The Paradox of Prayer

"...Those amongst us who act as if they knew how to pray, do not know at all." -Paul Tillich (The New Being, p.135) 

Many good theologians have pointed out the paradox of prayer. Henri Nouwen writes, "The paradox of prayer is that we have to learn how to pray while we can only receive it as a gift" (Reaching Out, p.123). Prayer is something we do, but it is also definitively something that God does in us. The axiom employed by Andrew Purves to describe ministry can equally be applied to prayer: "Is [prayer] something we do, or is [prayer] something Jesus does? The answer, of course, is Yes" (The Crucifixion of Ministry, p.52). Prayer is a theological act, to its core. What makes prayer prayer—and not just one's talking to oneself or listening to nothing—is that God acts. 

According to Paul Tillich, as a human action, prayer is actually an impossibility. "Whether at the right time or not, whether a formulated or a spontaneous prayer, the question is decisive whether prayer is possible at all....  This we should never forget when we pray: We do something humanly impossible" (NB, 136-137). The paradox of prayer is that it is something only God can do and yet, as such, it is something human beings do. "The essence of prayer is the act of God who is working in us and raises our whole being to Himself [sic]" (Paul Tillich, NB, 138).

So when we pray, we must remember that we are not the initiators of the conversation. Jesus does not wait at the end of a path called prayer. Jesus stands, waiting for us, at the beginning, before we have even a thought to pray. Prayer is a register of grace. It is a gift. So do not enter prayer with shame. Do not enter prayer with guilt. Do not enter prayer with the anxiety that you should try to "master" it as a discipline. But enter prayer with thanksgiving (Psalm 100:4). Receive it as a loving invitation. And do not expect God to be disappointed in you, but know and trust that when you come to God—whether you pray alone or with others—you are coming as God's beloved in whom God is well pleased.