Prayer: A Divine Imperative

And He told them a parable to the end that they ought always to pray… –Luke 18:1

The Christian exists under a very specific categorical imperative, an ‘ought’—we ought always to pray.

We ought not only pray when things are bad and times are perilous. We ought to pray (and I know I am considering this verse as a principle, apart from its context in Luke) because prayer is good in itself. It would make for a fine universal law. Prayer is central to what Paul calls our most rational service, something in harmony with the highest reason (Rom. 12:1, 12). This is because prayer is the most fundamental human response to the sovereign and living God, whose goodness brought us forth and gave us meaning. I’m thinking of prayer in the sense of communion and fellowship, not in the sense of request for things. The prayer of fellowship creates union. Prayer is a thoroughly human act that expresses faith, dependence, humility, simplicity, and openness. Emil Brunner said, “Prayer is faith in actu.”[1] Witness Lee said, “To pray is to testify that it is ‘no longer I, but Christ.'”[2] To always pray, then, is to always live Christ by faith. This is the only way, as far as I can tell, that unceasing prayer is possible. In another place, commenting on praying in the Lord’s name, Lee says, “When a person lives in the Lord, by the Lord, in union with the Lord, and is mingled with the Lord, spontaneously a part of his living is prayer.”[3] I’d say THIS is why the Lord wants us to pray, categorically, because this brings us into union with Him for His expression in our lives.

Midway Between Perfection and Nothingness

As a created beings, we are contingent beings, existing midway between perfection and nothingness (since we are created ex nihilo and created unto Christ). Man is made in the image of God and an image strives towards union with its prototype. “It belongs to the nature of an image to strive to become the perfection upon which it is modeled.” [4] This striving was classically expressed in the opening paragraph of Augustine’s Confessions:

Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being ‘bearing his mortality with him’, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you ‘resist the proud’. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.[5]

Turning to God in Prayer

God’s being is the sum of divine perfections, yet He has created another reality alongside Himself, calling “not being as being” (Rom. 4:17). Barth said that, “God does not grudge the existence of the reality distinct from Himself.”[6] In fact, He wills creation to be (Rev. 4:11). He “gives to all life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). But that union with God that man desires (Eccl. 3:11) because he is His image and that God desires (1 Tim 2:4) is not automatic or coerced. God has given to us a sort of ‘creaturely freedom’ to decide whether or not to turn to Him in faith and cling to Him in prayer. Because the universe was created through the Son (Col. 1:16), it has picked up His characteristic of adhering to the Father as His source. Creation mirrors the Son by ceaselessly depending on God for its existence. However, for the inanimate universe this action is spontaneous and constant—it is an ontological necessity. For humans, it must be free and conscious. Thus God allows man a real say in things. Acts 13:46 expresses this mystery:

Paul and Barnabas spoke boldly and said, It was necessary for the word of God to be spoken to you first. Since you thrust it away and do not judge yourselves worthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.

It is possible to turn away from God, to thrust away His offer of eternal life, but by doing so we fall away from the only One who is (Heb. 11:6; Exo. 3:14) and are “brought to nought” (Gal. 5:4). God grants us this freedom. But it is also possible to turn to God and rise to union with Him. He does not grudge us this freedom. Augustine’s recounting of his realization of this is beautiful:

When I first came to know You, You raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being. And You gave a shock to the weakness of my sight by the strong radiance of Your rays, and I trembled with love and awe. And I found myself far from You ‘in the region of dissimilarity’, and heard as it were Your voice from on high: ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on Me. And you will not change Me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into Me.’[7]

The Deceit versus The Reality

If we become unmoored from this experience, we drift into a pseudo-reality, “the region of dissimilarity”, and become subject to vanity and the lie. Paul charges Christians to “put off the lie” (Eph. 4:25), which is the totality of our old way of living apart from Christ, “our former manner of life… which is being corrupted according to the lusts of the deceit” (Eph 4:22). In this passage in Ephesians 4, there is a contrast between ‘the deceit’ and ‘the reality’, which are tied, respectively, to our old man and our new man. Since this is a matter of our living, and since prayer is how we live Christ, unceasing prayer is how we put off and put on. That former manner of life can still haunt us, but by practicing a life of prayer we are defended by the whole armor of God and our loins are girded with the divine reality (Eph 6:14) so that we can live as the new man, a man in union with God.

All this to say, prayer is an ought, a divine imperative, because only by prayer can we realize the highest good, God’s will for man—union with the Triune God in all the concreteness of human life, for His glory.


1. Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, p. 313
2. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Mark, p. 244
3. Witness Lee, Lessons on Prayer, p. 229
4. David Meconi, The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification, p. 40
5. Augustine, Confessions, I.I.1
6. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p. 54
7. Augustine, Confessions, VII.X.16

2 thoughts on “Prayer: A Divine Imperative

  1. Could not find the comment site. I really enjoyed this post on prayer this morning. Especially the two quotes from Augustine. In our small, fallen, human, natural disappointments is the best time to turn to the Lord really open to Him to be one with Him. It usually happens later….then there He is with something on His heart for Us to join together to pray for. This is glorious. JS


    • Thanks! Yes, the Augustine quotes are very powerful, as is the whole of the Confessions. Hymn 423 in the LSM hymnal very closely follows his experience. The end of the first stanza is obviously a reference to his famous opening of the Confessions: “My hear is pained and cannot be / at rest till it finds rest in Thee.”


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