Prayer in a time of adversity
Many of you who read this short piece will never have encountered a situation like the one we are now experiencing. The deprivations and anxieties that many are suffering are all around us. As the pandemic takes hold, we are witnessing the best of times and the worst of times. The best are all the acts of kindness and generosity that the majority are pouring out on needy and vulnerable people. The worst are the deeds performed by a small minority who act in selfish ways to deprive others of goods and services, who steal medical supplies (even respirators and protective gear), abuse the police and flout common-sense laws.
In the face of such unexpected circumstances, how should Christians communicate with God? Everyone will have their own ideas. For what it is worth, I will share some thoughts that have come to me as I listen to the news and reflect on what it means to pray.
In such times as these, people tend to turn to a supreme being for comfort, reassurance and encouragement. For Christians prayer depends on having a right image of God. This builds on the imagination they can draw from God's word. There is no better place to start than to meditate on the person of Jesus: He is “the (visible) image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4); “the exact representation of (God's) being” (Heb. 1:3), “having seen him (one) has seen the Father” (John 14:9). “In Christ all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). The deity is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
When we have just a small inkling of God's glorious splendour, we are driven to adoration. As the Athanasian Creed puts it: “The Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped”. Prayer is designed to expand our vision of who God is in Himself. There are passages of Scripture that help us to enter into what we might call an audio-visual impression of this God (look at Revelation 4-5, 7:9-17; Ezekiel 1:26-28, and Psalm 145). Here we find pictures of the unfathomable grandeur of God, beyond human language to portray adequately.
Adoration consists of lifting up our eyes to heaven (John 17:1, 11:41; Isa. 40:26; Psa. 105:4). The language is figurative; heaven is not literally above. It speaks of a different dimension, to help those praying to keep their eyes firmly on God. I do not know of a Biblical verse that sums up so magnificently the reality of God's presence as Isaiah. 57:15:
“I live in a high and holy place but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
God's presence fills the heavens, but is also present simultaneously with those who are penitent, humble and unassuming.
In times of adversity, we must not give way to a sense of hopelessness and become paralysed. If possible, in prayer we should keep one eye on the tragedies of the situation, including those known personally, and one on the God who “lives with the contrite and lowly in spirit”, and bring them together.
Prayer is not learnt in a day. It is an exercise in practising God's presence wherever we are and whatever we are doing, remembering He is always there. It is a conversation in which we listen to God speaking through his Word and nudging us to think about and undertake something that perhaps we had not thought about. When we speak to the God we adore, let us ask him to show us whether we are really walking in his ways. I find speaking out loud a way of concentrating on my side of the conversation, not forgetting that in God's presence listening is a fundamental principle of prayer.
Rev. Andrew Kirk is an ordained Anglican minister. He has spent much of his life teaching theology in tertiary educational institutions and has taught courses on all six continents. Since retirement (in 2002), he has been involved on a part-time basis with graduate institutes in Eastern and Western Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada, both teaching and supervising doctoral students. He has degrees in theology (missiology) from the Universities of London, Cambridge, and Nijmegen. He was a founder/member of the Latin American Theological Fraternity (1970), associate director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (1982-1990), theologian missioner of the Church Mission Society (1982-1990), dean and head of the Department of Mission, Selly Oak Colleges (1990-1999), and senior lecturer for the Department of Theology, University of Birmingham (1999-2002). He is the author of many books.