Superfluous Prayer and the Spirit Who Enables It
"Ask rain from the Lord in the season of the spring rain.”
– Zechariah 10:1
As I write this, we have just had a day of heavy showers, but only after a few weeks of much heat and little-to-no rainfall. In the hot summer months, rain is often scarce. By contrast, spring is the time for rain—the season when the heavens regularly unleash their blessings. That’s the way it is with weather patterns, with the ebb and flow of “nature.” Or to say it in a more theologically appropriate manner, that’s the way it is with God. God gives rain, and he gives it in its due season (Lev 26:4; Deut 11:14; 28:12). He has done this time out of mind. In fact, he does it so regularly and with such consistency, that we can, in a sense, count on spring rains whether we acknowledge God or not. All farmers, believers and unbelievers alike, have known this and banked on rain in the spring, year after year. Apparently, three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and April showers.
It is what makes Zech 10:1 such a surprising verse. Why would God command prayer for something that is apparently automatic and “natural,” something he seems to give regardless of whether we pray or not? Why pray for something we have every reason to expect? Why not spend our time on more “productive” and “pressing” prayers—on prayers we “feel” like praying? Why such a seemingly superfluous prayer?
I have two complementary suggestions:
First, seemingly superfluous prayers help us recognize and name all reality as given by God. When it rains, it does so because God has given the rain. When the sun rises each new day, it’s because God delighted that it be so. When we receive bread to eat, we do so every single day, without exception, because God has provided that daily bread to us. Rain, sunrises, food we need to live, none of it comes to us because of impersonal “laws of nature.” Anything good, anything necessary for life, any life and existence at all, only comes to us because God graciously gives it to us. It is simply the nature of reality. However, it is continual, habitual prayer that trains us to perceive and name reality aright. Praying for spring rains trains our senses and sensibilities and perception to realize that all rain is a gift from God, not merely the outcome of impersonal meteorological forces. By praying we are trained to recognize God as the author and giver of life and breath and everything.
True as that is, prayer isn’t just for our intellectual enrichment. God doesn’t command us to pray simply so that we might “know” reality aright. There is a second, and much more significant, point to the invitation to pray seemingly superfluous prayers. God desires our prayer so that we might more joyfully and confidently live into our relationship with him as our loving Father, which he really is. When God gives rain and sunrises and food and life and breath and everything for our good, he does so because he loves us as his children; and prayer is the practical, experiential way in which children receive and grow in the love of their Father.
On the one hand, if the Father-child relationship is to be a healthy and loving relationship, it will be marked by thanksgiving on the part of the child. A life that lacks thanksgiving is a life that presumes upon (or perhaps ignores or denies) the fatherly care of God. A receiving of good gifts from the Father, such as the gift of spring rain, without any expressed “thank you” to the Father for the gift, is not a receiving of a gift at all, but presumption and obliviousness and disregard. I can think of hardly any more weighty and sad outrage to the Father who loves us. Importantly, “thank-yous” typically don’t come where there is obliviousness to the giving of a gift. Why say “thank you” for something “automatic” and “natural”? However, when having asked for something (having prayed), we receive a gift of love from the Father in response to our asking, the right and wonderful reflex is to give thanks (2 Cor 1:8–11). Prayer flows into thanksgiving, with the result that the Father-child relationship matures.
On the other hand, a healthy Father-child relationship is marked by the child’s trust and confidence in the Father. As we pray, and as we see (even seemingly superfluous) prayers answered again and again, our trust and confidence in God’s fatherly care for us matures. By regularly turning to him at all times in all our need, by regularly and knowingly receiving from him all our needs, we live more deeply into our filial relationship to him.
Jen and I tell our children to ask, “May I please have some milk?” not only because we want to train them in good manners (which is no small part of maturity), but also because we seek to develop in them a trust and confidence in us as loving providers, loving parents. We want to cultivate in them the expectation that we will respond with goodness to their pleas (their “prayers and supplications”). We want them to experience, to live into and to live out, a genuine parent-child relationship of responsiveness and trust and love. So we tell them to ask for things—often things that we know full well they need and things we intend all along to give. We give them words to say, we script out “prayers” for them to “pray,” in order to instill in them healthy instincts regarding the reality of our relationship (all of this, by the way, is part of the thoroughly biblical logic of praying “scripted” corporate prayers together; it is a training in reality, a growing into the habit and form of healthy relationship with the Father who loves us).
God wants to prove, as it were, his fatherly love for us. He wants us to become ever more confident of it. He means for us to live ever more deeply in dependence and responsive love to him, and so he calls us to pray without ceasing, for everything. He calls us to pray superfluous prayers. He calls to us to behave as, to live more deeply into our identity as, his beloved children.
But one final question: How can we be confident that we are his beloved children? Prayer helps us live in a way that befits beloved children. Prayer should mark the lives of beloved children—children who are confident and delight in the love of their Father. But how can we, who have so regularly and for so long spurned and disregarded God’s loving care of us, presume to think of ourselves as his beloved children?
I think Zechariah offers us a clue a couple chapters later. In Zech 12:10, he speaks of the “Spirit of supplication” being poured out upon God’s people in conjunction with the piercing of some person. At the end of John’s gospel, John quotes this verse to say that the piercing of Jesus on the cross is a fulfillment of this prophecy (John 19:37). The piercing of Jesus is what unleashes the “Spirit of supplication,” the Spirit of prayer as God’s beloved children. When Jesus was pierced, as John’s gospel says, he “gave over his Spirit” (John 19:30). And that Spirit is, as Paul says in Rom 8:15, the Spirit of adoption who cries out, “Abba, Father.” Confidence in our identity as God’s beloved children is rooted in the cross of Christ (which is why we pray “in Jesus’ name”) and flows from the Spirit which he poured out on us.
In this season after Pentecost, after the pouring out of the Spirit upon us the church, let’s revel in our identity as God’s beloved children by the power of the Spirit, and let’s live into an ever growing relationship with the Father who loves us in his Son. That is to say, let’s pray.