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Pleasure, pain and the secular worldview Part 6: Prayer in a Pain-Pleasure World

Here is the sixth and final in CMS Director of Training and Development David Williams’ series on ‘Pleasure, pain, and the secular worldview’. Part one, Emotions and the Fall’, is  here. Part two, ‘Life under the dome’, is here. Part three ‘Shrink-wrapped minds’ is here. Part four, the age of authenticity, is here. part 5, ‘Suffering and Glory’ is here.

In the final article in this series, we’ll think about why we find it hard to pray as disciples of Jesus in a pain-pleasure world.

It is important to recognise that secularism is the air we breathe. Whether we like it or not, our own world views have been shaped by secularism. To a greater or lesser extent, we’ve been sucked into the secular mindset. We might not believe, theologically, that we live under a dome with shrink-wrapped minds. But practically speaking, the world forces these assumptions on us.

So, prayer is hard because the world tells us there is a double separation between us and God. The world tells us that God is outside the dome and that He can’t penetrate our minds. We are being sold those lies in the very air we breathe; and they make prayer at best irrelevant and at worst impossible.

Three ways in which the world’s lies have shaped our praying

There are a number of ways that these lies have shaped our praying. Let me suggest three:

The first and most obvious way is simply our lack of prayer. We just don’t pray very much because we think God is outside the dome and removed from day to day reality. How often have you heard people say things like “the doctors have tried everything, now all we can do is pray.” Prayer is the last resort when everything else has failed. This is secularism, with God outside the dome.

The second way that the pain pleasure world has shaped our praying is by making a false separation between what we call the supernatural and the natural. One way that Christians try to reconnect with God is by seeking supernatural experiences of him. Remember that the secular world lives life under the dome, meaning that God is distant and far away, if he even exists. So some Christians seek supernatural experiences of God in an attempt to break through the dome. As I experience God ‘breaking through’ into my lived reality, I create worm holes through the dome that bring the above and beyond into the here and now.

The problem with this construction is that it buys into key presuppositions of the secular worldview. It defines “supernatural” as being outside the dome, things like miraculous healing or speaking in tongues; and things that are inside the dome like loving my neighbour somehow aren’t supernatural. So praying in tongues or praying for healing become different kinds of prayer to praying that I’d love my neighbour or be patient with my kids. Thinking about prayer like this concedes too much to secularism. It buys into a natural / supernatural divide, an inside the dome / outside the dome divide, that is part of the problem.

A third way that the pain pleasure worldview has shaped our praying is in what we pray about. I’ve already said that our risk as Western secularists is that we don’t pray much. But when we do pray, it is because our life under the dome has been shaken.

Here’s how it works. We live under the dome, focused on our own flourishing. We don’t pray much, because we don’t need God much. We say grace at mealtimes; we pray “God bless Mummy and Daddy” prayers. We pray little prayers about little things.[1] God feels far away and outside the dome. But that doesn’t matter much because life is good. We’re flourishing, we’re enjoying the pleasure side of the pain / pleasure worldview.

But then our flourishing is shaken; perhaps by a cancer diagnosis or a tragedy. Suddenly, in the face of a crisis, flourishing under the dome isn’t so easy. That’s when we cry out to God.

And what do we pray? We implore God to restore the status-quo. We ask him to fix the problem, heal the illness, so that we can go back to our own flourishing. We want him to take away the pain, and give us back the pleasure. We pray that God will intervene to restore things to how we want them to be, so we can go back to our comfortable lives under the dome.

Those, then, are three bad habits that impact our prayer lives in a pain pleasure world.

How to pray better

How can we pray better in this secular age?

In the previous article in this series I suggested that a critical way for us to address the pain-pleasure world is to subvert it with the theme of suffering and glory. We are not pain-pleasure people. We are suffering-glory people. Our project is not to live our lives, pursuing self-love and our own flourishing. Our project is to give our lives, loving Jesus and loving his people.

We don’t break through the dome by creating supernatural worm-holes. We shatter the dome with God’s amazing, other-person-centred love.  This love is cross-shaped and costly, it is cruciform love. So cruciform love, suffering-glory love, lies at the heart of our discipleship.

Learning this lesson helps me to redefine what connecting with God feels like. In a secular age, my default is to assume that connecting with God feels good and powerful and mystical and nice.

But in the Bible, following Jesus typically feels cruciform. This is deeply counter-cultural. Since I live in the secular age, my risk is to think that cruciform love isn’t very spiritual; by default, I will define love as a feeling that is to do with my own flourishing.

So a vital part of my praying must be to pray to know God and to love him. We must tell God that we love him. And we must ask God to show us his love.

Think how many prayers in the New Testament are prayers that we would know God and know his love? To grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering. Because the truth is that God is not distant. There is no dome – and God is not outside it. God is near. He knows me, intimately, deeply, compassionately.

And the truth is, my mind is not shrink wrapped. God knows my every thought. Meaning is not stuck inside my head. Meaning belongs to God and is found in relationship with him.

I need to learn to pray that I might know God. I need to delight in Him and then to know that He, in Himself, is the desire of my heart (Psalm 37:4).

 

[1] Peter Adam, “Lord, Teach us to Pray” (Summer under the Son, Syndal Baptist Church, Church Missionary Society Victoria, 2020).

References cited in this series

Adam, Peter. “Lord, Teach Us to Pray.” Summer under the Son, Syndal Baptist Church, Church Missionary Society Victoria, 2020.

Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988.

Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.

Crouch, Andy. “The Return of Shame.” Christianity Today, no. March (2015). http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/march/andy-crouch-gospel-in-age-of-public-shame.html.

Freedland, Jonathan. “Post-Truth Politicians Such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson Are No Joke.” Opinion, The Guardian (London), 14th May 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/13/boris-johnson-donald-trump-post-truth-politician.

“Post-Truth.” Oxford University Press, 2020, accessed 21st February, 2020, https://www.lexico.com/definition/post-truth.

Miller, Paul. J Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019.

Sayers, Mark. Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2016.

Smith, James K.A. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Lament for a Son. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987.