Christians often speak of their prayer life, but how often do we ask what makes for a prayerful life? As long as we speak of our “prayer life” we’re probably inappropriately considering prayer in isolation from the rest of life. Do we ever imagine that our life itself might be able to be one long prayer?
When Paul told the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) he surely did not envision the whole church walking through life with eyes closed, heads bowed, and hands folded. Perhaps, as we often suppose, he merely meant, “make sure you pray a lot.” But it’s just possible he had something grander in mind: a whole life of which each part could be seen as an aspect of a conversation with God, an unceasing interaction of commitment and love.
If this is what he meant, it wouldn’t mean putting an end to those times and acts we usually name as prayer. What it would mean is that we need to see our “spiritual” life, our relationship with God, in broader terms. To paraphrase Abraham Kuyper, every square inch of your life is God’s, so it’s not that we should think of eliminating the “prayer time” we have now, but of expanding our thoughts about what belongs to our communion with God—namely, everything.
Psalm 141 provides a helpful framework for thinking about this. The psalm is a prayer for God’s help against the pull of wickedness in the surrounding world. The psalm mentions no specific threat, and certainly no bodily harm is in the psalmist’s view. In James L. Mays’ words, “the danger lies…in the general power and pervasiveness of wickedness that entices and entraps the faithful” (Psalms, 430).
During the course of the prayer, the writer uses the imagery of various body parts as he calls for God’s whole-life support. The psalmist is not concerned with the life of his soul in isolation. He is concerned with life itself, a life ordered in relation to God.
As he prays, he lifts his hands (v. 2) to symbolize the giving of his life as an offering, a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1) to God.
He asks God to “set a guard over (his) mouth,” to “keep watch over the door of (his) lips” (v. 3). As Jesus said, the things that are within us are bound to find their way out in our speech (Matthew 15:18). Whether in unkind words, untruthful claims, or hurtful stories, our speech too often demonstrates that the story of our hearts is not always a pleasant one.
He cries for his heart not to be drawn toward evil (v. 4), because he knows that our desires—the things we want, the places where we set our affections—need to be purified. Our priorities could stand to be reordered.
He speaks of a head humble enough to bow before correction (v. 5). The strength and hardness of our heads is quite often the greatest obstruction to a better life in community, both with others and with God. If we would truly pray for God’s right to prevail, we must be ready to deal honestly with the wrong in ourselves.
In the end, if our life is to be our prayer, our eyes have to find their focal point in God alone (v. 8). Seeing him, all else comes into proper perspective. There’s no need to worry that by giving him more attention we will miss out on other things in any meaningful way. He doesn’t make other things mean less; in him they finally gain their true significance (see Colossians 1:16-17). Keeping our eyes on God in Christ is our best guard against making anything else in life into an idol. All things that are not God are ruined when we try to make them into gods.
Hands, mouth, heart, head, eyes: our whole self, freely offered to God. The life that centres on God is the truly full life, the rich life. It is, finally, the life that is prayer.