Calling out for divine help doesn’t make you a Christian, but it does mean you’re human.
According to Tim Keller, humans throughout history, and in every corner of the world, have evidenced an “instinct for prayer.”
Prayer is one of the most common phenomena of human life. Even deliberately nonreligious people pray at times. Studies have shown that in secularized countries, prayer continues to be practiced not only by those who have no religious preference but even by many of those who [say they] do not believe in God.”
Keller notes that one study found “nearly 30 percent of atheists admitted they prayed ‘sometimes,’ and another found that 17 percent of nonbelievers in God pray regularly.”
There are many people who do not pray even in times of extreme danger. Still, though prayer is not literally a universal phenomenon, it is a global one, inhabiting all cultures and involving the overwhelming majority of people at some point in their lives. Efforts to find cultures, even very remote and isolated ones, without some form of religion and prayer have failed. (Prayer, 36).
Christianity is not distinct because we call out to the divine. However, those who follow the Bible do pray in an utterly unique way, set apart from every other kind of cry toward the sky — and the implications are huge for how we pray every day.Call on God by Name
Throughout the Old Testament, “calling upon the name of the Lord” serves as a kind of code language for prayer. The phrase appears first in Genesis 4:26, then four more times in Genesis (12:8; 13:4; 21:33; 26:25), and a handful of times in the historical narratives, psalms, and prophets. It’s important to note that the refrain isn’t simply that God’s people call out to him, but that they “call upon the name of the Lord.” This is more than the typical human instinct for prayer.
Calling on the name of the Lord is no mere generic plea for divine aid. This is not groping for God as a distant deity. This is not even the admirable reverence of the ancient priest-king Melchizedek, righteous as he may have been, who blesses Abraham in the name of “God Most High” (Genesis 14:18–23), but does appear know God’s personal name, Yahweh (represented in our English translations by Lᴏʀᴅ with the small caps). And this emphatically is not the “unknown God” reverenced in Athens and referenced by Paul in his address at the Areopagus. “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).
What begins in Genesis 4, resurfaces in key places in the Hebrew Scriptures, and reemerges in the New Testament, is that when the chosen people of the true God call out to him, they call out to him by name. They know him. Unlike pagan (or atheist!) cries for divine help, God’s people know him, because he has revealed himself to them, and made promises to them.
To call upon the name of the Lord is to pray to Yahweh as one who knows him by name and enjoys covenant relationship with him. Psalm 116 celebrates, in amazing terms, what it means to know the one true God, not just in concept, but by name. In only nineteen verses, the psalmist addresses Yahweh by name sixteen times — three times explicitly mentioning “calling on the name”of Yahweh (Psalm 116:4, 13, 17).
Similar expressions follow in the prophets. Even pagan Naaman rightly assumes that Elisha, as a prophet, knows God personally and calls on him by name (2 Kings 5:11). God’s chosen people not only call on God, but do so by name, as someone they know (Zechariah 13:9; Zephaniah 3:9), as Elijah does in the great power encounter at Carmel with the prophets of Baal. “You call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God” (1 Kings 18:24). When Yahweh answers, Elijah addresses him by name three more times (1 Kings 18: 36–37), and the point is not lost on the people (1 Kings 18:38–39).Call on Him as a Christian
However, we live in the age of the church, not the days of Elijah. Yahweh himself has come to earth in the person of Christ. Now, as we call upon the very God of the universe by name, we have at least two names that are even more important, and even more intimate, than Yahweh.
The first is Father. God’s own Son led the way (Mark 14:36), and we join with him by his Spirit: “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15). “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6). Many people know me on a first-name basis, but only my children call me Daddy. It’s one thing to know God’s personal name is Yahweh; it’s even more precious to be able to call him Father.
A second name also eclipses Yahweh in the New Testament as he reveals himself to us climactically in his Son (John 1:14; Hebrews 1:1–2). When the apostle Paul writes “to the church of God that is in Corinth,” he addresses “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Since the coming of Christ, to call upon God by name has meant to know him in and through Jesus. God’s old-covenant people were those who called upon the name of Yahweh. His new-covenant people are those who call upon the name of Jesus.Know Him, Call Him
Christian prayer is indeed far more than human instinct. We do not pray as pagans, or even atheists, calling out to an unknown God. Rather we address the one who has taken the initiative, revealed himself, and made promises to us. We don’t strain our voice toward a hypothetical supreme being with cosmic powers, but wonder of all wonders, we pray with confidence to the God we know by name.
We pray not as mere theists, monotheists, or even as old-covenant saints, but as those who now know our Father in and through our Lord Jesus. It is almost too astounding to even utter: we know the one to whom we pray, not because of our raw intelligence, advanced education, or painstaking research, but because he has moved toward us, spoken in history, and made himself known to us. And so we address him as Father, and in name of Jesus, with our Bibles open, in response to what he has promised in covenant relationship with us.
As Christians, what’s most exciting is not that we know God’s name is Yahweh, but that we now can call him Father. And that we know the name of Jesus.
The surprise recipe for joy is making God look good instead of yourself.
Two years ago this week, I trapped myself under a canoe — on land.
It was a four-day fishing trip in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters — a series of beautiful and remote lakes just off the coast of Lake Superior. I had been invited along with some veteran outdoorsmen, real men who had done this trip (or one like it) for years.
When we set out on our first and longest portage — rugged walking paths used for transporting canoes and gear between lakes — I naïvely (and arrogantly) strapped on my sixty-pound bag, tossed one of our forty-pound canoes on my shoulders, and took off on the half-mile hike. Yes, I trapped myself under a forty-pound canoe.
A hundred yards in, I knew I was in trouble. The weight was too much. I didn’t know how to carry a canoe solo. My pride was too thick. But I pressed on, my shoulders screaming, my shirt soaked with sweat, my canoe banging into everything in a fifty-foot radius — like a human maraca rolling around in a pinball machine.
Less than halfway, I couldn’t take another step. I kneeled down and rested the canoe on the ground next to me. But my backpack was caught in the canoe seat. I wrestled with the little strength I had left, but was quickly exhausted and forced to surrender. Anyone in their right mind would have simply taken off their backpack, but not me. I saw no way out, so I laid there waiting for someone to rescue me — a grown man trapped under just forty pounds of plastic.One Hilarious Nightmare
I remember almost everything about that walk — feeling the rocky and unpredictable ground of the “path,” not being able to see beyond the nose of the canoe, tasting the sweat streaming over my eyebrows, smelling the Kevlar inside my forty pounds of buoyant captivity, listening intently for one of the guys to come and pull the canoe off of me. It’s a nightmare that makes me laugh every time I think about it.
No one took a picture of the moment, but no picture could have told the whole story. The memory is far bigger and more vivid than any attempt to capture it.
Those four days were filled with memories like these — smelling the crisp, clean air each morning, tasting fresh walleye cooked over an open flame, dipping my hand in the cool water beside our boat, watching an eagle patrol the fifty yards around our campsite, listening to the roar of wildlife at night while lying in our tents.
I look at the pictures a couple times each year. They’re both unbelievably beautiful and terribly disappointing. I wouldn’t trade the pictures for much, but I definitely wouldn’t trade the memories we made on the trip for the couple hundred pictures we have.
As spectacular as cameras are today, they simply cannot tell the whole story God is telling everywhere in what he has made. Our pixels pale in comparison to his unprocessed, unfiltered creativity. Instagram’s attempt to do the Boundary Waters justice is as clumsy as me lying there on the ground like a beached crustacean.Capturing the Present
Seeing what I see now, I spent too much time trying to capture the Boundary Waters — trying to take the perfect picture, or to photograph every spectacular scene, or document every memory. I fell victim to one of the great temptations of our age. By trying to capture our present for the future, we often ironically trade our actual experience of the present for images to look at in the future. Instead of really enjoying this moment — this feeling, this view, this conversation — we focus on trying to preserve this moment to re-enjoy someday. Not realizing, of course, that we’re often robbing ourselves of joy in the process.
Similarly, our phones often convince us to trade away our present for someone else’s past. In his excellent book on our love-hate relationship with our phones, Tony Reinke recounts, “My wife said, ‘Compulsive social-media habits are a bad trade: your present moment in exchange for an endless series of someone else’s past moments.’ She’s right about the cost. Our social-media lives can stop our own living” (12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, 101).
When we stop to post our own pictures, or scroll through someone else’s, we pay for those joys with the currency of our present. Instead of being a window into the world, our phones often become a trapdoor out of our world. A fun escape from reality.Beauty of Standard Def
Reinke writes, “We must learn to enjoy our present lives in faith — that is, to enjoy each moment of life without feeling compelled to ‘capture’ it. . . . Get off your phone, go camping, gaze at the stars, hike in nature — whatever brings creation closer and richer than pixels” (100). Richer than pixels. The highest-definition pixels may satisfy a certain level of curiosity, imagination, and wonder, but they are painfully limited compared with God’s creation. Like a moped maxing out at thirty miles per hour on an interstate highway.
For starters, we only experience reality through our phone with two senses — seeing and hearing. And often only one or the other. Technology is striving to touch the other senses, but any artificial experience someone else creates for you will be just that: artificial. No number of screens, or pixels, or chips can compete with the actual universe God sustains every second of every day (Hebrews 1:3). The world around us is not being recreated, copied, or faked. It is a fabric of real decisions, made every day by a real, sovereign, wise, and creative Father, to help us see and know and enjoy him.
We’ve heard over and over that a picture is worth a thousand words. With the invention of the smartphone and the rise of social media, though, I wonder if we’ve experienced some inflation. Today, a real-life, all-five-senses, undistracted, unprocessed, unfiltered, even undocumented experience of this world might be worth a thousand pictures.
By all means, take pictures and share them with others, but beware of trading away today for pictures. If we miss the present while we photograph the present, we’re left with a picture. But if we live in the present and make the memories first, the pictures we take and share will be filled with deeper, fuller meaning and joy. Pictures are meant to punctuate our memories, not replace them.Back from the Future
Not only do our pictures pale in comparison to what God is painting all around us, but one day they will all be lost, like losing dozens of irreplaceable family albums in a house fire. We will have our precious memories forever, but our pictures are all fading away. We will not have our Instagrams in heaven, even if they were backed up on the cloud. Like so many other good, beautiful, and imperfect gifts, they will be swept up in God making all things new (Revelation 21:5).
This present world, and our best pictures of it, are passing away (1 John 2:17; 1 Corinthians 7:31). We may remember it forever — a massive, whirling, textured, and mysterious testimony of God’s infinite glory — but our experiences of it will be more durable than our photos of it.
Before we enter into the new heavens and new earth, with sinless eyes wide open to all of its perfection and beauty, we will surrender even our most prized possessions here — even the albums we have looked at again and again. But our experience of this world — broken and dark and painful as it is — will prepare us to enjoy the world to come even more. If we are alive today to the world that is passing away, we will be all the more alive forever to the one in which we live with God (Revelation 21:3).
Then we won’t need to preserve what we love in pictures, because nothing we love will ever be taken away. We will look at Jesus face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2; Revelation 22:4) — no camera, no filter, no editing, no selfies — and spend eternity seeing more of his beauty, more of his power, and more of his love in the new world he is making.
We will enjoy the memories we made here on earth and make memories every new day in paradise, as we infinitely scroll through glory for all eternity.
Regardless of what Apple may invent or promise tomorrow, there is no app for that.
Two parents are better than one. But does God require a single parent to marry if he or she doesn’t desire marriage?