The Power of the Tongue
Have you ever looked at your tongue? We may take note of our nose when trying on a pair of glasses, gloss our lips when chapped, and brush our teeth habitually, but none of these has quite the same power as this extraordinary interconnection of muscles kept in the cage of our mouths.
Without any bones, the tongue’s agility and power reaches as far as life and as dark as death (Proverbs 18:21). This little member of our body can set someone’s life ablaze with a whisper, and as hard as we try to control it, it acts like a stray hound dog, skittish to the very thought of a collar (James 3). With it we bless God, curse our fellow human beings, overshare secrets, declare direction, promise undying love, and—lest we forget—pray.
There is nothing quite as paradoxically familiar and foreign as talking with God. Interestingly, what I find more often than not is that the tongue tries to prove its power more in prayer to the all-powerful God than almost anywhere else.
Especially for those of us who regularly exercise the tongue’s power in prayer, we can unconsciously assume—or blatantly believe—that more words in prayer means more power. If prayer was measured by the number of words used in intercession like miles are used to measure the strength of a runner, we can all too easily see the ultra marathon runner as superior to the sprinter.
A clear sign of this is when someone has prayed for something for an extended period of time and God does not act in accordance with our request, we question whether prayer “works” or whether God heard our prayers at all. We downplay “foxhole” prayers, and the more one is religiously fluent, the more we are tempted to use longer prayers for alternative purposes (Matthew 6:5-6).
Now this is not meant to discourage periods of long intercession. Martin Luther is known for saying that he prayed an hour a day, and on busy days, he would make it a point to pray for two! Jesus was known to disappear all night to spend time in prayer and intimacy with his Father (Luke 6:12).
The Power of Prayer
The question that needs to be answered is how much does God employ the power of the tongue to realize the power of prayer? How much do our clarifying thoughts and persistent speech have to do with prayer activating the Spirit’s effect on us, in us and through us?
Jesus’ teaching on prayer which includes his example that we call the Lord’s Prayer says, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matthew 6:7)
Right here Jesus makes it clear that it is not the number of words that makes a prayer effective. Then he continues, “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Why don’t we need a ton of words? Because like a Father who knows life better than you and knows you better than you and loves you better than you, he already knows what’s best before we ask.
The Power of God
It is from this deep understanding of God’s inexhaustible love that Jesus lays out the Lord’s Prayer. Simple. Short. Sweet.
And yet, no matter how many times that passage is taught, it seems the temptation to convince God to show up in our needs shapes the length of our prayers. Like a child hungry for dinner, we keep asking our father in as many ways as we can fathom if the food is ready as if that will hurry it along. Then over time, we can begin to believe more in the power of the tongue in our praying than the power of God no matter the length of the prayer.
This is where the thoughtful reader of Scripture should pause and ask: what would it look like to surrender to God in prayer rather than trying to control or over direct or micromanage him in prayer? While the answer is not necessarily less prayer, it could mean more prayer with less.
Surrendering to God’s Presence in Centering Prayer
A practice in prayer that has served followers of Jesus throughout history is centering prayer. Centering prayer invites simplicity of speech to be the red carpet to the magnificence of God. Centering prayer is less about looking for a result as it is an openness to the freedom of God. While there is intention with God, the means—the words we use—are sparse for the purpose of surrender. It’s not about “getting” a particular feeling, although you will feel. It is not about “receiving” a particular vision or realization, although at times there may be an encounter. It’s about letting God be God, and you being you before him.
While this may feel squishy to some “experts” in the Christian faith, it is a good reminder that we are all rookies when it comes to the fullness of God in his glorious triune wonder. It’s a checkmate to the “heresy of Eunomius, a fourth-century Arian theologian who audaciously claimed the divine nature to be entirely knowable by the human mind.”* Centering prayer acknowledges the limitation of words to exhaustedly represent our own needs and God’s mysterious glory. It is not the only kind of prayer one is to engage, but it is a beautiful addition to one’s walk with God, which invites us “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 4:19).
Centering prayer requires extended time but limited words. It was common practice for those ancient desert mothers and fathers of the Christian faith. It’s more like experiencing a slow sunset than it is taking a long walk. One word is usually the preference. One word that captures your intention as you merely “be” before God. For me, it is usually one word out of Scripture that I’ve been meditating on that fits the occasion. Usually thirty to sixty minutes is a helpful starting point. Whatever thoughts come before you, you surrender them to God for another time. You whisper your one word of intention (examples: God, rest, cross, holy, life, Jesus) and you wait in his divine care trusting he sees you and knows you and is ready to meet you in ways you didn’t know you needed.
Usually when I engage in centering prayer, I set an alarm on my phone. I release myself from paying attention to anything other than God, and when the alarm goes off like a tap on the shoulder, I find myself more often than not surprised at how an hour has passed.
On one such occasion when I came with the intention of “life” as my exhaled prayer, here is one journal entry of where I found myself at the end:
As my phone alarm went off in an hour, not only did I feel at peace, but gratitude again was a dominant feeling. Grateful for how God has designed life. Grateful for the Author of life. Grateful to be alive. Grateful to feel grateful. A feeling/way of being that I don’t take for granted.
Now, to be clear, I don’t always walk away grateful, but I do always feel it in my body, soul, and spirit. Sometimes I am frustrated. Sometimes I feel nothing. But even in the frustration and the nothing, God is working. If only we saw God present even in our frustrations and those “nothing” moments, we might sense more deeply in our bones we are his, and wouldn’t that be something.
So try it. Pray more with less. Let the power of the tongue give way to the power of God. Who knows, God may even surprise you.