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Should I pray? Yes, but not for myself


FATHER, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will but thine be done – Luke 22:42

So prayed Jesus in Gethsemane, knowing he was about to be nailed to the Cross.

This is the model for all our prayers: the only act of will Jesus made was to renounce his will. This is how it should be with us.

The which we cling to – that I, myself and me – exists only so that I can give it away.

am only the instrument by which God’s will is to be done and his love shone abroad in the world. I have no other purpose and neither have you. St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) gives it to us straight:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.

And from St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226):

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

There is but one purpose for consciousness and it is to be focused on something else. To turn it inwards on oneself is narcissism, spiritual self-abuse. It is as fatal as swallowing the knife rather than what is on your plate.

Self-esteem is the worst idolatry. Psychoanalysis is the disease for which it pretends to be the cure. Jungian individuation – trying, for the psychiatrist’s high fee of course, to solve the problems of the self within the self – is only selfishness at its most attenuated and refined like the Hampstead Buddhism of the drawing rooms.

The mind, body and spirit gurus peddle junk food which poisons instead of nourishing. You want to be at ease with yourself? Then think of something else. But what? Jesus tells us: God and your neighbour.

Not, we notice, of humanity in general as the idealists, remote philanthropists and international do-gooders do. Or those dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

G K Chesterton (1874-1936): ‘The Clapham Sect that did so much for darkest Africa and so little for Clapham.’

Should I pray then? By all means, but not for myself.

Jesus of Nazareth (d c33, returning soon): ‘Your Father knoweth which things ye have need of before ye ask him. When ye pray, say, Our Father.’

The word ‘I’ makes no appearance in the Lord’s Prayer. There are only our, us, thy and thine.

After ‘Our Father’ comes ‘hallowed be thy name’. That is, your first thought should be of God and his holiness. Kneel. Say it. And by so doing you hurl yourself into God’s holiness – your origin, your destiny, the only place you belong. You have no being anywhere else.

Should I confess my sins then? By all means, but again remember it is Forgive us OUR trespasses.

The next worse thing to self-esteeming is to wallow in my sins and to fixate on my salvation. It pretends to be piety, but really it’s just another form of self-obsession.

The revivalist talks of ‘Jesus Christ my personal saviour’, and only sounds like someone trying to sell us a dodgy insurance policy.

‘Fear not, little flock. It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’ – Luke 12:32

The theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) speaking to criminals in their jail: ‘My dear brothers and sisters, I live. Jesus Christ has said that, and now he is saying to us again, I live. “Come unto me all ye who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Not only did he make his invitation and promise in words; he validated it through the mighty act of his whole life and death.

‘Christ himself tells us to forget about everything else and to stick firmly to this fact: “I live.” When spoken by Jesus, this means: “I live my divine life for you. I live it fully by loving you. Without you, I don’t care to be the Son of God and to enjoy my divine life. I live it fully by pouring it out for you. Without reticence or reservation, I give it away for you.”

‘And we are not merely given a chance, nor is an offer made to us. “You will live” is a promise. It is an announcement referring to a fact in the future, a fact in our future.’

Karl Barth again: ‘There is no sentence that begins with “I” and ends with “my salvation”.’

With all my gratitude to Barth and in spite of all my love for him, I beg leave to disagree. There is one such sentence and it is: ‘I can do nothing towards my salvation.’

The tortured revivalist tells me: ‘You can DO nothing towards your salvation, so SAY this.’

Ridiculous! As if SAYING were not DOING. The opposite is true: SAYING is one of the most important things we DO.

St Paul: ‘For the wages of sin is death. But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ – Romans 6:23.

We don’t have to SAY anything. We don’t even have to ASK. In fact, we must not ask. For a gift is the thing you don’t ask for. As the saying has it: He who asks doesn’t get. We must remember our good manners.

‘Christ is all and in all’ – Colossians 3:11

T S Eliot (1888-1965): ‘For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’

Quite! It is Christ’s business. And he has done the business through his life and his death on the Cross.

If we can do nothing for our salvation, what’s all this about trying? Just this: trying is what the life of faith is about. We don’t have faith naturally any more than we can have developed biceps without exercise. We must practise having faith until we find we actually do have it. And then we must keep on practising.

You must use your faith or you will lose your faith.

‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And he said unto me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful: It is accomplished!”’ – Revelation 21:4-5

Just look at the joy on the face of the risen and glorified Christ as he pronounces that word accomplished! He has done it. By his agony and bloody sweat, by his death on the Cross, he has worked the redemption of all creation.

‘It is accomplished! I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely’ – Revelation 21:6

You’ll see – all of you! Meanwhile, teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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