The following post that I authored appeared on the site Life Changing Prayer some three and a half years ago.
Until recently, I would not have used the word in conjunction with prayer: prevenient. But something happened to me to change that.
When I say prevenient, I mean the idea of church reformer John Wesley, who spoke of prevenient grace. He used the word to say that God’s grace gets into us and starts working before we have a chance to do or act or will. We can only do anything, he argued, including turning to God, because of God’s grace that goes before us.
Like I said, I wouldn’t have thought of the word as relating to prayer. Prayer, after all, is something I do, with the action beginning with me and moving to God. For example, the well-known “ACTS” acronym for prayer (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication) has to do with types of prayers that I pray, that I initiate.
To be sure, I was familiar with Romans 8:26, which talks about the Holy Spirit interceding for us. But I had never connected that to my own prayer life. I had always thought of prayer as primarily my action, and then in tandem with that the Holy Spirit prayed on my behalf–two parallel and generally non-intersecting means of prayer.
That changed recently when I woke up in the middle of the night praying. And I don’t think it was just I who was praying.
While there may be some pious souls whose first thoughts upon waking up are prayerful ones or God-centered ones, I am not often in that number. My first waking thoughts seem to range from, “I can’t believe all I have to do today!” to, “Wha…? Where am I?”
So when I woke up in the middle of the night praying–and this happened several nights in one week–I knew that God was praying through me. In fact, God had been praying through me when I was sleeping, because when I woke up, the prayer I sensed being prayed through me had already begun and was clearly mid-prayer.
The first and most significant night, I woke up praying for the city of Boston, where I live. Yes, that’s a nebulous description, but the prayer was that nebulous–but no less powerful for its generality. The next night I woke up simply filled with the Holy Spirit. I don’t know what praying was happening that night, but it was that sense of being filled with the Spirit that actually woke me. This, too, was significant, because, as my wife will attest, I generally don’t wake up in the middle of the night unless she is waking me up to tell me to stop snoring.
So I’ve concluded: prayer actually doesn’t start with me. To be sure, there are things I can and should initiate in prayer, but prayer begins with God, not with me. As with Wesley’s take on grace and the human will, prayer, too, is prevenient. Not only does the Holy Spirit intercede for me, but sometimes–as I have just experienced–God intercedes through me, regardless of my awareness of it or decision to sit down and have a prayer time.
A wise author (my dad), in describing the inwardly dialogical yet outwardly inviting nature of the persons of the Trinity, once wrote, “God is used to conversation. Used to dialogue. …ready. This God invites me, in fact, to join in on a conversation already going on, one that has been going on for a very, very long time.”
In the middle of the night, even while I was sleeping, I found myself unwittingly accepting this invitation, joining a conversation without having to do much more than just lie there, and let prayer happen.