Why private prayers can be a public act.
Originally published in Comment Magazine, Fall 2017 Issue: A Church for the World
Last Friday night, my seven-year-old son and I were on our way to say his bedtime prayers when we heard loud voices and saw police lights outside his bedroom. I looked out the window, and immediately an image was seared on my brain. An image of a person I will likely never meet, whose face I never saw, but whose half-naked body was face down, handcuffed, lying on my driveway.
In light of the heightened tensions between African Americans and police in recent years, combined with things I’ve been learning about our current criminal justice system in recent months, a million concerns flooded my mind and heart.
Jesus telling us to go to our room to pray in private doesn’t mean that the act only has private ramifications. Here, the categories of public versus private do not neatly apply.
So my son and I prayed. We prayed for the safety of the handcuffed teenager and the safety of the police officers. We prayed that heightened tensions would dissipate. We prayed that if any wrongdoing had happened, things would be made right. We prayed for the long-term prospects of those who had just been arrested, and for the long-term well-being of those who had made the arrests.
Why was prayer our first response? Was it an escape from engaging the reality of what was really going on? Was it rooted in a naïve but unrealistic belief that the situation could actually be influenced by our prayers? What good was this seemingly private act of prayer, undertaken in the safety and security of our home, while this intense event—at once private and public—was unfolding?
The main reason my son and I prayed first is because, since he was a baby, we have been stopping to pray whenever we hear sirens or see flashing lights. Years earlier, I had observed a soccer teammate of mine pause to make the sign of the cross and say a short, silent prayer whenever she heard a siren. As I watched her pray, it struck me— when you hear a siren, it’s not good news. Someone somewhere in the community is in need. How appropriate to respond to that need in prayer.
When I had my own children, I felt led to incorporate this practice into our family rhythm. Young children are often fascinated by police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances. Why not, in addition to pointing them out as they drove by, use them as an opportunity to weave prayer into our daily lives? Why not use them as a chance to communicate, implicitly, that as Christians we care about those who are in need or in danger in our communities, even if we don’t know their names or circumstances?
Initially, these prayers were simple. I was thinking of who might be in need of an ambulance, or what kind of car accident might have precipitated the need for police, or a house fire that might require a firetruck.
But a few years into this practice, Ferguson happened. Then Cleveland. Then Staten Island. With stunning frequency, I was hearing about the tragic deaths of African American men as they interacted with police offers. I was learning about the legitimate fears that police officers have as they enter into tense situations, unsure if those with whom they are interacting have concealed weapons that might be drawn at any moment.
In short, I became aware of the dangers that can accompany the sound of sirens, and so the content of our prayers shifted when we heard those sirens. Prayer became for us a way to engage this very difficult public reality. It was not an escape, but a connection point between our family practices and real issues in this world—complex but important realities that we believe God called us to care about when Jesus commanded us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
Pray in Dependence
That night as we were praying, did my son and I think our prayers could effect real change? I recall that in my undergraduate days this was one of the most live questions with which my Christian friends and I wrestled. The movie Shadowlands had just come out, and we were grappling with the line in that film attributed to C.S. Lewis, “I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.” We thought in terms of dichotomies as we had these conversations: Do we pray so that God will change his actions and interventions in this world, or do we pray so that God will change and transform us? It took me some time to discover that there are layers to prayer that go way beyond these dichotomies.
Every time we pray, we offer our words to God, and those prayers are taken up by God and enveloped in a whole trinitarian reality. We read in Romans 8 that the Spirit intercedes for us when pray, even when we don’t know what to say. I used to think the intercession of the Spirit described in Romans applied only when we couldn’t find the words to pray. My understanding was this: when I’m so distraught that I can’t find the right words, the Spirit will intercede with groans too deep for words.
Through the years, I’ve learned that that is not the full biblical picture. What God offers is even more generous—every time we are praying, we are utterly dependent on the ongoing intercession of the Spirit. And that is a huge gift. Prayer does not depend on our finding the perfect words, or understanding with complete accuracy what is happening when we pray, or being in the right, focused, undistracted state of mind. Just as we are saved by grace, we also pray by grace as “the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26).
Jesus, too, is involved in our prayers. We read in Hebrews 7 that Jesus Christ always lives to intercede for us. He is our ongoing high priest; like an Old Testament priest, he takes our prayer offerings, purifies them, and offers them to God the Father. Empowered by the Spirit, prayer is an invitation into the prayers that Jesus Christ is offering for us as a part of his ongoing priesthood.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes this trinitarian picture when he portrays what is happening every time a Christian prays, whether that Christian is aware of it or not:
An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God—that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying— the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on—the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers.
Prayer, in this beautiful, biblical picture, is not as much about whether we are changed by God as we pray or whether we change God’s world when we pray. It’s a part of our union with God. It’s an overflow of our very life with God—the communion God has invited us into through Christ and the Spirit. As we live in communion with God the Father as his beloved children, we will communicate with God, and God with us, through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit by whom we cry, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15).
In this sense, prayer is a participation in a much greater reality. As we pray, we are in communion with the God who is at work making all things new (Revelation 21:5). The work of Jesus Christ on the cross was intended to reconcile all things (Colossians 1:20). When Christ rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father, he became the Lamb upon the throne (Revelation 5). He continues to live and reign as King of kings, just as he continues to live and intercede as the High Priest of high priests. As king, Jesus Christ is at work in this world and will be at work until the whole creation is renewed. As priest, Jesus Christ continues to pray for every part of the world to find healing, transformation, and shalom.
This is why prayer is never a private act. Jesus telling us to go to our room to pray in private (Matthew 6:5–6) doesn’t mean that the act only has private ramifications. The trinitarian reality of prayer means that every act of prayer connects us to the One who is Lord of all and longs to see his reconciling love transform every nook and cranny of this broken but redeemed world. Every act of prayer connects us to Christ the King. And we are citizens of the kingdom, called to seek first the kingdom of God and his justice and righteousness in every part of this world. Here, the categories of public versus private do not neatly apply. As theologian Julie Canlis writes,
The Spirit does not simply come to put us into a mystical, individual relationship with the Christ, who privately warms my heart. Christ is connected to all things! Christ is Lord of the universe! All things are moving towards being unified in Christ!
This means that when my son and I pray in the privacy of our home, our prayers have social import. On one level they have social significance because the specific incident in our driveway for which we were praying (teenagers being arrested) was connected to a broader public reality in American culture today (African Americans being disproportionately arrested and mistreated by law enforcement officials). But they also have social import because we are praying to a God who is Lord of the entire universe and whose reconciling love in Christ is moving all things toward unity. This is the Christ whose work on the cross has the power to overcome the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14)—to overcome the barriers between Jew and Gentile, between black and white, between arrested and arrestor.
It can be hard for us to see that private prayers have public significance because of Western cultural understandings of public and private. For the most part, we associate “public” with “political,” and we in turn understand “political” as having to do with politics and government. In our default cultural imagination, things that do not directly have to do with the political realm— homes, families, and religious institutions and activity—are considered private. But this is an overly restricted understanding of public. As I argue in Theology, Political Theory, and Pluralism, “public” simply means united around a common interest or good, so entities like the church can appropriately be considered public.
We have to be aware that most of us living in Western political society have inherited a concern that religion has an innate tendency to take over politics. To minimize the danger of Christianity in light of this concern, many believe that we have to relegate it to the private sphere in our pluralistic political context. The problem with this approach is that Christianity is inherently social—Christians are, after all, united around the common good of Christ and thereby become the body of Christ, a holy nation, and God’s own people (to use the language of Paul and Peter).
What Kind of Public Good?
Important aspects of our belief and practice are compromised when we adopt this dichotomous understanding. Practically speaking, for some this public-private framework has come to mean that Christianity can be concerned with private belief and behaviour, but not social or public goods. For others, it has come to mean that if Christians try to address social or public goods, they consider politics the primary way to enact change.
If we could expand our political imaginations, we could imagine a way for Christians to be properly concerned about public goods without assuming that politics is the only option for engagement. The church is a group of people united around a common interest or good—namely, Jesus Christ and his kingdom. Indeed, as we gather together as the church, the Spirit is at work forming us to engage every area of society with kingdom vision. Politics is but one area, and arguably not even the most important.
When we worship and when we pray, the Spirit is further forming us in our identity as kingdom people who follow the call of Jesus to seek first the kingdom of God. The Spirit, who was sent by the Father to help us and teach us (John 14), will help us see God’s vision for this world, where God is at work making all things new, and how we can participate in God’s very public reconciling work in this world.
A few months ago, while I was speaking at a Christian college, I was invited to have lunch with some criminal justice majors. These students were using their education to prepare for God’s calling on their lives to serve in the American criminal justice system as police offers, lawyers, parole officers, and the like. One student, an ethnic minority, described how difficult it was for him to respond to this calling in this particular cultural moment. For years he had sensed God calling him to be a police officer, and now that he was so close to fulfilling that calling, many in his community and in the larger culture viewed the entire police force with suspicion. With pain in his voice, he asked how he could move forward with a sense that God had called him to this work when that very work was vilified. Another student, from a predominantly African American town, meanwhile, shared that he wanted to be involved in criminal justice because budget restraints in his hometown meant that there was minimal law enforcement. He had lived through the painful, unjust consequences, and he firmly believed in the importance of having a public police force.
We discussed some biblical and theological ways to understand the significance of criminal justice that I hoped could undergird these future police officers in those moments when they might question the importance of their work. And then I shared how my children and I prayed whenever we heard sirens—for the important work of police officers in upholding justice in our communities and simultaneously for the safety and just treatment of those with whom the police were interacting.
That was when I realized for the first time how the Spirit was using this simple, private practice to shape the imaginations of my children and of me. Instead of accepting received cultural categories—which seem to want either the police or the arrested to be the good guys—God was giving us the eyes to see the God-given importance of each life and each calling. God was inviting us to share his concern for this very public crisis. God was reminding us that Christ the King is at work in this world. These future police officers softened as I told this story. They seemed to implicitly understand that God could use this private act of prayer to enable others in the body of Christ to believe in the significance of their future public work. They seemed to believe that God could work through our prayers to move this world closer to God’s vision for unity and reconciliation even in this tragically divided area. And so for their sake and the sake of God’s kingdom, we keep praying.