Wednesday Lenten Lessons

“The Prayer Language of the Church; its Origin and Meaning”

by Archpriest Timothy Baclig

I. Review
Last week we spoke specifically on “God’ Sovereignty” and I provided you with three prayers from our Orthodox Prayer Book and four prayers from the morning service of Orthros. I  also asked you to consider five questions that we will review this evening.

Let’s begin by looking at the wording of the three devotional prayers from our Prayer Book. Notice that as private and personal prayers the prayer uses the pronouns “I” and “me.” The prayers are worded as a personal expression of God’s sovereignty and are not used as corporate prayers of church services when the words “we,” “us” and “our” are more commonly used.

1. A Prayer Before Commencing Any Task — Almighty God, our Help and Refuge, Fountain of wisdom and Tower of strength, who knowest that I can do nothing without thy guidance and help…

2. A Prayer of a Sick Person — … grant me grace and strength to bear this sickness with which I am afflicted, with Christian patience and submission to thy will, trusting in thy loving kindness and tender mercy… I know O Lord, that I justly deserve any punishment thou mayest inflict upon me for I have so often offended thee and sinned against thee, in thought, word and deed…

3. A Prayer in Time of Trouble — …look down upon me, a miserable sinner, have mercy upon me, and deliver me from this trouble that besets me, for which, I know, I am deservedly suffering. I acknowledge and believe, O Lord, that all trials of this life are given by Thee for our chastisement, when we drift away from thee, and disobey thy commandments… trusting to thine infinite love and compassion that in due time, when thou knowest best, thou wilt deliver me from this trouble…

Now let us look at the questions and the answer that was provided by one of you:
Questions for Consideration in Reflecting on Devotional Prayers:

How might we describe our attitude and/or posture in the phrases of the language expressed in these prayers?
(parishioner’s answer) “We would describe our attitude as one of submission, patience and acknowledgement of wrongdoing, repentance and acceptance of [God’s] will.” This may also be heard in the wording used in the seventh Orthros prayer: …accept our thanksgivings as we have power to make them; and instruct us in thy statues. For we know not how to pray as we ought unless Thou, O Lord, by Thy Holy Spirit, doth guide us… [see Romans 8:26]. {see full text below}

How might we describe God’s ultimate purpose as it pertains to our lives?

(parishioner’s answer) “God’s ultimate purpose for us is our salvation, obtained in part by repentance, serving others, and amending our lives.” This may also be heard in the wording used in the fourth Orthros prayer: …and grant us all our petitions which are unto salvation… [see Romans 8:28]. Also as heard in the sixth Orthros prayer: …Thou doest all things which are for the welfare of our life, that we may ever look upward unto thee, our Saviour and the Benefactor of our souls… {see full text below}

Does this mean that we have no choice and that there is nothing within our power to do in submitting to a sovereign Lord?

(parishioner’s answer) “We do have a choice to submit or not, but it goes easier with us if we submit.” There are definitely things that we do and are spoken about in our prayers. Last week I clarified that there are opportunities and challenges in the circumstances our lives that are within our power to possibly change, and those that are not. Also that there are, in fact, decisions that are within our power to make. Personal decisions, however, lead to consequences, and the consequences of those decisions involve either one’s acceptance or the denial of personal responsibility. It must also be said that one’s choice not to decide may also lead to consequences that may or may not be to one’s own good.

In my introduction I also stated: “Prayer is not a monologue but a dialogue.” Through prayer we are engaged in a living, day-to-day [synergetic] relationship with God. This means that you and I meet God halfway. {see also Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.}

Does this mean that asking or petitioning God in prayer is of no effect or consequence?

(parishioner’s answer) “Asking and petitioning is for us, not Him. [They] teach us all the things we need for salvation and love for God.” The fifth Orthros prayer includes the following petition: …O Lord; accept the morning prayers of us all as incense before thee; and let none of us be found reprobate [see Romans 1:18-25], but encompass us with thy bounties…

In his epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul also writes: …continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose. (Philippians 2:12)

Is there any evidence in scripture or within the history of our church that gives merit to “bargaining with God?”

(parishioner’s answer) “No bargaining. The to serve the church…” or “Lord, I commit to doing…, grant me…” This is not foreign to our Biblical tradition. Can you name any Biblical reference of someone who “bargained” with God? Does God ever “change His mind?” [i.e., see Jonah 1f]

II. God’s Sovereignty (Part Two)

The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, used in The Liturgy of Pre-sanctified Gifts and all weekday Lenten Services, is perhaps where we can also discover more in our understanding of the sovereignty of God. There are various translations of this prayer used today in our country.

The Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

O Lord and Master of my life, Take from me the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust of power and idle talk. [GOA translation — do not permit the spirit of laziness and meddling, the lust of power and idle talk to come to me.]

But give unto me [GOA translation — grant] the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me [GOA translation — give me the power] to see my own sins and not to judge my brother; for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

Almost all of the translations that are used are not a literal translation of the text in the first sentence. The prayer does not say, “Take from me…,” but “Do not give to me…”

In terms of our understanding of God’s sovereignty it helps us to recognize the fact that both the good and the evil spirits are under God’s power and dominion. He is the God of all things—created and uncreated; light and darkness, angels and devils, life and death. He is Lord over all. In fact, we believe and understand that God may use evil for His own ultimate purposes.

This is not inconsistent with the Biblical teaching that as the Lord of all, everything that takes place is not without His providence and will. In other words, while He does not despise the sinner and may not desire the death of a sinner, our synergetic relationship allows and permits certain things to occur. This teaching is not easy for everyone to accept or comprehend, including Christians. However, it is important to understand that this does not mean that God Himself tempts people or forces evil upon them and causes them to be wicked, “for God cannot be tempted with evil,”  St. James says, “and He Himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.” (James 1:13-15)

God tempts no one. But when a person is tempted by Satin and he voluntarily responds by will and desire, God allows it. And in the sense of our prayers, he does more than allow it. He gives it. Biblical examples include: a) I Samuel 16:14 — “The Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him;” b) Ezekiel 20:25-26 — “I gave them statues that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life; and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know that I am the Lord.”

This teaching is also in the New Testament scriptures. In writing the Romans and the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul speaks of God who “gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity… God gave them to dishonorable passions… God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct” (Romans 1:24, 26, 28); and “God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe in the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (II Thessalonians 2:11-12).

In conclusion: If we want evil spirits, God gives them. If we want demons to destroy us, God sends them. If we want to be tempted by our own passionate lusts an desires, God will give us over to them and surrender us to their defiling and destructive power.

And so we pray: O Lord and Master of our life, do not give us the spirit of sloth [in my laziness], despair [by my discouragement and resignation], lust of power [in my pride and selfishness] and idle talk [by my talkativeness], but give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servants… In other words: Do not give us over to our sinful passions and desires which defile and destroy us, but give us your Holy Spirit to fill us with His grace and fruit. You are the Lord. The demons are subject to your power. Life and death are in Your hands. You kill and your bring to life. You bring low and also exalt. All things are your servants.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One! are the words we know well from The Lord’s Prayer. Would God actually “lead us” into temptation? Surely not! But our willingness and desire for sin will take us there if we turn away from God.

David the Prophet and King also used the expression: Cast us not away from Thy presence and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me… (Psalm 50). It was his own realization by the words of his prayer that His life was totally dependent upon God.

In the upcoming weeks we will be examine the prayer language used in our prayers: a) of repentance and forgiveness, b) that protect us from evil acts and specifically the Evil One. We will also be examining: c) the church’s internal expressions in the prayer language of our laudations and salutations that address the Holy Virgin as heard in the Akathist and Parakesis services.

Orthros Prayers of the Litanies

The following are the complete texts of four of the twelve “silent” prayers read by the priest during the morning Orthros service that accompany each litany referenced in the text above:

Fourth Orthros Prayer

O Lord God, holy and unsearchable, who didst command the light to shine forth in the darkness; who hast refreshed us by the slumber of the night, and hast raised us up to glorify and supplicate thy goodness: being employed of thine own tender loving-kindness, accept us also who bow down in adoration before thee, and render thanks unto thee according to the measure of our strength; and grant us all our petitions which are unto salvation [see Romans 8:28]. Make us children of the light, and of the day, and heirs of thine everlasting good things…

Fifth Orthros Prayer
O Treasury of good things, Fountain eternal, O Father all-holy who workest wonders, all-powerful and almighty: we adore thee and entreat thee, calling thy mercies and thy compassion to the aid and defense of our lowliness Call to remembrance thy servants, O Lord; accept the morning prayers of us all as incense before thee; and let none of us be found reprobate [see
Romans 1:18-25], but encompass us with thy bounties…

Sixth Orthros Prayer
We give thanks unto thee, O Lord God of our salvation; for Thou doest all things which are for the welfare of our life, that we may ever look upward unto thee, our Saviour and the Benefactor of our souls… Wherefore we entreat Thee, O Lord, [grant] unto us grace and power, that we may be enabled with understanding to sing praises unto Thee, and to pray without ceasing, in fear and trembling, working out our own salvation, through the help of Thy Christ…

Seventh Orthros Prayer
O God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hast raised us up from our beds, and gathered us together at this hour of prayer: grant us grace in the opening of our lips, and accept our thanksgivings as we have power to make them; and instruct us in thy statues. For we know not how to pray as we ought unless Thou, O Lord, by Thy Holy Spirit, doth guide us [see Romans 8:26]. …