Most people in the church have read and heard, with some frequency, Paul’s famous antidote for anxiety that he prescribed by way of his letter to the Philippians.
do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
– Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV)
In this verse Paul offers some practical insight not only into anxiety in particular but also prayer in general. He uses three words that all refer to our communication with God and so he helps us understand some of the broader spectrum of a well-rounded life of prayer.
His first reference is to “prayer”. Sounds pretty simple. “God is great, God is good…” and “Now I lay me down to sleep…” are not what the Apostle is referring to here. The word translated prayer is the Greek “proseuche” (prahs-yu-kay). This word does indeed mean “a prayer addressed to God”, but there is another meaning that offers a bit more insight into what Paul is getting at here. In Thayer’s Greek Lexicon this word also carries this meaning:
A place in the open air where the Jews were wont to pray, outside the cities, where they had no synagogue…such places were situation upon the bank of a stream or the shore of a sea, where there was a supply of water for washing the hands before prayer.
– Thayer’s Lexicon
Paul’s use of three different words here in Philippians allows us to drill into the meaning of each as we can assume that he wasn’t just using three words to speak of the exact same thing. Paul was complicated at times, but rarely was he overly redundant.
There is a profound sense that Paul is suggesting more than that we simply have a “prayer time”, but that we live in such a way that our entire life becomes a potential “prayer time”. The secondary definition refers to a place of prayer away from the synagogue, away from the set aside “house of prayer” that Jesus seems to have cared enough about to explode in anger at the sight of its marginalization. The implication is that our hearts, the new Temple of God’s dwelling, is a place of prayer that can travel, it doesn’t require a centralized location to be useful. There is a place we can go away from our church buildings, away from our “prayer closets”, and still have profound communion with God. That place is in our hearts.
When Paul says, “in everything by prayer”, at least part of what he is talking about is an attitude more than an action. Robert Mulholland says this,
Prayer (proseuche) seems to be Paul’s term for the deep inner posture of one’s being toward God in open receptivity and pliable responsiveness.
– Robert Mulholland
This is, in fact, the same word that Paul uses as he tells us to “be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12). Obviously we aren’t called to mumble to ourselves all day long, which leaves the idea of an attitude at the forefront of Paul’s language as he uses this word.
So, does this mean that have a set prayer time each day is no longer required? No, it does not mean that. You see having a life of prayer is more than having a “prayer time”, but it is not less. Paul isn’t lowering any standards, he’s actually raising them. This makes quite a bit of sense as we understand our interaction with God to be a relationship. To think of our relationship with our spouse, children, or friends taking place in neat 30 minute or 1 hour blocks each morning, with no more communication for the rest of the day, is ridiculous.
Friends, prayer is not about words it is about posture. The Greek root for proseuche has everything to do with our direction toward or away from something. Prayer is the disciplined act of making sure that at every moment of our day, whether active and open communication is taking place or not, our hearts are persistently turned toward our Creator.
Though people are all different, many married couples find that they become so connected to their spouse over the course of their relationship that they touch each other without thinking about it. They aren’t trying to fully engage each other in intimacy or focused conversation, but they will touch feet while they are sitting on the couch or they will, unwittingly, stand so that their arms touch. This is the image that I get when I think of Paul’s idea of prayer. There are passionate moments of embrace and enrapturing conversation, and then there are times when, with no intention of giving undivided attention, fingers will interlace and feet will brush against each other.
Prayer is constant contact, constant availability, and constant affection. In this kind of relationship anxiety and worry don’t have a chance to separate us from the sovereign Lord of Creation who holds the entire universe in His grasp…while He’s holding me with His other hand.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about supplication, the next idea that Pal makes reference to as a component in the life of prayer.