Prayer & Modern Man
Author: Jacques Ellul (1970), trans., C. Edward Hope

Publisher: The Seabury Press (New York), 178pp.

This is not a book for the faint hearted.  I first read the book about 20 years ago.  Recently I had to re-read it, so as to introduce it to a group of like-minded friends sourcing for books on spirituality.  We all felt deeply challenged by Ellul’s no-nonsense critique of the modern practice of prayer.

 What in the world is prayer about?  In Ellul’s mind, it is not about the right words.  It is not about obtaining answers from God.  It is not about telling God what he does not already know.  And we pray, not because it is good for us, nor even that it is spiritual to pray.  None of the values and assumptions by which preachers and teachers down the ages have had recourse to in order to inspire and encourage prayer has any validity as far as Ellul is concerned.

 The carpet has been pulled out from beneath us.  What reason, if any, is left for praying?  Precisely.  Ellul’s argument is that modern man has stopped praying for a long time now.  Oh yes, our prayer meetings still find some faithful few.  And yes, prayers are still being offered at formal events, as at the start of any religious gathering.  And yes, a great many of us still make a ritual of it in our daily devotions.  Yes, we utter prayers.  But, if Ellul is right, we do not pray.  Not very much of what we utter from day to day has one iota to do with the awesomeness of the Divine Presence.

 And this is where it gets to be disturbing.  If in all these “mouthing” of prayers, we have not been praying, then what might we be conceived of having done?  Ellul’s frank assessment?  Self-talk!  In most of our praying, we say things to gratify ourselves – that we are spiritual, that we care about the things of God, that we are “alright” with God, that the world is going to be better for our praying.  The eternal focus is on us, and not on God Almighty.  Most of what we do is nothing more than a fruitless narcissistic exercise in self-assurance.

 That’s paraphrasing Ellul somewhat a little crudely and bluntly.  But that’s the substance of his argument.  You feel riled, insulted, wounded?  Well you might.  But that’s okay.  I felt that way too on first encountering the book.  But why not read the book for yourself, and hear him out?  If nothing else, it might just redeem us from the pathetic exercise we do daily or from time to time falsely labelled “prayer”.

 To help you find your feet, let me give you a quick summary of the broad sweep of his argument.  Ellul begins in Chapter One by demolishing cherished notions of prayer.  For him, “heavenly telephony” – think “arrow prayers” and that kind of stuff – is a pathetic parody of what prayer ought to be.  Nor is fervour of the Dionysiac variety any truer an indication of genuineness in prayer.

 In Chapter Two, he tests the foundations of prayer, and finds them “fragile”.  The arguments that prayer is “natural”, or that most religions practise prayer, or that prayer could be linguistically adjusted to make it more accessible to modern technological man are neither here nor there.  He comes close to explicating the principle of prayer in the section entitled “the essence of prayer” (p.61).  In the end, for Ellul, prayer is not what we do, for “it receives its content not from what I have to say, but from the One to Whom it is spoken.”

 Ellul then goes on to analyse why people don’t pray.  Keep in mind here that he is not saying that people don’t utter prayers.  We say prayers, but “don’t pray”, because we are not thinking of God, but of ourselves, our problems, etc.  He then goes on to discuss the only reason for praying (Chapter Four): which is, not that we stand to benefit, but that we are commanded so to do.  In other words, there is absolutely no value (i.e., no advantage) to praying.  That is why prayer is invaluable, and therefore priceless!

 The book ends with the vistas of spiritual combat that are open to those who truly pray.  In Ellul’s mind, we will grow spiritually.  He defines this spiritual growth as “religionlessness”.  In Ellul’s framework, religions exist as a means of control – whether of divine resources or of our human predicament.  In true spirituality, we give up that control.  We surrender.  Prayer is all about surrendering to God spiritually, and not about getting God’s aid to fulfil our aspirations, no matter how noble those aspirations might be.

 Modern technological man does not pray.  He says prayers to gain control over his environment (that’s why he is “technological”).  The believer, by contrast, does not care about control.  He cares only about the object of his belief – God.  In the end, this too seems to be Ellul’s objective: to move us from being concerned about prayer, to being concerned about God.  It’s a distinction not many of us seem to know how to make.  Hence the value of the book.

 (Reviewed by Rev Ng Seng Chuan)

CHAPEL NOTES

Dr John Lim led chapel on 29th October and spoke on the topic "Man of Another Kind - Ezra".  The following is a summary of his sharing.

What set the saints apart from many Christians today? They walked a different path from the people of the day. They were men and women of solid faith and they did powerful works. And the Bible tells us that they are examples for us today. Were they a special breed? Why would God raise men and women of deep brokenness and holy pursuits in times past, and yet neglect to do the same today? They didn't possess the Holy Spirit! And yet we are told that God powerfully touched and anointed these particular men and women so that they did great exploits for God.

The example of Ezra teaches us some important lessons. Ezra was a man of God who awakened an entire nation. The Lord's hand was on him (Ezra 7:28). What caused the Lord to put His hand on this one man? First, Ezra 7:10 tells us that he made a conscious decision. He had determined above all else to seek God's Word and to obey it.

Second, Ezra set his heart to fast and pray (Ezra 8:21-23). Ezra engaged in prayerful fasting. What Ezra was saying is: "Yes, we believe God's Word to us. But now we have to fast and pray until we see His Word come to pass. And we won't go a step further until that happens." Countless great ministries like Salvation Army, Teen Challenge and OM were started this way.

Third, Ezra was a man purged by God's Word (Neh. 8:6-12; 9:3, 5-6, 15). He was shaken to the core when he realized the depth of the sins of the people and the wrath of God. He called on the people to repent.

There is a need for us to seek God with all diligence and determination. Then to go to His Word with ever-increasing love and desire. Pray with fasting for brokennesss, to receive His burden. Finally, to confess and forsake everything that hinders the Holy Spirit from opening opening heaven's blessings to us. The path of "saints of a different kind" is open to every child of God. The question: Will you walk on it?

Next week at Chapel (12th Nov), we are privileged to have with us a guest speaker, Dr James Christensen from the USA. Dr Christensen is currently Radio Pastor of the “Heaven and Home Hour” Ministries heard weekly in 150 radio stations throughout the US and Canada. He is also a Visiting Lecturer of Asia College of Ministry (a training arm of Asia Evangelistic Fellowship International).

NEWS BITS

1.       Convocation 2004. Will all students who are intending to graduate at the Convocation in January 2004 please contact Dr Satterthwaite, the Registrar. Please also fill in an application to graduate and submit it before the end of November. (Forms available from BGST Office.)  If you are hoping to graduate, but are not sure whether you will be able to, please contact us in any case, as this will be helpful to us.

2.       Erratum. We apologise for omitting the name of the church where Elder Loh Mun Fei is serving. Elder Loh is serving at Mt Hebron Bible-Presbyterian Church.

A BLESSED BIRTHDAY TO ...

Mr Mickey Chiang  3/11
Ms Jessica Koo  3/11
Mr Jerry Tan  3/11
Pastor Alby Yip  5/11
Mr Ng Weng Chuan  6/11

Ms Edith Quek  7/11
Ms Eileen Su  7/11
Ms Joan Teoh  8/11
Mr John Chai  9/11 

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