Prayer and the Path of Life

By: Dr. Michael Allen

Sometimes pastors point out that a person’s checkbook says quite a lot about them: their priorities, their loves, their values. That’s surely true. Perhaps not so frequently mentioned is that our prayers serve as a barometer of sorts regarding our loves and passions. What do we pray about? What things do we praise God regarding? What experiences summon forth our thanks? And what leads us to cry out in desperate need and longing?

The psalmist prayed for many things. In fact one of the endearing qualities of the Psalms is that they do serve as what one theologian has called “an anatomy of the soul.” The psalmist exclaimed in joy over the beauty of creation, the provision of food and drink, and the delights of peace and harmony. Similarly the psalmist sought forgiveness from sin, deliverance from enemies, protection from harm, and many more things as well. Whether looking to the past in thanks or searching ahead in faith and entreaty, the psalmist seemed to take all things and turn them into prayer. I suspect that’s something of what the apostles mean when they talk about “praying without ceasing” and doing everything “by prayer and supplication.”

Those psalms of David also speak of a variety of glorious characteristics of God: his faithfulness and his wisdom, his matchless power and his long suffering patience. Behind the events of history and the order of the cosmos, these prayers express a theocentric vision that looks into the face of God and is awestruck by his beauty. And that theocentric or Godward focus brings me to one verse of the Psalms in particular: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11 ESV).

I think all the various prayers of praise, thanksgiving, and supplication are here centered in this language: “the path of life.” The psalmist wants to flourish, and his prayers are meant to mark the gifts that lead to flourishing, to ask for the sustenance needed to carry it on, and to regale the one who makes it all not only possible but actual. Here, though, the “path of life” and the way to human flourishing are identified with something very specific that is teased out in the final two statements. God’s presence is the path of life, for it is there that “fullness of joy” is found and it is in that place that “pleasures forevermore” are located. David seems to be saying that the satisfaction and fulfillment found near God is greater qualitatively (“fullness”) and longer lasting quantitatively (“forevermore”).

Through the centuries Christians have spoken of our great hope in terms of what is called the beatific vision, that is, the blessed vision. They are referring specifically to the vision of God (the visio Dei), suggesting that our greatest need is for the very presence of God. Without minimizing our requirements of food and drink, shelter and security, the Scriptures as a whole and the Psalms in particular prioritize our needs and wants. Augustine famously spoke of how God made us for himself and, therefore, our hearts will be restless until they find their rest in him.

One way to gauge how our loves align with both the breadth of that which is valued in the Bible is to think through our prayers. Do we take all things to God? Do we refuse to turn over our work, our family, our own spiritual growth, our church’s ministry to God in prayer? Another way to assess how our loves align with those of the Bible is to ask if the emphasis and priorities of our prayers seem to match the central thrust of what the Bible highlights and, in particular, what the Psalms and other prayers of the Scriptures attest. Do we seek God’s presence? Like the men and women of centuries past who longed for that beatific vision, do we pray that God would increasingly reveal himself to us? Or do our prayers tend to remain very this-worldly mundane?

Biblical spirituality is not ethereal or world-fleeing, but it is not worldly. We are called to take our financial issues, vocational woes, relational stresses, psychological concerns, medical ailments, church frustrations, addictive setbacks, and habitual screw-ups before God in prayer. In telling us to pray for “daily bread,” Jesus is saying that nothing is too mundane or routine to be of concern to our heavenly Father. At the same time, being focused first and foremost upon God–our enjoyment of him and our vision of his character–is what makes us most human, brings us most satisfaction and joy, enables us to endure sufferings and tribulations in this life, and honors God to the greatest degree. Our prayers should honor the full panorama of life with its many needs and joys, but they should also fix upon that “path of life” and its particular shape found in enjoying the presence of God.

Share this article