Week of the Sunday from July 10 to July 16
Let your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of your humble servants; and, that we may receive what we ask, teach us by your Holy Spirit to ask only those things that are pleasing to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the same Spirit lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
God mercifully hears us when we pray, for our benefit!
This week’s collect is a little bit unusual because it doesn’t begin with an explicit affirmation about God, but rather jumps right in with a request.
Let your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of your humble servants;
However, if we pay close attention, we notice that this request affirms that (1) God is merciful and that (2) he displays his mercy by hearing us when we pray to him.
When we speak to God in prayer, we can trust that he is listening to us.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I take the fact that God listens to us when we pray for granted. However, in his excellent book, The God We Worship: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology
[affiliate link], Nicholas Wolterstorff reminds us that
It’s astonishing that God would listen to what we say to God. God is the creator and sustainer of our incredibly vast and intricate universe with its astounding diversity and order; you and I are mere specks within this universe. Why would God bother to listen to what we say to God? . . . Indeed, would God have bothered to make creatures who can speak to God and to whom God then can listen? (p. 76)
Wolterstorff claims that the astonishing fact that God listens to us is a foreshadowing of “the humbling and exaltation that occurred at the incarnation” (p. 78). I agree.
However, even more interesting to me is the way Wolterstorff explains why God invites us to confess our sins and intercede in prayer.
A Nietzschean would see this as a prime indication of the wish of the Christian God to have us grovel. But this is again to look at things from the wrong end. God does not invite us to confess and intercede because God takes pleasure in listening to our acknowledgment that we have offended God and takes pleasure in listening to our acknowledgment of our dependence.
Here’s the main point:
God invites us to feel free to confess and intercede because we, who have come to know how we stand with God, very much want to confess and intercede — how could we not want to do so? It is “right and proper,” crucial to our shalom. The king invites the commoner to feel free to do what she very much wants to do, namely, ask him for mercy and deliverance. When she does, he listens to what she says. (p. 86)
That is, God listens to us when we pray for our benefit. God’s not a narcissist who enjoys hearing us grovel, he is our merciful creator who wants what’s best for us.
We need to be taught what/how to pray.
Nevertheless, prayer is not merely cathartic. It’s transformative! That is, we don’t just come to God to “unload” the same requests on him time after time, never changing in what we ask. Instead, through the process of prayer and the instruction of the Holy Spirit, we start to ask for the right things.
and, that we may receive what we ask, teach us by your Holy Spirit to ask only those things that are pleasing to you;
Although it’s what the collect specifically focuses on, this transformation doesn’t just affect what we ask for when we pray. It also affects our entire persons.
Through the school of prayer and the school of the Holy Spirit, we begin to love what God loves and hate what God hates.
So, when all is said and done, this week’s collect is a bit “meta.” It’s a prayer about praying!