I've been reading through 1 Thessalonians with my colleagues at work. It's been a great way to begin a year of evangelism and ministry as Paul and the Thessalonian church are such great examples of living faith. Paul is constantly encouraging the Thessalonians that he loves them and prays for them, and exhorts them to "rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess 5:16-18).
As a staff team, we were all challenged by this call to constant prayer, and, especially remembering the desperate circumstances the new Thessalonian believers found themselves in, reflected that we are only able to feel less urgent in prayer because we've closed our eyes to the dangers and needs all around us. It's easy to reflexively pray when in desperate circumstances, it has been often noted that even some atheists will pray in desperate need.
Prayer is, quite rightly an indicator of the strength of our relationship with God, just as conversation and time spent together is an indicator in other relationships of how we value the person, and who we think they are. However, prayer in and of itself cannot be counted simply as a task to be crossed off a list of spiritual duties. Even though it is as useful to habitually pray as it is to be habitually polite, at some point, at the end of it all, prayer is the offering of our heart up to God, an expression of the very core of our being. In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky beautifully and brilliantly explores the inner qualities of prayer as an aspect of faith. My favourite passage about this is in Part Two, Chapter Four.
Muishkin and Rogozhin have re-entered Rogozhin's house after Nastasia Filipovna's birthday party. As the cross through the room, they observe a painting Rogozhin's father bought of Jesus just cut down from the cross. When Rogozhin asks the Prince's opinion of the picture, Muishkin remarks that "a man's faith might be ruined by looking at that picture", and although Rogozhin agrees, neither elaborate as to why. However, it does raise a question from Rogozhin to the Prince, "do you believe in God?"
In good Jesus-like imitation, Muishkin almost answers Rogozhin with a question of his own, but instead, presents together four recent conversations.
One conversation was with an atheist, who the Prince feels doesn't quite understand the heart of faith, and thus cannot truly reject it. Another conversation was in a pub about a peasant who prayed for forgiveness while in the act of murdering his friend. As Rogozhin summarises them, “one is an absolute unbeliever, the other is such a thorough-going believer that he murders his friend to the tune of a prayer!”
Muishkin's third conversation is with a drunk who sells the Prince his cross at a cheater's price. Muishkin calls him a Judas, although reserves judgement on his 'betrayal'. And then finally, the Prince encounters a young mother whose baby has smiled at her for the first time. As the Prince watches she "suddenly crossed herself- oh, so devoutly! 'What is it my good woman?'" The Prince asks. Her reply? "Exactly as is a mother's joy when her baby smiles for the first time into her eyes, so is God's joy when one of His children turns and prays to Him for the first time, with all his heart!"
While the peasant is certainly obeying Paul's exhortation to 'pray continually', and thus reflects a true bending of his heart toward God, this isn't followed through with his actions! He murders his friend! And yet… and yet… we certainly cannot say that he is rejecting or ignoring God altogether...
Muishkin remarks of the young mother that her comment was "such a deep. Refined, truly religious thought - a thought in which the whole essence of Christianity was expressed in one flash - that is, the recognition of God as our Father, and of God's joy in men as His own children, which is the chief idea of Christ. She was a simple country-woman - a mother, it's true - and perhaps, who knows, she may have been the wife of the drunken soldier!”
His final reflection is that "the essence of religious feeling has nothing to do with reason, or atheism, or crime, or acts of any kind - it has nothing to do with these things and never had. There is something besides all this, something which the arguments of atheists can never touch."
Even though I must part ways with the Prince in saying that the essence of religion does have something to do with 'acts of any kind'. I feel Dostoyevsky has expressed here a truth my own heart echoes.
There is an essence in my relationship with God that means separate to whatever act I am performing at the time, I am His beloved child. And thus, reason, action, philosophy, emotions can never touch the core relationship, the DNA link that identifies me, wherever I am, in whatever circumstances, as part of God's family.
"Exactly as is a mother's joy when her baby smiles for the first time into her eyes, so is God's joy when one of His children turns and prays to Him for the first time, with all his heart!"