Friday, 4 November 2011

Prayer alone conquers God

If you ever wonder whether it is worthwhile praying, and whether it makes any difference, here is a bit of early Christian theology that might help. Tertullian was a Latin-speaking theologian of the C2nd with an ear for a good phrase and a great delight in shocking people. How about this:

 "Prayer alone conquers God. But Christ has no desire that it should do any evil deed; he has conferred upon it every power of doing good. Therefore it knows only how to call back the souls of the departed from the journey of death itself, to strengthen the weak, to restore the sick, to cleanse the possessed, to open the doors of prison, to loosen the chains for the innocent. The same prayer absolves sins, repels temptations, puts down persecutions, strengthens the weak-hearted, delights the high-minded, leads wanderers home, soothes the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, governs the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports the unsteady, holds firm those who stand. Prayer is the buttress of faith, our armour and weaponry against the enemy that watches us from every side. So let us never set out unarmed. Let us remember the station (times of fasting) by day and the vigil by night. Let us guard the standard of our emperor armed with prayer, awaiting the trumpet of the angel while we pray. Indeed, every angel prays, every creature. The herds and the wild beasts pray and bend their knees, coming forth from byres and dens looking to heaven, giving movement to the spirit after their fashion with animated mouths. And even now the birds arise, lifting themselves to heaven, spreading out their wings like a cross whilst uttering what appears to be a prayer. What more can be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed, and to him be honour and might for ever and ever."

I don't know many theologians who would dare the phrase 'Prayer alone conquers God'. It is striking how these early Christians believed that the way in which God's will works out in the world might be changed by our prayers, that he chooses to unite his work in the world to the prayers of his people, that he recreates the world at least in part through the prayers of the church. I can usually see how my work for God might contribute to his purposes in the world. I see less clearly how my prayers do exactly the same. I would be ashamed if I didn't turn up to work for the wider purposes of God's kingdom, but am I similarly ashamed if I don't perform the other part allotted to me - to pray, along with the whole creation, that God would "strengthen the weak, to restore the sick, to cleanse the possessed, to open the doors of prison, to loosen the chains for the innocent?"

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