We have been given the gift of language to name our world, to be in relationship with God’s good creation, to be priests who lift up in blessing, praise and appreciation, to encourage one another as fellow pilgrims. But so often we misuse that gift. We curse and tear down; we lie and obfuscate; we damn and discourage. As a bilingual (German/English) speaker I am painfully aware of this double nature of language because, in German, “Gift” means “poison.”
We use language to express our thoughts and attitudes. What is perhaps more crucial – the language we use determines our thoughts and attitudes. It is this I want to address in this article. In the end my comments may sound negative and critical; but what I am hoping to do is to clear a space for further reflection and conversation about something that I believe to be very important.
We use words to perform certain actions. For instance, naming, requesting, thanking and expressing appreciation is mostly done through the use of words – although these actions may also be done through facial expressions and gestures. Such words and expressions are called “performative.“ Other actions cannot be done with words. I cannot give you a hug by saying, “I hug you,” while keeping my hands firmly clasped behind my back. I may announce that I’m going to hug you, “Let me give you a hug.” But the hug itself isn’t accomplished verbally.
I believe that we have adopted certain expressions to perform actions which are not done by saying those words; we have slipped into careless habits of using religious or spiritual phrases which are not meant to be performative. I recall, for instance, someone reciting Hebrews 4:12, (“The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”) in the belief that by reciting these words he was applying God’s penetrating and dividing word.
With all my heart I believe those words to be true. But the actual experience of that truth goes far beyond reading or hearing those words. It is a life-long experience of transformation, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful.
Another common occurrence is the use of the words, “We pray in the name of Jesus,” usually appended at the end of a public prayer. It may be a good thing to pray “in the name of our Lord,” but we don’t do so by saying those words. I may have been praying in my own name all along; by then saying, “in the name of Jesus” I don’t magically change the prayer into one endorsed by Jesus. Praying is not like algebra where putting a minus sign in front of brackets changes the value of the whole expression. On the other hand, if I have been praying in the name of Jesus, I don’t need to reiterate this. (After I’ve hugged you, I don’t need to say, “I just hugged you.“)
But much more important is the question, what does it mean to “pray in the name of Jesus?” In an earlier draft of this article I was going to leave it at that and invite others to answer this question. But I will stimulate discussion with a series of questions.
Are we told to pray in Jesus’ name? Is it ever alright to pray in your own name? Can we pray in the Father’s/Creator’s name? Or in the name of the Holy Spirit? Or, for that matter, in the name of the Trinity?
If I am using a psalm to pray, am I not praying in David’s name? When I use the Book of Common Prayer, am I praying in Thomas Cranmer’s name? Let me repeat, What does it mean to pray in the name of Jesus?
Is there perhaps a clue in the baptismal rite when we are baptized “in (into) the Name of….”? When we enter the relational reality of the Trinity made accessible to us as eternal life or resurrection life – in turn made accessible by what Jesus accomplished? Is that what we are trying to express with that ritualized phrase? That we are praying in (into) that space which was opened for us?
Something I have learned in recent years is that prayer is not really about words. (See Romans 8:26.) At the heart of prayer is our heart’s posture and attitude. Nevertheless words can and do affect or even determine the posture and attitude of our heart. So, it is important which words we use (when we use words).
However, it is even more important to remember that, in the relational dance of the Trinity, Jesus is always and ever interceding for us. And it is for that reason that we can dare open our mouths, that we can utter prayers – be they eloquent or faltering.