Thursday, April 12, 2018

Paradox of Prayer

As with so many things that are central to the Christian faith, the power of prayer is paradoxical. A paradox, of course, is a situation in which two things are true that do not appear as though they could both be the case, especially not at the same time. And the paradox is one of the hallmarks of our God, who declared, among other things, that the last shall be first, the weak shall be strong, and that wisdom shall be foolishness.

The power of prayer by which a woman like Hannah prays and finds only her heart changed would not be a paradox, nor would the peace that she experiences be paradoxical by itself. So there is a very real element to the power of prayer that is not wrapped in a seeming contradiction, and we should not ignore or dismiss this vital truth. But neither should we miss the paradox inherent in Christian prayer that makes it wholly unlike anything we could ever come up with:

It is only by faith that we can pour out our empty hearts and find them full again.

If that's not a paradox, then I don't know what is. Take anything else in all this world, anything else you like, and make it empty. Now, try to pour it out. You can't; it's already empty. Now, tip it upright again. Is it full? Of course not. Take a cup, your favorite coffee mug, perhaps. Take it empty and turn it upside-down. Nothing comes out. Now, turn it upright...and drink from it. Oh, you can't? There's nothing in it?

This is the paradox of prayer.

Hannah comes before the Lord with an empty heart. An empty womb. An empty house. An empty life. Everything about her screams "empty," and she doesn't feel like she has anything really to bring except for her empty self. She falls to her knees, humbles herself before God, pours out her emptiness at His altar...and walks away full.

The same is true of any number of pray-ers in the Scriptures. Follow along with a number of the psalms, and you will see the psalmist begin in emptiness and somehow end at fullness. Keep watch with Jesus in the Garden, and you will see that He begins with no strength and ends up with strength, by sheer virtue of having poured out what He didn't have in order to walk away with the very same. It's crazy. This is not the way the world works.

But it is the way that God works.

Not just in prayer. If you're stuck on how this happens, if you can't fathom how this possibly works, if you're wondering if you might even still be a little drunk on this point, too, consider this: the God who fills an emptiness poured out is the same God who crafted the universe out of the formless and void. The God who holds the paradox of prayer is the same God who poured an empty vat full of wine that didn't even exist until it was poured out. The God who answered Hannah is the same God who took a tiny shepherd boy with nothing to offer and made him a mighty king, a young virgin girl and made her the mother of Christ.

God often starts with empty vessels, empty spaces, empty hearts, and He does this most amazing thing in making them full. But we have to pour them out first.

Which doesn't seem possible, but always is necessary.

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