God’s Hearing of Our Prayer… and Praying for the Dead

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Painting by Fra Angelico. Source: Wikipedia

On November 1 and 2, in many traditions at least, Christians celebrate the twin feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Among other things, this is a time to remember those who have departed, both from our faith communities and from our families. And for many, this includes prayer for the dead.

For much of my Christian life, I assumed that prayer for the dead was basically off limits (at best pointless; at worst, pagan). Why pray for the dead? Their eternal destiny has already been determined by their response to God in this life; so… what is left to pray for now that they have passed on?  But as Moltmann reminds us in the clip below from the 2009 Emergent Village Conversation, throughout the history of the church, most Christians have not thought this way.  Here Tony Jones asks Moltmann some questions about the nature of prayer, leading Moltmann to make two profound observations:

  1. The initiative in God’s blessing on us is always God’s (not ours). The hearing of God precedes our praying.
  2. The dead died; but they are not “dead” in the modern sense of gone and annihilated. They are present because Christ is Lord of the living and the dead. 

Tony Jones: In Minnesota where I live there was a billboard for a long time on the way to a cabin in the north woods and it said “Unless you confess, God cannot bless.” The more I thought about it as I was driving this highway, the more uncomfortable I got. [..] My disagreement with that: It seems to be me that God is by nature a non-contingent being. That is, whether or not God forgives me, God isn’t sitting around waiting for me to do something in order to.  I don’t give God power to forgive me. Or, as some conservative evangelicals in the United States (and around the world I think), “Once we do (and then fill in the blanks) A, B and C, then Jesus will return.” As though God is almost handcuffed waiting for us to do certain things. Or unless you pray in the name of Jesus Christ you will not get the demon out. Or unless you… there are all these conditionals: If you do something, then God will do something. But it seems to me to be against the very nature of God, who it seems to me to be a non-contingent being. God has complete freedom.

Jürgen Moltmann: I agree.

Tony Jones: Aha! Did we get that on tape?

Jürgen Moltmann: Yes, you are right. You cannot make as a human being conditions to God. this would mean to make God an object, an idol. And so God will bless whom he will bless, whether you confess or not. And with the relationship of God’s blessing and your confessing, I think the initiative is God’s initiative. He is going to bless you, and then you feel free to confess whatever is on your heart to be confessed. God is God, and not a bargain partner for you and your religion. This is completely heathen. The original idea of all the religions in the world is […]: We give sacrifices and then God must bless us. But this is not Christian at all. It is a denial of the Godhead of God, and the freedom of God, as you said. And so I am opposing completely against this bargaining with destiny or with God. If I do this, God must do that. This is pure capitalism. [Laughter]

Tony Jones: And so let me ask you this about Jesus. It seems to me like, God as subject has complete freedom, and God’s activity is non-contingent upon our activity. And yet Jesus’ teaching about prayer is almost unequivocally “be persistent, and God will give you what you want.” It’s like, a man who goes to his neighbor’s house in the middle of the night to ask for a loaf of bread and bangs on the door. These are the parables and metaphors Jesus uses for prayer. Keep bothering God and you will get what you want.

Jürgen Moltmann: These are not the only sayings of Jesus about prayer. Whenever you pray, you know already that God knows what you need. Otherwise, it would be nonsense to pray. So the hearing of God precedes your prayer.

Tony Jones: OK, let me wrap my mind around that one…. Then what does that mean for God’s relationship to time as we experience it? Can we pray for something that’s already happened? Like, my grandma died of cancer… but because God is already separated from time or is the Lord of time, I can pray for something that has happened in the past?

Jürgen Moltmann: Well, what do you want to pray for?

Tony Jones: I mean, I’m asking for, you know. There are lots of things that…

Jürgen Moltmann: There’s a long tradition of prayer for the dead. This was the medieval Catholic tradition, the prayer for the dead. And Luther said to pray three or four times for the beloved dead and then stop and hand it over to God, because they are included already in the prayer of Christ. And Calvin, said no, don’t follow the old Catholic tradition. I think I am praying for the dead, because the dead are not dead. They died, but we cannot say that they are dead now. For Martin Luther, it was, they are sleeping until the day of resurrection. For Calvin, they are watching over us, they are with us, in their own way. And I think this is the truth of the so-called ancestor cult in Asia. The dead are not, in a modern sense, dead and gone and annihilated and away. They are present. And if we believe Romans 14 that Christ is the Lord over the living and the dead, then we have a community with the dead in Christ, and a community of hope, because we were raised from death together. And therefore, I think we must overcome this modern understanding of death as annihilation. We should learn from the ancestor veneration in Africa and Asia again. And this would help, then you may pray for your grandmother.

You can find the entire conversation on Tony Jones’ blog here (mirrored on the PostBarthian); this is from the beginning of Episode 5. You can find other posts where I have shared selections from this event here. Part of the clip above appeared on a post previously on the PostBarthian.

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