Publisher: IVP, 2014.
I’ve read a few of Tim Chester’s books over the years, mainly on mission and church life. This very readable volume on prayer was well worth the read.
His writing is always thoroughly saturated in scriptural references, and this book is no exception. With Chester coming from a fairly traditional conservative evangelical base, with a strong Calvinistic bent, as a reasonably committed ‘non-Calvinist’ I was interested to read what he would write on prayer.
As expected, the theology of God’s sovereignty plays heavy in his thinking. This means that, for Tim, our praying is not so much about changing the mind of God about anything, but God sovereignly choosing to use the prayers of his people as a contribution to the things he was going to do anyway. In that sense, God answered our prayers! The idea is that God acts either in spite of our prayers, or in conjunction with our prayers. When our prayers seem answered it is because God has incorporated and affirmed our prayers. When our prayers seem unanswered, our prayers are heard but answered according to God’ will (because we, being so finite, fail to comprehend the vastness of God’s understanding).
Is that how I understand prayer to work? Is it possible, rather, that whilst knowing the beginning from the end, God responds to our cries as opposed to our silences and that the means leads to the end? In other words, does God take more notice of the prayers of his church than the average Calvinist would give him credit for? Is the future, and all history, ultimately as ‘fixed’ as Chester would make out? Does prayer change things directly, or just indirectly as God grafts our prayer on his ready predetermined route? And what does all this say about the state of the world? No easy answers, and I feel that Chester sometimes wants to offer us those.
Having said that, Chester offers a very interesting view on the role of the Spirit and Jesus in our prayer to the Father. The basic idea is that we pray imperfectly, but the Spirit comes and aids our prayer, inspiring/interpreting it on the way ‘up’ to the ears of Jesus. Jesus, as the mediator, sort of filters out the imperfections and passes only that which is perfect on to the Father. One one hand, this is a hugely encouraging idea…it says that every prayer we pray eventually arrives before the throne of God perfectly, thanks to the Spirit and Jesus. On the other hand, maybe it feels just a little bit like those ‘consultation’ processes that means our most honest thoughts/reflections don’t meet the ultimate destination?
What Chester does emphasise, however, is that prayer as an activity is not something we need to fret about ‘performing better’ in. He emphasises that we often try to make prayer a ‘personal achievement’ by means of how ‘good’ or ‘effective’ a pray-er we are, when all along, the ultimate mediation task and the ultimate intercessory task belongs to Jesus. Prayer, too, is all grace. For me this is a bit of a release as one who can fret about not praying enough/right/better.
As I reflect on these ideas, I can honestly say that I’m not actually that bothered with ‘how’ prayer works. I simply and gladly understand the invitation to pray, and to do it heart and soul, fully investing myself in the privilege. I’m very aware of my imperfections, and why wouldn’t I totally appreciate the role of the Spirit and of Jesus in my imperfect utterances?
Some of what Chester writes certainly speaks to a question that I’ve been considering lately. I’ve been rather perplexed about the idea that ‘the more people pray about it, the more it’s likely to happen’. Do you know what I mean? It makes God sound like a cruel master who needs appeasing, or somewhat lacking in motivation unless nagged relentlessly. That idea has always seemed unusual to me, and so maybe I’m closer to Chester’s thinking that I first thought. It’s not about volume, noise or number of prayers as if it was a thermometer on the top of the church roof, where God will only respond when it reaches a certain height. That doesn’t sound like our Father, does it?
So, for a small volume, it raises a lot of very interesting questions. I’ve come away from reading it with a note of hopefulness and appreciation that, somehow in the mystery of the One who is God, my prayers count. Questions remain, however. Chester goes on, in the third part of his book to offer pointers for more effective prayer. You have to ask ‘is this so that the Spirit doesn’t need to do so much interpreting?’ Or, ‘If we pray as he suggests – appealing to God’s promises/will, his character/nature, and pleading for his mercy by reminding him what a loving God he is – does this not, in fact, undo the points he has just made about God’s sovereignty?’
I confess that, like many, I understand and don’t understand prayer. What I ultimately know, however, is that I’m drawn to it and filled by faith that, however it works, I’m invited to participate in this activity that certainly changes me and, somehow, I believe, impacts the world around me.