Reading Notes: Prayer by Karl Barth (part one)

Barth Prayer

I. Introductory Words

“We’ve got to pray/ Just to make it today.” So rapped MC Hammer (see the embedded video). Though the video and song are dated, the basic sentiment behind the song still rings true. Prayer isn’t optional, it is a necessity of life. Though coming from a world that couldn’t be more different than Hammer’s 1980s Oakland, Karl Barth would agree with this sentiment if not the song’s precise content. I offer here my reflections and notes on Barth’s little book on prayer in honor of Hammer and his influence upon me. (One of the first tapes I ever remember getting was the classic Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em).

This book comes from a series of lectures given by Barth on the Lord’s Prayer. His conversation partners are Luther, Calvin, and the Heidelberg Catechism. Barth characterizes the Reformation not just as a historical, theological, or ecclesiastical event – thought it was all those things and more – but as “an act of continuous prayer” (3). The Reformation was an act of prayer because the Reformers cause – the reform and purification of the Church – was beyond their capacity as human beings – as brilliant and gifted as they were and aided as they were by intellectual, political, and technological circumstances – to accomplish. The cause of the Reformers was so great and the opposition they faced so insurmountable that the only way they were able to persist in the midst of impossible circumstances was through prayer, that is, invoking the help, protection, and courage that comes from God alone.

The centrality of prayer in the Christian life is for Barth also of great ecumenical significance. On the centrality of prayer in the Christian life Calvin, Luther, and Heidelberg are in complete agreement. On the importance of this Barth says: “If believers can pray together, they should also be able to take Communion together” (5). The ecumenical significance of prayer as a first order concern – and not merely a kind of a theologically neutral practice as it is treated in interfaith services – is a rich and largely unexplored territory to my understanding. Those who pray as the people of Jesus Christ, through Jesus Christ, and with Jesus Christ have a further reason to see our parting of ways around the Lord’s Table as a terrible scandal. But that, for the time being, is a digression.

The Reformers weren’t concerned with the differences between corporate and individual prayer, free or formal prayer, spoken or silent prayer. No, what they were concerned with was that one prayed and prayed from the heart. Such emphasis on the manner in which we pray too often serve as a distraction from the task of prayer itself.

II. What is prayer and why do we pray?

Put simply, Christians pray because we are certain that God listens and responds. Prayer isn’t shouting into the void, it is addressing ourselves and our needs to God who has already revealed Himself as the God answers our prayers in Jesus Christ. The given fact of prayer is that “God answers. God is not deaf but listens; more than that he acts. God does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. This is what the word ‘answer’ means” (13, emphasis added).

Such a claim is remarkable, and one that I have a hard time fully understanding. How can our feeble, fallible human prayers exert an influence upon God’s existence? Does this impugn upon God’s freedom from us and over us? Barth says that God is so free that He willed to be the God who is influenced by our prayers and not other, and that God hasn’t chosen just to be God over us, but God with and beside us in Jesus Christ. To the question as to whether our prayers matter to God, Barth answers with a resounding “Yes!” “[God] does not then impair himself by yielding to our prayer; on the contrary it is in so doing that he shows his greatness” (15).

But what is prayer? What is it that differentiates it from all other forms of speech or thought? For Christians, it lies in the fact that our prayers are the means whereby we address God through the mouth of Jesus Christ. This is a beautiful and incredible image, and is especially helpful given the muddled nature of even our most beautiful and well-crafted prayers. We give those to Christ and he prays them to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our prayers are thus an event whereby we are taken into the very life of the Triune God. We aren’t shouting into the void, we are enveloped into the reality of God.

Prayer is the casting of our lives, our needs, our joys, our concerns, our sorrows, our fears, our wants, our anger, our pasts, our presents, and our futures upon the Lord because we recognize that ultimately we are powerless over these things apart from His help and intervention. We pray because we aren’t self-sufficient, we pray because we can’t do it on our own, we pray because without prayer we are lost and hopeless. Prayer isn’t an optional activity for the Christian life, prayer is like breathing, without it our faith will die. This is a convicting thought for someone like me who has at times gone long stretches without engaging in the discipline of prayer. I was doing this and trying to live as a Christian (and even a pastor!) which is as non-sensical and hopeless as a fish trying to live out of water. “To be a Christian and to pray are one and same thing; it is a matter that cannot be left to our caprice. It is a need, a kind of breathing necessary to life” (15). When we feel distant from God, the first question we must ask is “how is my prayer life?” Far too many Christians live lives without prayer and wonder why they don’t mature and grow in Christ. An honest assessment of our prayer life is the diagnosis we need for our stunted spiritual growth.

We pray because we are given the grace to do so. Prayer isn’t something that comes naturally, which many – perhaps most – of us can attest. Prayer is work, but it is work that we have been given the freedom and power to do by the grace of God, and this grace comes to us only through the work of the Holy Spirit. God’s grace frees us not from the need to pray, but frees us precisely so that we can pray. Wherever there is prayer, there is grace. When we pray we accept the invitation that God extends to us to participate in His work in the world. We cannot take part in this work as more than a blunt instrument apart from prayer.



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