[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]
We are very skilled at creating superheroes out of ordinary human beings. We do it with the celebrities of contemporary culture and we do it with the celebrities of our religious tradition. Consider, for example, Saul, a Jewish rabbi from the city of Tarsus. Upon his conversion to Christianity he became Paul the Apostle, planting and nurturing the church in significant cities throughout the Roman Empire and writing letters that form a significant portion of the New Testament canon. We are not content that he remain merely human. We make him into a superhero.
Superheroes don’t have weaknesses. Superheroes are not flawed. And ordinary people cannot identify with what it means to be a superhero much less do the things that he does. So, no doubt Paul in his letters says a great deal about prayer and demonstrates even more, but we can’t be expected to pray like a superhero.
And that is the downside of elevating a flawed person like Paul to superhero status. Paul himself does not do that. In Paul’s engagement with prayer, we find a person, like us, who prays, who struggles, and who points us down paths that we can, in fact, pursue.
First, it is worth noting that Paul, like us, struggled to know how and what to pray. Paul is no stranger to the 2nd person pronoun, but he chooses the first when he says,
“For we do not know what to pray for as we ought…,” (Romans 8:26”).
We are not alone in struggling to know what to pray.
Secondly, though Paul confessed weakness in prayer, he still prayed. A lot. And he prayed expecting that it actually compelled God to act, even though there were prayers to which he didn’t get the answers he sought. Paul prayed as if it mattered, and so should we. Can we put this together in a nice, tight theological bundle? No. David Crump reminds us,
“…we need to acknowledge that a text can answer only what it was written to address, and very few texts ever address all the questions we would like to raise.” (page 210)
We need to be Biblical first and foremost. Paul, the great theologian of the absolute sovereignty of God prayed as if prayer impacted God’s actions. So should we.
The third thing I, at least, learn from Paul is that too often I pray for the wrong things. Specifically, Paul encouraged prayer with thanksgiving; I forget how to be grateful, much less to express it.
Further, Paul prayed time and again that his correspondents would grow in love for God and for one another and deepen in their faith. Those priorities too easily get lost in my prayer life. To pray deeply for another means that I come to know what they really need, not just what they want. It’s often simpler to pray for your new job and or your pesky cold and leave it at that. But Paul doesn’t, and neither should I.
These are not superhero things. They rather picture a man who struggling to pray nevertheless believes in prayer. We can’t be superheroes. But we can be this.
And we don’t even need a cape.