One of the great mysteries of the Christian life is prayer. The very thought that anything a person like me can do to influence the fates in my own life or in anyone else’s is remarkable, to say the least. But that idea is exactly what the Bible indicates to us. Jesus expected all of his disciples to pray, for he said, “When you pray . . .” not “If you pray . . .” When he said this, he made it very clear, though, that we are not dealing with impersonal fates or ineluctable laws of nature when we pray. Rather, we are dealing with our Father. The relationship is a familial one between a child and the Father in the Father’s own world.
This relationship, of course, differentiates Christian prayer from the petitions and pleas of those in all the other religions of the world, since Christianity alone knows God as the triune Father, Son, and Spirit. Other religions and religious may speak of their ultimate one as “Father,” but the name is metaphorical. For the Christian, the term “Father” is not a metaphor. He is the Father from whom all concepts of fatherhood have originated. The term when the Christian uses it is a designation of an ontological reality in the essential being of the divine itself. Paul said it for us: “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Ephesians 3:14–15).
The adherents of other religious systems may think of their god or gods as acting like a human parent. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ does not just act like a father. He is a Father, the heavenly Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that relationship is an eternal one that was there before time and human creatures began.
God’s fatherhood means that our relationship is a personal one because the Father himself is the original person, the fountainhead from whom all other persons flow. The eternal Son has his origin in him. Jesus explained that the Father has life in himself, and the Father has granted to the Son to have life in himself, personal life (John 5:26). Thus we speak of the Son as the “only begotten Son” of the Father. It is to that Father from whom our very personhood comes that our prayers are primarily addressed.
Our relationship to the Father is not the same as that of Jesus to the Father. Jesus is God’s Son in that he shares the same essential nature as the Father himself. Both are divine. Their relationship is that of divine to divine. Our relationship is different: that of creature to Creator, human to divine; a relationship of spirit, not of essence. But the one at the center is the same. He is the eternal, unchanging one, so the principles are the same. He is eternal, holy love in both relationships.
God is a personal being—tripersonal in fact—and he made us in his own likeness and image, so the relationship between the creature who prays and the Father to whom he prays is never mechanical or automatic, never controlled by necessity. In all personal relationships, there is a flow of giving and receiving. If a relationship is to be personal, it must be free, never deterministic. Freedom means there is always mystery in any personal relationship, always a bit of the inexplicable—a totally predictable relationship is not personal. The element of freedom is also what makes personal relationships moral and ethical, because only free relationships can have the element of accountability.
Since the Father is the Holy One, the source of all that is holy, just, good, and true, his responses to our prayers always have about them a moral character. He will not answer our prayers if they are not for good. If the answer to the prayer we have prayed in ignorance or in self-interest would be to our own or another’s detriment, and he knows all things, he will in love refuse to give us what we seek. And he plays no favorites.
All of this simply adds to the mystery of why we need to pray. If he knows all things, and if he loves us and wills what is best for us, why do we need to bother to tell him what we want? We certainly are not informing him of something that he does not know. Nor are we twisting his arm to get him to do something for us for which he does not already have the heart. Eternal love can never be forced. Why, then, do we pray? Does it make any sense? It apparently made sense for Jesus, because he not only told us to pray but prayed himself.
Perhaps something of the answer is implied for us in what may be the most shocking part of the mystery of prayer itself. That is the fact that the Scriptures indicate that God himself prays. Paul and the writer of the book of Hebrews insist that intercessory prayer is part of the interrelationships of the three persons in the Godhead itself. In Romans 8:34 and Hebrews 7:25, we are told that the second person of the triune Godhead, Jesus, now lives in high priestly fashion at the right hand of the Father, forever to intercede for us. Paul adds in Romans 8:26–27 that, because we do not know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune Godhead, intercedes for us with unutterable groanings. Evidently Paul and the author of Hebrews felt that such divine intercession has some saving significance for those of us who come to the Father through Christ. The implication seems clear that not only do we need to pray, but we should give eternal thanks that the Son and the Spirit are forever praying for us.
But why does prayer work? What does it actually do? How does it work? The key may lie in the very nature of personhood itself.
Here we encounter a difficulty because of the poverty of modern thought on the nature of personhood. The social and the psychological sciences, so helpful to us in so many ways, to which we would naturally seem to turn for insight, here fail us. The reason is that our modern concern has been for an understanding more of the self than of personhood. The fact is that personhood is a Trinitarian concept and is unthinkable outside of a Trinitarian worldview. The origin of the language, as well as the concept of the reality, lies in the early Church’s efforts to explain to themselves and their world the biblical understanding of who Jesus was. An understanding of the biblical teaching on the nature of the triune God is necessary even to think the Christian understanding of personhood. In fact, the concept of personhood arose from the explanation of how in the unity of God, who said, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” there can be differentiations that we mark with the terms Father, Son, and Spirit. To use the idea of personhood in another context is to speak of another reality. Only in the belief that we human creatures alone are made in the image and likeness of the God who is tripersonal can we understood the mystery of the nature of human personhood. And prayer for the Christian, intercessory prayer particularly, can be understood only in terms of interpersonal relationships.
We moderns, or postmoderns, in the traditions of Augustine and Descartes, in our search for self-understanding seek to isolate the human self, the individual, so that we can examine it and come to a perspective of what makes us tick. The search for the self, though, is very different from the search for the person. The self can be thought of objectively as an entity in isolation. The person, in striking contrast, never comes alone. If the revelation of God found in Christ is true, there never has been a person who existed alone, not even God.
The God revealed by Jesus is one whose inner divine life is a life of communion of persons, persons who found their identity not in themselves but in one another. The Son could not be the Son without the Father. The Father, to be a Father, had to have a Son. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Each person in the Godhead exists by ontological relationship with the others. So when the first human couple were created, they found themselves inescapably part of a world whose ultimate reality was a communion of persons. Fallen man, because of what Luther called a cor incurvatus ad se (heart turned in upon itself) may feel isolated and alone, but his feelings speak only of his self-chosen closure to what is about him, and those feelings are a delusion. His nature, like that of God, is personal, and persons never actually come alone.
This brings us to a particularity of persons. The key to every person’s existence and nature lies in another. Persons by definition are never self-originating or self-sustaining. As children of the Father, we are made in the image of the eternal Son, and our very existence comes from him. But Jesus made it very clear that his origin and his sustenance were not in himself. His life, he said, was a gift granted to him by the Father. If we take the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus seriously, we must conclude that the eternal Son of God does not have life in himself but draws it from his Father, who gives it in love to him (John 5:26). The key to every person is in someone else.
This is dramatically seen in the biblical teaching on the origin of our salvation, which is by grace through faith and never has its origin in the one who receives it. Its origin and maintenance is in another. This truth is seen in the mystery of the atonement. Our need starts in someone else, and the solution to our need takes place in someone besides ourselves. Paul says it for us:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned. . . . Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (Romans 5:12, 18–19, NRSV).
Obviously, for Paul what happens in one person can and does make a difference in the possibilities of another. Persons come in webs of relations. The web is real and helps shape possibilities. The key to every person does seem to lie in another.
I have no difficulty in acknowledging that the key to our existence and salvation lies in another, in Christ. But does this mean there is a sense in which the key to any human person may lie, in some measure, in another human person or persons? A significant amount of evidence in the Scriptures suggests this is the teaching of Scripture itself. We Protestants may recoil a bit from the words of Jesus to his disciples, but the text actually tells us that he said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19; 18:18, NIV). Again, on the day of his resurrection, Jesus said to his friends, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23).
Whatever we do with these texts, it seems clear that Jesus saw his disciples as crucial to the world’s redemption. Thus, he could say to the twelve when he sent them out, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40, NIV; cf. Luke 10:16, John 13:20).
We seem clearly to be a part, a creaturely part, of God’s great saving web. The teaching of Scripture seems clearly to be that as the key to the salvation of the body of Christ lies in Christ, the key to access to the saving benefits of the Cross for the world lies in his Body. Paul seems to be genuinely awed at the prospect.
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:14–16, NRSV).
We know that in our world the life of every person begins in the body of another. To live, a person’s conception must be in another, and one’s birth from another. The origin of that life is from the God who alone can give life. It is through another human person, however, that such God-given life comes. Peter speaks of Jesus as having borne “our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24, NRSV). Then he follows with, “But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13, NRSV).
Could this mean that we have the privilege of sharing in some small measure Christ’s travail, Christ’s birth pangs, for his world? I think so. Paul seems to have such a thought in mind when he says to the Corinthian believers that God comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort those in trouble with the comfort which we have received in Christ. (2 Corinthians 1) Then he continues, “For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” (2 Corinthians 1:5, NIV). The web is reciprocal, and the flow is two directional. Is this why Paul prays that he may enter into the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings? (Philippians 3:10)
None of this fellowship is automatic, nor is it unconditional. Christ’s atonement opens up a possibility that if I will respond to the wooing of the Spirit, I may receive through faith the divine and saving life which God in Christ offers to me. Salvation never occurs by imposition, because it is the result of a personal relationship with the Savior. Salvation occurs because we receive him, the Savior, into our dying lives. What makes this at all possible is the fact that Christ in agape love cared more for me than he did for himself. He was willing to accept death, sacrifice his own life, that I might escape eternal death through the reception of the very life which he offered for me in the cross. The power in the cross springs out of self-giving love. Could this kind of love be the key to the power of intercession? It may be that when one person comes through the inner working of the Spirit to the place where another’s well-being is more important than one’s own, when one is willing to sacrifice oneself for another, the other person’s possibilities in grace mysteriously change.
This seems to be the picture we get in Exodus 32, where Moses is interceding with God for his people. God is rightfully angry that his people have turned away from him to make another god out of something he himself has given to them. Now it is clear they are not going to fulfill his saving purposes in his world. He must find another agent through which he can move to redeem his creation. So he tells Moses to step aside so he can remove Israel and begin a new saving stream through Moses himself. At that point Moses stands between God and this sinful people. Moses insists that if God is going to wipe anyone out of his book, he must start with him. His concern is not for himself. It is this difficult people whom Moses now carries, bears, in his own heart. Their well-being has become more important to him than his own.
My question is, Did God change his mind? Or does some mystery in the great web of interpersonal relationships mean that when one person, through the grace of Christ (and it is through the grace of Christ alone that such escape from our self-interests is possible), is ready to sacrifice his or her own interests, herself or himself, for someone else, the other person’s circumstances and possibilities change? Could such a person even change God’s circumstances? Isaiah 50, 59, 63, and Ezekiel 22 picture God as in search of just such a person. Even the all-knowing God is astonished when he cannot find one. On occasion, though, he does find such.
Think of Paul, Martin Luther, John Knox, the Wesleys, Francis Asbury, David Livingston, Robert Morrison, and Amy Carmichael. Was it not what was in their hearts that made possible the redemptive power in their ministries? If so, the big question, then, is how or why intercession can work. The bigger question is why I do not let Christ through his Spirit quicken within me the very love of Christ so that I, with him, can care more about another than I do myself. The birth of anyone, even in a culture so blessed with good medicine as our own, carries within it a threat to the life of the mother. If that is true of natural life, why should it be otherwise with the birth of an eternal soul? My question now is not about prayer. It is about me. Why do I not let him put that kind of love into me? Christ’s words about the necessity of a grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying if it is to be fruitful may be especially pertinent to any consideration of the power of prayer. Perhaps a key to understanding prayer really does lie in a biblical and Trinitarian understanding of what it means to be a person.