Explainer
Creed
4 min read

The selfish desire of hopeful prayer

While waiting for a bus, Henna Cundill contemplates how prayer transforms the uncomfortable into imaginative hope.
A woman leans against the glass of a bus shelter while waiting, she clasps a bag.

“Try praying” suggests the bus as it pulls up. Ironic, really, given how much of my life I’ve spent in this draughty shelter, earnestly praying that a late bus would just turn up. Well, here is a bus, but it is not the one I’m waiting for. However, its slogan has lodged in my mind. Perhaps I should pray anyway, just to pass the time? What would I pray for right now, beyond the bus I want? Are any of my other prayer requests something that God is likely to countenance? I’m all too well aware that there are some things on my personal wish-list that the Almighty is definitely not going to grant.  

In 2022 a Church of England survey found that nearly half the population (48 per cent) claims to pray, and the numbers are apparently even higher among the 18-24 age bracket. In the breakdown of the statistics, it can be seen that the poll respondents prayed for all the ‘right’ things – for peace, forgiveness, guidance, and for those in need. So far, so pious. Would any of us really admit to a pollster that we pray for the other, slightly more selfish things – a convenient parking space, good weather on a holiday? Such prayers are suitably benign, but probably also pointless. God, surely, has better things to do. We still pray them though. Well, I do anyway. Maybe you are better than me, but I’ll go ahead and admit to all those little, probably pointless prayers – prayers revealing that inwardly I’m quite selfish, and a bit of a narcissist, a girl who just wants an easy life and an on-time bus.  

Perhaps the uncomfortable truth here is that a lot of prayer is born out of a desire for ease and comfort. Prayers for peace, forgiveness, guidance, and even prayers for others in need can be no less a response to a sense of discomfort or discontent than the prayers to get me out of this draughty bus shelter. But such desires are entirely natural. After all, as humans we are programmed to maintain homeostasis. Within that, most functions can happen internally – so when the individual body is too hot, it sweats; when the body is too cold, it shivers (like me in this shelter right now). It’s all about control.  

But sometimes the discomforts are emotional, and we are dependent on external factors to maintain or regain our homeostatic sense of peace – factors that are out of our (or any person’s) control. To pray is to make a cognitive response to that realisation, to seek some input from a higher power. There is nothing I can do to make the bus come on time, and in the absence of peace, forgiveness, guidance, or when contemplating the multifarious sicknesses and struggles of my fellow human beings – well, I realise that maybe damn near everything is out of my control. God, can you do something about this? It’s making me uncomfortable.  

Oddly enough, even the most well-known of Christian prayers, the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” (Our Father, who art in Heaven… etc. etc.) makes no bones about acknowledging this. Part way through, like hungry children who loiter in the kitchen whilst mother is cooking dinner, unashamed the pray-ers cry out: “Give us this day our daily bread.” It is a daily moment of divinely sanctioned gimme, gimme, gimme. My selfish inner narcissist loves that bit.  

I’m not generally praying for bread; I have bread. But to me the bread is a metaphor for all my inner needs and appetites. I think one of the early Christian writers, Augustine of Hippo, grasped this uncomfortable truth also. Reflecting on the brutal honesty of the prayers which are found in the Bible’s Book of Psalms, he wrote: “Your desire is your prayer, your prayer is your desire.”  Augustine was not advocating that such desires should be uncritically indulged, but that pray-ers should be honest enough to verbalise their desires, to acknowledge them before God, and in that way allow sunshine to become the best disinfectant.   

There is, perhaps, no bleaker statement than the words, “I haven’t got a prayer.” Where there is prayer, there is imagination, and imagination is a sign of hope. 

How interesting that the Lord’s Prayer acknowledges this basic human need – this need to say, “God, life is uncomfortable, and I don’t like this feeling.” I wonder about the other 52 per cent of the poll respondents, the ones who said that they didn’t pray. What on earth do they do with their appetites, with their difficulties, or with their sense of malaise? Because I think Augustine was right: prayer is all about desire, and desire is about hope for satiety – be it physical, emotional, or cognitive. Prayer is anticipating that our desires can or might be met by someone or something, out there somewhere, and allowing ourselves to imagine how that might come to be. There is, perhaps, no bleaker statement than the words, “I haven’t got a prayer.” Where there is prayer, there is imagination, and imagination is a sign of hope. 

It takes a bit of courage, sometimes, to admit to what we imagine, what we secretly hope for. It might be a world of peace and prosperity for all, but it might also be for the demise of an enemy or for a successful and stress-free life. Psychologists Ann and Barry Ulanov observe that in this way, all prayer is confession, even the prayers where we are asking for stuff. By coming face-to-face with God, we also have to come face-to-face with ourselves, including our selfishness and narcissistic longing.  

So, have I got the courage to verbalise my personal wish-list? To take this idle moment and allow my imagination to present God with all my deepest, darkest desires? Well, it sounds like it might be good for me, whether God is listening or not. Prayer, it seems, is an opportunity for some gritty self-reflection and deep personal growth. So why not? Here goes:  

“Dear Heavenly Father… 

…Oh, never mind, my bus is here.  

Amen.” 

Explainer
Creed
Faith
6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  

Watch

The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.