“Step 5: The Road Ahead” on James 4:13-17 by Joe Ellis — February 11, 2024
For the past little while, we have been exploring an approach to prayer called The Examen. It's a way of structuring a time of prayer to help us dialogue with God on every aspect of our life. The prayer has five steps. First, you ask God for Wisdom; Second, you give thanks for the particular things you’re thankful for that happened in the previous day; Third, you notice what’s been going on for you emotionally over the past day — the highs the lows; Fourth, you rejoice in the areas that you have been drawn closer to God, and seek forgiveness in the ways you’ve created distance from God; In the fifth part of the prayer you talk to God about the day ahead.
For me, this part about talking to God about the future was my primary motive for praying The Examen. The previous four parts to the prayer seemed like hoops, probably necessary hoops, that I needed to jump through in order to get to this part of the prayer where I could talk to God about what was coming up in my day. My thought was that if I were faithful in doing those other parts of the prayer, then I would be able to hear God clearly and He’ll really help me decide what I should be doing so that I can be the best version of me.
There is a weird subgroup of people who are super into praying The Examen. When they talk about why it is so worthwhile, you might hear them quote what Socrates, when he was on trial, said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That quote certainly influenced the reason why I thought I should pray the Examine. The reasoning goes that if the unexamined life isn’t worth living, then the examined life will be more worth living. For me, my motivation for praying The Examen was out of hope that it would help me hear from God about the best choices I could make with my life, and if I followed through on those choices I’d be living a life that was most worth living, and most honouring to God. I believe this is truly important, and that God wants to guide us around the choices we make in life. But this is not the full picture.
This passage in James has expanded my motivation to pray The Examen. James has helped me move beyond a primarily instrumental approach to praying The Examen. What do I mean when I talk about an instrumental approach to prayer? What I mean is that I was viewing the Prayer of Examen primarily as an instrument, or a tool, to figure out the best choices around how to live a more productive, fulfilling, successful, and God-honouring life. This prayer was a means to an end, a sort of self-help tool. Again, this isn’t terrible motivation. None of us are going to gasp at talking about prayer as a tool for self-improvement. But when prayer is mostly about self or other improvement, prayer can become emaciated or distorted.
I wonder if many of us evaluate whether or not we should pray based on how powerful a tool it is for self-improvement — or improving someone or something we’re close to. This can be true for people who profess to have huge faith in prayer, as well as for people who have little faith at all. On the side that seems like it has great faith, you can have people want to “name it and claim it,” or you “just really need to believe what you ask for,” and sometimes this sort of prayer even gets to the point where the person praying is giving orders and demanding from God what they’re asking for. That’s sort of an extreme of a more basic level when we equate prayer with primarily making requests of God.
On the other hand, when people claim to have no faith in prayer, they mean they have no faith in prayer as an instrument or tool to get what we desire. You might hear someone say, “Why should we pray when I’m not sure it makes any difference at all.” Or “Sure go ahead and pray if that works for you. I realized that prayer doesn’t work long ago.” What’s common in both these examples is treating prayer as a tool primarily to get what we want. As I think about prayer in this way, I try to imagine calling my dad mainly to get stuff from him or having various strategies to get him to give me gifts. The idea is frankly repulsive. But equally repulsive is asking the question, “I don’t know why I should call my Dad anymore, he never gives me what I want.”
What is the main reason I call my dad week after week? Because I love him. Because he loves me. That’s the shift James is inviting us to keep front and centre as we pray — relationship! All this is not to say we can’t pray for healing, or ask God for particular blessings. Of course we can. But when we ask for these, James calls us to keep relationship with God front and centre of it all.
Now, it may not seem like it, but these thoughts about prayer have been quite shaped by the passage we just read (these thoughts are certainly shaped by what came right before, where James talks about asking with the right motives, as when he says in 4:3, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” But these thoughts on prayer are also significantly shaped by the passage we just heard. Remember the business people whom James is talking about in 4:13 (the ones who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”) They are what it looks like to live a successful life when you have no faith in the instrumental power of prayer — when in your heart of hearts you say, ‘I’ve realized that prayer doesn’t work long ago.’ So these people talk about all their well laid plans, where they’ll go, for how long and how much money they’ll make — and their talk is absent of any kind of sense of dependence on God.
James definitely is not saying that planning is sinful. Far from it. He is addressing the arrogant, self-sufficiency that is revealed in their pretentious talk. In response to this pretense, James does not call them to develop more faith in the instrumental power of prayer. He does not say, ‘Instead, you should ask the Lord’s blessings on all of your plans.’ He does not encourage these people to cry out, ‘Open the path before us, Lord! Bless what we put our hand to! Give us a bountiful profit!’ There may be a place for that sort of prayer, but that’s not the first lesson in the Spirit-filled-life these business people need to learn.
Instead, James invites them to realize how little is in their control: “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it's gone.” (James 4:14) James is inviting us, his hearers, to reorient our relationships.
He invites us to reorient our relationship with ourselves — to recognize how little in life we have control of. To soberly consider how fleeting is our life. To come to terms with the reality that our days are numbered. In short, James asks us to view ourselves with deep humility — and this humility leads us to recognize our profound dependence upon God. As a way of recognizing this dependence, James suggests in 4:15, we say, “If the Lord is willing, then we will live, or do this or that.” In this small way we can recognize our deep dependence on God for our life and for all we do. All is in His hand. Can you see how this reorients our relationship with Him? This fosters humility — brings us back to our good and right place, and acknowledges God in His rightful place. I wonder if this was what St. Patrick had in mind when he wrote his beautiful prayer. As I read Patrick’s prayer, notice how all pervading is his dependence on God:
I arise today, through God’s strength to pilot me, God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me, God’s shield to protect me, God’s host to save me, From snares of devils, From temptation of vices, from everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and near…
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.”
In the fifth and final section of The Examen, we are invited to talk to God about our future. Before we ask God to direct our path, before we ask God to bless what we put our hand to, James’ invites us to remember who we are, and to remember who God is. That is to say, as we pray about the future, we take time to place ourselves humbly in the hands of God. That we are dependent on Him in everything we say or do. Then, when we ask for help concerning whatever we’re facing that day, we do so with childlike trust, trusting in our Heavenly Father to give what His children so desperately need. When we ask our Father for guidance, to help us choose what is best, we do so acknowledging our own limitations, our own ability to see what is good and wise. Relationship with God comes first.
For me, this reshapes how I pray The Examen as a whole, using it less as an instrument (or tool) to figure out how I can live the best version of me — or assuming that if I’m really diligent in this practice that I’ll only make good choices, not disappoint God, and nothing bad will happen to me. More than that, this type of prayer becomes be an invitation into a deeper relationship with God again and again and again. The instrumental stuff will follow, but it follows out of relationship.
First, we open by asking God for wisdom, trusting that He is a good, kind Father, who gives His children wisdom again and again and again. Second, we move into Thanksgiving — remembering the One who has been so generous to us in the day before. We remember the big and little gifts we notice and say, ‘thank you.’ The third part of the Examen is about sharing with God our feelings and emotions that we’ve been noticing in ourselves — we tell God about our emotional lives because that’s what you talk about with those whom you’re attached to. We share with the people we love about our deepest emotional selves. When we can’t share our emotional needs, that’s when we feel the most isolated. The fourth part of the Examen is about rejoicing in the ways we’ve drawn closer to God, and to confess the ways our sin has created distance from God. Because sin is a rupture in relationship, we invite God to gently show us where rupture has been creeping into our relationship with Him and into our relationships with others. This part of the prayer isn’t about guilt, it's about restoring relationship. Then we move to the final stage of the prayer, talking to God about the future: with humble hearts, we recognize our vulnerability and our dependence upon Him, asking for help where we see we especially need help, asking for guidance for the way ahead, and trusting in Him that He will guide us forward in His care.
The Examen is a relational way of praying. It helps move us beyond a purely instrumental approach to prayer which ends up focusing on what I am or am not getting from God. It doesn’t get rid of asking God for things, it just puts it in its rightful place. If you let it, The Examen can become a daily way to enter into relationship with God who loves us so wonderfully deep.