David’s concerns, as we observe in Psalm 139 when King David stands in reflective awe of the pure power of the Lord:

Psalm 139.1-6:
“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O Lord, You know it all.
You have enclosed me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is too high, I cannot attain to it.”

King David expresses a similar plight to every person who attempts to pray—is it not entirely insane to approach the Lord of the Universe with my requests?

Outside of the Psalms, the Bible is rife with more examples of humans going to God with their concerns. Consider the story of Job, whose prayer merited perhaps the worst possible response from God—a divine scolding of sorts. The Book of Job begins by explaining that Job himself is a good man and righteous in the eyes of God. God then decides to test Job’s faith by allowing burdens to be placed upon him. Job loses his possessions and property, winds up alone, and is struck with sores and illness across his body. He angrily lashes out at God, curses the day he was born, and challenges whether or not God is truly just. God responds with a demonstrative argument to put Job back in his place as but a human in His creation:

Job 38.1-7:
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said,
‘Who is this that darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Now gird up your loins like a man,
And I will ask you, and you instruct me!
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
Who set its measurements? Since you know.
Or who stretched the line on it?
On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?’”

God’s response here goes on for several chapters in a similar rhetorical style. Here stands a disturbing reality of the human condition: the condition of the race of man is unchangeable and impossible to reconcile to God by man’s own doing. Our role in the universe is incredibly small. We pray to God with His permission; we breathe by His permission; we wake up and lie down and think and speak with His permission. He is so vastly powerful that we cannot possibly claim to understand His nature except by what He has presented before us. People are thus so inferior and wretched and broken before God that they cannot even bear to see God’s face, as Moses experiences in Exodus 33: “But He said, ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!’”

So there you have it. King David, Jesus, Job, and Moses all struggled with relating to God in their human conditions. The question of how their pleas are rectified is complex, but we may try now to begin answering it systemically through studying God’s nature, as Dante suggests in Inferno: “Because your question searches for deep meaning, I shall explain in simple words.”

God’s Nature Revealed through the Bible

King David’s conception of God is generally the way we think of God the Father, one of the three offices of the Christian Godhead. But, importantly and graciously, the furthered revelation of God’s Triune nature by Jesus, God the Son, in the New Testament redefined and expanded the way humans understood their relation to God through prayer. No longer do we conscientiously pray to only the Father and the giver of judgment but, as we will soon discover, prayer also requires the Son and Spirit. Therefore, before digging into exactly how the Trinity illuminates the mystery and mechanics of prayer, it is important to understand the presentation and thus our knowledge of the Trinity in the Old and New Testament. This in turn will lay the framework through which the three natures of God operate in prayer.

To understand this Trinitarian framework of prayer, it is crucial to understand the presentation of the Trinity before the coming of Jesus. We will thus examine how God revealed Himself through time, primarily by investigating the differences in our relation to God in the Old and New Testaments.

The means of accessing God in the Old Testament can be most clearly described as being through the Law laid down by God. The Torah, Hebrew for the books of the Bible in which this law is presented, establishes humanity’s foundational need for grace—for if no law exists and therefore no laws are ever violated, there is no need for a Savior to bring humans back into their original created and sinless state. Most germane for the present analysis of prayer is that the Law as a principle itself is unchanging. This is because the God of the Old Testament is in fact the same God as in the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being,” (John 1:1-3). The Trinity—and thus Christ and the Spirit—existed long before Christ was incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth on earth. Therefore, the Law by which humans are judged did not change when Jesus was born to Mary—only our relationship to that Law changed. While the mechanisms by which this change occurred are complex, it will suffice to simply understand that this Law “consists of two parts—the precept that guides, and the penalty that binds; the one disclosing the purpose of God, the other proclaiming His supreme authority,” (Palmer, 185).

Thus, God is revealed in the Law. Our fear of God and the difficulties that arise in our attempt to understand prayer are culminated and understood to be represented in the Law—the standard to which humans will be judged and thus the representative of the full power of God. When we look up and feel insignificant—when prayer feels stupid—we find difficulty in accessing God as transgressors of His Law. Because that standard is extremely high, it speaks to the awesome Power of God while also forcing us into submission as humans: “The alternative is, obey and live, or disobey and die the death which never dies. In the instant of transgression the law executes the mortgage which it holds on the life of the sinner, and brings it under forfeiture to the penalty by which it was covered,” (Palmer, 185).

This helps explains our struggle with prayer—we are legitimately afraid of God, and rightfully so as criminals under His Law. To reconcile this with the entirety of the Trinity, one must also understand that the Law relates directly to the peace that we find in grace—for without the Law as representative of God’s power, the beautiful gift that is Jesus Christ could not be fully realized. Jesus Christ is then the embodiment of God’s divine grace:

“If man is now under a dispensation of Grace rather than of unbending law, his intercourse with the Deity will be in accordance with the new relations which have been instituted. His prayer will be addressed, not to God absolute, known to him in nature only as the Creator and Ruler of the universe, but to God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, revealed in Scripture as devising and executing a scheme of mercy for the salvation of the guilty and the lost,” (Palmer, 199).

The Trinity is therefore the means through which God administers this plan of mercy: “The subject of prayer will therefore open all the parts of this mighty plan, and the offices discharged severally by the Persons of the Godhead” (Palmer, 199).

A Trinitarian Analysis of Prayer

In the analysis of the Trinity, we must begin with God the Father, our knowledge of Whom comes in part through His relationship to Jesus, God the Son. Firstly, Jesus places Himself as both equal and subordinate to the Father. In John 10:30, Jesus states: “‘I and my Father are One.’” In John 14:28: “‘My Father is greater than I.’” The two statements clearly contradict each other yet, in context, their purpose is dually revealed. The Son and the Father are in fact of the same God; they are therefore of the same substance. Yet the Trinity clearly assigns separate roles or “offices” to each of the three members. Thus, in saying “‘I and my Father are One,’” Christ asserts that He is of the same essence as the Father—that they are both in fact God, and in that sense, one and the same. This does not exclude that Jesus is also subordinate in His role or His office; thus, “‘My Father is greater than I.’” Jesus further demonstrates this subordination in John 5:30: “‘I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father who sent me.’” This is also why Christ prays to the Father as a superior: “‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” and “‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.’” The role of God the Father in prayer, therefore, can best be understood as the invisible and spiritual representative of the Law and of the creative power of God. All of that which we do not understand about prayer, and all of that which makes us uncomfortable with prayer, is in fact represented in the Father. It is thus by His eminent grace that He gave us His Son, our Mediator, to rectify us from fear of the Law.

In order to further understand this mediation, it is important to acknowledge that we carry out the will of the Father by emulating His Son. This is the duty and calling of the Christian. Jesus prays to the Father—therefore so must we. Jesus puts Himself subordinate to the will of the Father—therefore so must we. We do this because, in contrast to our standing to God under the Old Testament Law, Jesus fundamentally transformed our condition before God through the cross. In Colossians, Paul writes concerning Jesus’s role in our salvation: “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach,” (Colossians 2:21-22).

The discussion of Jesus’s role in prayer may possibly be the most substantive, so much so that it certainly cannot be covered in full here. We will therefore focus exclusively on Jesus’s key role as presenter and mediator, He who reconciles us before God and gives us standing for our petitions in prayer. In the above quote from Colossians, Jesus presents us before the Father during judgment. This is analogous to His role in prayer—as humans, we are made in the image of God, yet we are broken in substance and in character. We are children of Adam, transgressors of the Law laid down and represented by the Father. Just as Jesus will present us before the Father in heaven, blameless and righteous, so too does He present us to the Father in prayer. We pray through the Son, to the Father, and in this sense, Christ is our mediator, God in human form. In 1 Timothy 2:5-6: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” The verse emphasizes here “the man Christ Jesus” in His role as mediator. In mediation, therefore, Christ uses His human nature to reconcile us to God through His own divine nature. In order for us to properly pray or petition God the Father, as is our duty, we must therefore move through the Son, appointed as both God and man. Christ can be understood then as having two kingdoms in His domain:

“We distinguish properly between the essential kingdom of Christ, as he is God, and his mediatorial kingdom, as he is the God-man. In his divine nature, being of the same substance and equal with the Father in power and glory, he is invested with the same authority and rule… but apart from the essential kingdom, the Mediator has acquired the right to rule in that complex nature which belongs to him as the Son of God and as the Son of man. The proper subjects of this kingdom are the redeemed, organized in a visible society, the church, over which… as mediator He rules” (Palmer, 267).

As Christians, we are proud subjects of the rule of Christ; in Him we are fully realized and brothers and sisters to Jesus, as He is a man, and it is in this relation that we call the Father “our Father,” and that we are therefore adopted into His divine family as “sons.” Jesus takes our broken, wretched nature and elevates us into His holy mediatorial kingdom— presenting us before the Father to be adopted as His own, to stand in the same room as the Father and call ourselves His holy children, His elected saints. We do not deserve this. We deserve to be the subjects of the daunting unchanging Law, and without Jesus, we can only praise the greatness of the Father and feel diminished by the overwhelming grandeur of his creative power. Without Jesus, our Mediator, prayer is indeed awkward and it does indeed feel stupid. But we stand rectified as members of the Kingdom over which Jesus rules as both God and man, before God certainly not as equals, but certainly justified by the grace represented in its fullest in Christ. This understanding of prayer is glorified and realized in the Trinity and in the office of the Son.

The last office of the Trinity is perhaps the least intuitive in our understanding of prayer. To lay the framework for the discussion, it is important to understand the Spirit’s role in connecting Jesus to the believer. It is clear that upon receiving Christ, a person is “a new Creation,” born again with the possession of the Holy Spirit as shown in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” This new creation is filled with the Holy Spirit according to God in Ezekiel 36:26: “‘Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.’” Finally, we know that having the Holy Spirit is a condition of living in righteousness from Romans 8:9: “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” Jesus’s death on the cross is the sacrifice that allows us to live in a state of righteousness and grace, yet there is also something constitutional that occurs in the body of the Christian: he is born again in the presence of the Spirit. This is a necessary condition for the reception of grace. Thus the sustaining bond between a believer and Christ, and thus between a believer and the mediation of Christ in prayer, is the presence of the Spirit in that individual: “The Redeemer and the redeemed are thus lashed together into one party … due to the indwelling of the Divine Spirit, he remains the living bond of union between Christ and his people,” (Palmer, 311). These conclusions are confirmed further in Ephesians 2:18: “for through [Christ] we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.” The Spirit’s role is then summarized: “Through the redemption by Christ giving us the right of approach, and by the Spirit giving us the power of approach, we gain access to the Father,” (Palmer 314).

Our understanding of prayer thus becomes full circle in the Trinity. The ultimate goal of the Christian life being to access the Father, to stand before Him righteous and justified, can actually be fulfilled on Earth through the medium of prayer. Prayer is then rightfully understood as an incredible gift and a glorious miracle: that we as broken men and women on earth may have the ear of the Father through the Son and by the power of the Spirit. As pastor and apologist Tim Keller explains: “Prayer is awe, intimacy, struggle—yet the way to reality. There is nothing more important, or harder, or richer, or more life-altering. There is absolutely nothing so great as prayer.” It is my hope that people approach prayer not just with awe and a feeling of infinite smallness, but also with gratitude, that in spite of our stupidity and brokenness, God presents a framework through which we may access the Father.

We will close by returning to John 14:12-14: “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.’” How great a promise that we not only have a method of petitioning God, but that He promises that He will listen, and still more that He will act upon it. Imagine the bounds of what we can accomplish with this gift on our side, for “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

 

 

Alighieri, Dante. Dante’s Inferno. Trans. Mark Musa. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1971. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. “Part One: Life LXXX.” The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. New York, New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003. Print.

Keller, Tim. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. N.p.: Penguin, 2016. Print.

New American Standard Version. Anaheim: Lockman Foundation, 1995. Print.

Palmer, B. M. Theology of Prayer. Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1894. Print.

 

Jesse Rines is a Junior majoring in Electric Engineering and Biomedical Engineering from Columbus, Ohio. He often wonders whether or not he identifies more with Chris McCandless, JD Salinger, or Gordon Sumner, though none of them were engineers.

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