This is part of a series on George Herbert’s poem “Prayer (1).” To see other installments in the series, click here.
In reading an article by John Webster on Holy Scripture, I came across this beautifully written paragraph:
Prayer is not simply a preface to intellectual work, but a necessary element of its proper accomplishment, because created intellect is just that: created. Creaturely intellect, like all elements of creaturely reality, is brought into being and preserved in life and activity by divine beneficence. The creaturely counterpart to this beneficence is prayer, the invocation of God which confesses creaturely need and insufficiency and turns to God’s goodness for assistance. Invocation of God is not an emergency measure, undertaken only in especially straitened circumstances, when our resources are exhausted. It accompanies and permeates every human act, including the act of the mind. Invoking God, we enact our created nature.
It was the last sentence which caught my eye: “Invoking God, we enact our created nature.” What does it mean for man to be made? How do we enact our createdness? One way we do so, Webster says, is in prayer. When we pray, we recognize that God is God, the eternal, uncreated, self-sufficient fountain of being, and that we are made, and therefore totally dependent on him for all things, including our being.
I believe that this may be what Herbert was pointing to in his poem when he said that prayer is “man well dressed.” When humans pray, they begin to enter into the fullest and most dignified state of (pre-glorified) humanity, that is, humanity in proper relation to the Lord who gives to all “life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25). For you and I to be what we were made to be, we must be in proper relation to God. And the only proper relation to this God, the God who needs nothing and so can only overflow in goodness and love, is that of receiving from him. A posture of prayer enacts this in a singular way.
Is this scriptural? After all, my aim in these posts is not to speculate on what Herbert has said, but to try to reverse-engineer Herbert, to surmise where in Scripture he may have seen these descriptions of prayer. In this line of the poem, I’m not sure that there is a particular reference to be quoted in defense of its truthfulness. To be sure, we could quote passages like James 5:13-18, which indicates that prayer is always an appropriate action for believers, whatever the situation. But I think the stronger argument is the one which come from the general contours of Scripture. When we stand back, the pattern becomes clear.
God needs nothing from his creatures. We add nothing to his existence, and our absence does not detract anything from him. Elihu, in confronting Job, urges him to behold God’s self-sufficiency:
Look at the heavens, and see; and behold the clouds, which are higher than you. If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him? And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him? If you are righteous, what do you give to him? Or what does he receive from your hand? Your wickedness concerns a man like yourself, and your righteousness a son of man (Job 35:5-8).
Likewise, Paul tells us that God “does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:24-25)– God is a se, that is, he exists from and by himself. The only way that we can exist in relation to such a God as this is as supplicants, as those who receive. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Since we can only exist in relation to God this way, it therefore follows that in prayer, we become most what we are. In prayer, we acknowledge that God can only give to us, and we can only receive from him. This is what it means for us to be created. Like flowers opening to the sun, we glorify God when we recognize his sovereign Lordship and all-sufficiency for us, and throw ourselves upon it. That posture, Herbert says, is man in his Sunday best.