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Prayer is difficult.

Last winter, I began to pray differently.

For years, I had been praying daily with the help of the Book of Common Prayer. I have also found help from an old Reformed spiritual writer, Lewis Bayly. Praying Scripture daily, going through the Psalms virtually every month, offering intercessions and thanksgivings.

Then last year – I’m not even sure why, looking back – something changed. I don’t want to say those prayers didn’t work. I don’t want to say I didn’t like it. All I can say is that I found myself caught up in something else. I had to do something else.

I changed my place. I started sitting outside: in my backyard, at a park, or in my open garage in the rain. At the very least, when it was too cold, near a window.

Then, I offered a well-worn prayer: the Jesus prayer. There are different forms, but the form I’ve been taught and used is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That was it.

What happened? Well, after about a month, I had some, let’s just say, experiences. The nature of these encounters are unimportant for now. What’s important is when they arrived.

It took some time. But I started to recognize that these encounters happened only when I gave up trying to seek them. Even when I gave up trying to prepare for them. Why is that?

A text that many heard in church two weeks ago, and that many in the Western church will hear this week, is the transfiguration text from Luke. Jesus took Peter, John and James and “went up on the mountain to pray.” Luke emphasizes that this trio of apostles were both very sleepy and fully alert when they saw Jesus’ “glory and the two men who stood with him.” It seems that Luke has them working hard to stay involved in prayer or in support of Jesus. They were anticipating something.

Then, after the upsurge of glory, Peter wants to make this new theophany a permanent feature of life. But, they become afraid as they are covered by a cloud and the Father repeats what was said at Jesus’ baptism. Well, not a mere repetition. The Father adds: “Listen to him!” In Matthew, at the end, Jesus reassures them to not be afraid and touches them. But, in Luke, there is no reassurance. The apostles simply “kept silent” and stayed silent about this until after the resurrection.

At one point in his writing, John Calvin defines prayer as an “interchange between God and humanity.” The interchange begins with the generosity of the Triune God. Like gathered worship on any given Sunday, we talk with God because God shows up to speak with us.

There are a million sociological and psychological reasons that people show up to worship on Sunday. But theologically, the base cause of our showing up – whether we know it or not – is God’s Spirit rousing us out of bed, saying, “O come, let us sing to the Lord.” God speaks in response to request.

Yet there is no request or thanksgiving, no plea or lament without God’s prior address. Prayer is difficult because it doesn’t happen without God coming to us and opening us to God’s voice. For human beings like us, that is difficult to learn. It has been for me.

I’m a human being, and so I’ll admit to needing God. I’ll admit to wanting my share of theophanies. But, I’m finding that prayer is best done with difficulty and discomfort. I also want to initiate. I want to manufacture experiences. I want control.

I can tap out dozens of quotes from Scripture and saintly teachers that state, with force, that the Triune God’s life is not a creature. But, I confess that I want God’s life to be not only a creature, but a particularly useful creature who pumps up my fragile self whenever I deem it necessary.

Let me be even more honest. I want all other creatures to be useful in this way. I treat God like I treat others, like I treat mountains, neighbors, kittens, dogs and streams. God won’t have it. And so, my prayer life needed to be disrupted.

There is another reason that God silences. The transfiguration indicates what the Spirit takes us into, despite our resistances. Calvin mentions that God, at the transfiguration, gives the disciples “a taste of his boundless glory” and that we should endeavor “to enter by faith alone . . . into that inaccessible light in which God dwells.”

Maximus the Confessor comments on the transfiguration: “he glorified the assumed humanity because just as he was seen transfigured on the mountain in the body that is subject to suffering, so also we shall be in the resurrection when we receive an incorruptible body.” Others will be glorified as Jesus is glorified. Even more, just as Jesus Christ partakes in God’s inaccessible light at the transfiguration, just so will the creation – at the resurrection – partake in God’s inaccessible light.

Prayer is difficult, then, because it is a way that we anticipate our coming resurrected lives. Resurrection is being made incorruptible by being lifted into God’s own glory. Bodies are made impermeable to suffering only in God’s inaccessible light. That is only something God can do. Just so, prayer is only something God can do.

Prayer isn’t just difficult. Just like resurrection, it is basically impossible for us. As Paul says, “no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” Even if our ears are no longer resistant to God’s voice, no human ear, no creaturely intuition, no amount of spiritual sensitivity, no human ability is up to the task of hearing God speak. Only God can adequately hear God speak, and know how to speak in return. Sin-free ears wouldn’t be enough. Not even if we climb a mountain.

What? At the transfiguration, the Son is praying to the Father. The Father is speaking. Based on the similarities to Christ’s baptism, some have argued that the cloud is the sign of the Spirit. The transfiguration is, in part, God letting the disciples in on the divine exchange that will become the context for the prayer offered after the Spirit descends at Pentecost.

We can hear God speak in prayer only because the Spirit is taking us into the Son’s hearing of the Father’s speech. Only because the Spirit takes us into the Son’s pleas with the Father. Every form of prayer happens when the Spirit lifts us into the exchange that happens between the Father, Son and Spirit.

In a way, only God can pray. We pray because God takes us into that prayer. Prayer is not controlled.

God withheld God’s self from me, for a time, because I need to learn reconfiguration and transfiguration. I think – and maybe I’m wrong – God wanted me to learn with my body, my imagination, my desires and my emotions that I cannot control my own reconfiguration and transfiguration. Even more, I cannot control the reconfiguration and transfiguration of the rest of creation. I’ve learned lots of Scripture and fancy theology that tells me that. But, if the Transfiguration is an indicator of what God does, there are some things that can’t just be told.

Some things are that difficult.

Keith Starkenburg

Keith Starkenburg teaches theology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.


  • mstair says:

    “I don’t want to say those prayers didn’t work. “

    That whole phrase is so 3rd. person isn’t it? Are we in relationship with a machine or system that “works” or doesn’t work – depending upon what?

    “We can hear God speak in prayer only because the Spirit is taking us into the Son’s hearing of the Father’s speech.”

    So glad I read this later in your writing. I think this is more correct and helpful. We are in relationship with a personality as real as us, our partner, our children … when we do not receive a response, we find another way to ask until we do.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thanks for this. I like especially the connection you make between the Transfiguration and us, and those words of Maximius the Confessor.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Our congregation-wide study two years ago was “Kneeling with Giants,” a book on prayer by Gary Neal Hansen (PCUSA). The book presents how leaders of the church from the past prayed then encourages us to practice their form of prayer for a few weeks, moving from one to another. It stretched and expanded our prayer life (including the pastor’s).

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