In the 1640s “precarious” was a legal term that referred to something which was “held through the favor of another.” Over time, “precarious” evolved into our modern understanding of the word as “risky, dangerous, uncertain, or perilous.” The word “prayer” also evolved from the old Latin word “precarious,” since prayer by its very nature is something which is held through the favor of Another.
I think we need to recognize that prayer is precarious in the modern understanding of the word as well, for prayer is risky, dangerous, and perilous. We need to take to heart the truth of what Jacques Ellul said, “Whoever wrestles with God in prayer puts his whole life at stake.” And we need to be warned by Karl Barth’s words, “To clasp the hands in prayer is to start an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
Prayer is about relationship with the Almighty Lord of the universe, and that is a dangerous thing because relationship with God is likely to change us in huge ways. E. Stanley Jones suggests, “Prayer’s like the fastening of the cup to the wounded side of a pine tree to allow the resin to pour into it. You are now nestling up into the side of God—the wounded side, if you will—and you allow His grace to fill you up. You are taking in the very life of God.” That sounds lovely, but think it through: What happens to us when he take in the very life of God? We take in the very love of God that led Jesus to lay down His life for the world. Mother Teresa sums it up well when she says, “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of Himself.” Look at the risks she took as a result of prayer!
Prayer is about God meeting us right where we are. Centuries ago, when scholars sought to find the meaning of the word epiousios, which we now translate as “daily,” in the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” they could find no occurrence of the word in ancient Greek literature. They concluded that it must be a spiritual word, meaning that we were supposed to pray for spiritual bread to feed our souls. Then archaeologists found occurrences of the word on scraps of paper in garbage dumps. The word was written on shopping lists to identify items that needed to be purchased on a daily basis since they could not be stored for later. Jesus was making it clear that we are to ask God each day for the basic, down-to-earth things we need each day. That’s what we find throughout the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus tells us to pray for daily bread, for forgiveness, for help in forgiving others, for help in battling temptation, and for rescue from the evil one. These are the down-to-earth things we need help with every day.
It is precarious to present these requests to God, for if we pray only about theoretical matters like praying for a cure for cancer, then prayer remains far away from us, which keeps us in the “safe” zone. But when we pray for practical things it gets dangerous. When we pray for daily bread, we may have to work and budget. When we pray for “our daily bread,” we may have to provide help to someone who is hungry. When we pray for God to help us forgive, we may have to address a particular resentment. When we pray for God to help us battle temptation, we may have to take actual steps to flee temptation.
And prayer is about us meeting God right where God is. This is precarious because God is always at a deeper place of compassion and justice than is comfortable to us. Whenever we rise up to where God is, that gets risky for us. Philip Yancey points out, “The book of Proverbs states the principle bluntly: ‘If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.’ In his letter, the apostle Peter urges that husbands be considerate to their wives and treat them with respect ‘so that nothing will hinder your prayers.’ It may seem strange that issues political and domestic would have a direct effect on prayer life, but not if prayer is viewed as keeping company with God. Every aspect of life, including how we treat those around us, affects an intimate relationship. I cannot say to my neighbor, ‘I love you and enjoy spending time with you, but I hate your stupid dog and keep those bratty kids out of my yard, will you?’ How I treat what belongs to my neighbor affects how he receives my love. The same applies to God: how I treat God’s creation, God’s children, will determine in part how God receives my prayers and my worship. Prayer involves more than bowing my head a few times a day; it pervades all of life, and vice versa.” (Prayer: Does it Make any Difference?, p. 224-225)