George Herbert on Prayer (12)
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice! Psalm 141.2
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
- George Herbert
George Herbert viewed prayer as a discipline in which God’s work of creation was “transposed.” We can see several reasons to consider prayer in this manner.
First, prayer, like creation, is a work of speaking. God spoke the world and everything in it into existence within the space of six days. In so doing, He expressed the deep and good concerns of His own heart and will. In prayer we transpose the direction of communication, speaking back to God from our own hearts, as citizens and stewards of the world, offering back to Him matters and concerns that arise within our own place in His world.
This image also gets at the content of our prayers. Nothing is out of bounds; God invites us to offer up the whole world to Him in prayer, to bring all our concerns and needs before Him, and to leave nothing in our lives unattended by the discipline of prayer. We are to pray about everything with thanksgiving and faith (Phil. 4.6, 7).
Herbert was doubtless familiar with the discipline of praying the psalms, a practice which can be most helpful in leading us to pray for matters we might otherwise neglect. God provides these “scripts” for prayer at least in part to remind us that the world and everything in it are His; we are stewards of all things; and, therefore, bringing our stewardship to God in prayer involves a kind of offering back to Him of the world which He first created for us.
In the third place, in prayer we want to accomplish in God the kind of result He achieved during the six days of creation. Over and over in Genesis 1 we see God pronouncing His work, “good.” In our prayers we want to connect with, tap into, or discern the will of God, so that we may bring our requests and concerns into line with His good purposes. We want God to hear our prayers and receive them as good and in line with His will. We want our prayers to be like sweet incense in the nostrils of God. The better we know the Lord, the greater will be the likelihood that we will succeed in this aspect of the work of prayer.
At the same time, we follow the example of Christ in our prayers when, having poured out our world of concerns to Him, and what we long to see happen in them, trusting that our prayers will be pleasing to God, we say simply, “Nevertheless, not my will, but Yours, be done.”
Finally, there is a hint here at the length our prayers perhaps should be. George Herbert seems to have found an hour of prayer to be a kind of minimum daily requirement for everything he felt he needed to accomplish. When we are “banqueting” in prayer, breathing out our souls to God, dangling our requests out like so much bait for Him to take, and waiting on the Lord to bring our world of prayers before the Father, this can take time.
But as we begin to experience prayer more in line with the ways George Herbert describes it, we will not begrudge the hour or so it requires, or frequent retreats to the oasis of prayer in the midst of our daily stewardship and strivings.
Prayer is a work of speech, like the speech by means of which God brought the world into existence. In prayer we bring the world and our concerns in it back to the Lord. Thus, in a very real sense, we join the Lord in the work of recreating His creation so that it can know the reconciling and renewing work of Christ, bringing the goodness of God to light in the land of the living (Ps. 27.13, 14).
Consider: Would you describe your own prayers as a kind of transposing of the six-days creating work of God? Why or why not?
T. M.’s books on prayer include God’s Prayer Program, a guide to learning how to pray the psalms; The Psalms for Prayer, in which all the psalms are set up to guide you in how to pray them; and If Men Will Pray, a serious attempt to call men of faith to greater diligence in prayer. Follow the links provided here to purchase these from our online store.