The gospel spells out in detail Jesus ‘speaking’ salvation into being : rebuking the chaos of demons, separating men and women from damnation by calling them by name into lives of discipleship, defeating the tempter with citations of Scripture, commanding healings, using words of blessing to feed and help. The ‘word’ is foundational in the work of salvation as it is in the work of creation. Just as everything outside us originates in the word of God, so does everything inside us. We can’t get behind the word of God. There is no human insight, no human desire, no human cry anterior to this word of God. There is no great abstraction, no great truth behind or previous to this word. Everywhere we look, everywhere we probe, everywhere we listen we come upon ‘word’ – and it is God’s word, not ours.
This massive, overwhelming previousness of God’s speech to our prayers, however obvious it is in Scripture, is not immediately obvious to us simply because we are so much more aware of ourselves than we are of God. We are far more self-conscious than God-conscious and so when we pray, what we are ordinarily conscious of is that we are getting in the first word with God. But our consciousness lies.
So it requires effort – repeated, imaginative, biblically shaped effort – to acquire and maintain our awareness of this unqualified, thoroughgoing previousness of God’s speech to anything and everything that comes out of our mouths.
At some point [in learning language] we find ourselves answering God; the usual way to describe this use of language is with the word ‘prayer.’ Prayer is language used to respond to the most that has been said to us, with the potential for saying all that is in us. Prayer is the development of speech into maturity, language in process of being adequate to answer the one who has spoken most comprehensively to us, namely, God. Put this way, it is clear that prayer is not a narrow use of language for special occasions but the broadest use of language into which everything that is truly human in us - all the parts of our creation and salvation – comes to mature expression. But we live in a culture that has little interest in this language. We live in a society in which language is constantly being eroded and reduced.
Where can we go to learn our language as it develops into maturity, as it answers God?
From chapter 2 of Working the Angles – the shape of pastoral integrity, published by Eerdmans 1987