“Did Jesus pray to Jesus?” This is one of those questions that, when asked, makes us immediately suspicious. What’s this writer up to? Is he making a joke? Is he trying to be provocative? How could asking such an absurd question do us any good? And if you have a personal relationship with Jesus, then you have all the more reason to be concerned. The prospect of dishonoring your Savior, your Lord, your Master, or however else you conceive of Jesus, is not to be taken lightly. The safest thing to do would be to not read past the title. Right? Again, what good could come from asking such a question?
But I want to assure you of this: I am not interested in being provocative or silly for the sake of being provocative or silly. And I most certainly am not interested in dishonoring my own or anyone else’s faith. The only reason I am posing such a question is that it may, even if only temporarily, shake up our habitual ways of thinking about Jesus (and God). And the only reason I care about doing that is that such shake-ups have the potential of improving, deepening, and enriching our lives and our relationships with God. Looking through a different frame could produce new fruit, and I’m only interested in fruitful frames. Could asking such a question and looking at Jesus in a new way yield such fruit? Want to find out? Then join me in this contemplation.
One of Christianity’s most important contributions is the idea of a personal relationship with God. In Jesus, we see this relationship modeled. He called God his Father, and not only that, he used the word Abba, an Aramaic word that would be used in the same way we use the word, “Daddy” or “Dad.” He prayed directly to God as his Father and taught his disciples to do the same. He related to his Father as Other, as beyond himself. Intimate, but still distinct.
And yet he also related to himself as part of, or even identical to, God. This is where intimacy of relationship crosses a threshold and prayer is no longer the way of relating. Instead, ultimate intimacy has been realized, and Jesus says things like, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) This is where things get really mystical. Jesus is messing with our categories. How can we pin him down if in one moment he’s praying to the Father and in another he’s speaking as the Father? Was he confused? Could he not decide who he was? Was he God’s son, or was he the Father? Was he distinct from God or identical to God? It suddenly appears that we aren’t going to get an easy answer.
This is where orthodoxy, or “right belief,” can be helpful. It gives us a set of claims about God and about Jesus that we can affirm, even if we can’t explain how they relate to each other. Even when they appear contradictory (“Jesus is the son of God” vs. “Jesus is God”), we can still use these ideas as seeds for contemplation, and they can support our spiritual growth. In practice, however, the human tendency is to try to sort everything out in a way that our minds find comfortable. If that means contradicting ourselves, no problem. We’ll just hide one thought from another and pretend there’s no contradiction. In other words, we’ll deceive ourselves into believing that our belief system is nice, tidy, and internally consistent—indeed, that it’s a system. Each belief fits into place. And we’d better not mess with them, or the whole thing will come crashing down.
So orthodoxy, as represented in statements such as the Nicene Creed, can be helpful, providing us seeds for contemplation. For example, when recited in liturgy, it can become something like a communal koan. Precisely because it contains paradoxical statements, if we are honest, we are forced to engage it contemplatively, in a way that our either/or thinking cannot fully comprehend. But in practice, we are often not honest. Instead, we tell ourselves that we fully understand. Rather than allowing ourselves to be subjected to the contemplative tension, we resolve the contradictions and arrive at a comfortable, self-assured, dogmatic stance which can do and has done lots of harm, inciting everything from discord and bigotry to murder and holy war.
In the end, we don’t get an easy answer to the question of who Jesus was, neither from the creeds nor from Jesus himself. In fact, he appeared to not want to give us an easy or even clear answer, at least not that’s clear to our normal level of consciousness. Could that be why he so often answered one question with another question? And taught in stories and parables? It appears that Jesus is less concerned with giving us answers and more concerned with awakening us to deeper truths that can’t be contained by simple statements or formulas.
Now, what about this idea of “praying to Jesus”? What is this about? Well, over the centuries, Jesus has been Christianity’s icon for God, the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,” (Colossians 1:15) as the Apostle Paul put it. Jesus put a human face on the cosmic Christ—that Reality “in [whom] all things were created.” (v. 16) “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (v. 17) We’re talking about a transcendent, primordial reality that lies at the heart of the Cosmos, and Jesus embodied that. He represents and points to the very Presence in whom “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) We can pray to God, because “he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 17:27) And regardless of how biblically faithful “praying to Jesus” is (some theologians would emphasize that we are to pray to the “Father”, not to Jesus), it is still praying.
Among Christians today, particularly evangelicals, you will hear about the importance of having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” This is sometimes bandied about so cavalierly as to lose all meaning or even to gain new, negative connotations of superiority and arrogance. But in its authentic forms, a relationship with Jesus represents such a pure, lovely, amazing and truly beautiful thing, that, when witnessed, is something people are naturally drawn to. It is an inner relationship in which all your needs are already met. It is an intimate, loving relationship with God, an intimate, loving relationship with Reality, an intimate, loving relationship with yourself. You have surrendered your life to Something Greater, and you now know that you are taken care of. From this place of perfect sufficiency, your life can be “poured out like a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17). In committing your life to Christ, you have committed to a life of love. And, far from needing to be convinced to love people, when you are experiencing the fullness of this relationship, that is what you automatically do.
Doesn’t that sound wonderful? But how well does it line up with reality today among the Christians you know? And, if you are a Christian, how well does it line up with how you experience your life? I’ll leave those questions open for now. But I will affirm that, however rare it is, this phenomenon is most certainly real. It does happen. There are people who have surrendered their lives. There are people who love. And even if those same people don’t always embody it, there is no denying the reality of the love we have seen overtake them. And, of course, if we are honest with ourselves, such people are not always Christians. Sadly, it is quite possibly true that they are more often not Christians. I say “sadly,” not because Christians are “my people,” but because they’re Jesus’ people—not because he selectively picked them out, but because they chose him. They chose to take on the same “Christ” anointing, at least in name. And Jesus is one person who possessed this transcendent yet personal relationship in full measure.
This is what I want to emphasize. What we describe as a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” is something that the first-century carpenter from Nazareth possessed in full measure. In fact, that is why we look up to him. That is why we follow him. We have been drawn in by the depth of his sacrificial love. In this way, he has led his followers to God. In leading us to God, he is already our Savior, even before we begin to contemplate what it means that he “died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). In this sense, Jesus most certainly “prayed to Jesus,” if by that we mean that he had an intimate relationship with God.
But there’s also an absurdity implicit in the concept of Jesus praying to Jesus. What’s that? He prayed to himself? Of course he didn’t! Right? He prayed to God. For example, when faced with the prospect of his own death, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) Here he made a distinction between his will and the Father’s will. There was a separation, or at least the potential for separation. He had free will, and he saw his own tendencies toward survival at all costs. Yet he freely chose to disregard those tendencies toward independence and survival, instead aligning his will with a Larger Will beyond his own. He also affirmed his own lowliness to others: “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” (John 5:30) And, as we said before, Jesus intimately and lovingly related to God as his “Dad.”
So, Jesus was God’s son. That settles the matter, right? And we too are children of God. And he taught us how to pray (Matthew 6:9-13). And we can look up to him. And we can aspire to be like him, relating to God as a Loving Parent, yielding our will to God’s will, surrendering to a life of love. And we can empty ourselves and make ourselves nothing, just as “he made himself nothing.” (Philippians 2:7) In a word, by identifying with Christ, we can become humble. Let us become like Jesus, the humble servant. Let us serve like Jesus served. Let us give our lives in love, like Jesus gave his life in love. Even if it is very difficult to accomplish, all of these things are things we can at least relate to. We’re aware of the resistance inside ourselves to do these things, so we can relate to the resistance that Jesus felt too. In other words, we can relate to Jesus’ humanity. He lived an appropriately human life: a life of humility. He accepted and embodied the reality of being human: “for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19)
But that’s not the whole story of Jesus, not by his account or any of his followers’. He was much more than God’s son! In fact, he identified with God! (And the creeds agree: he is said to be “very God of very God.”) We find this much more difficult to relate to. Sure, we can relate to his humanity. But his divinity? Not so much. And yet, we have the audacity to hope that, as with Jesus, death is not the end of the story for us either. The story of his life, his death, and his resurrection brings his followers great hope. Hope that death is not the final story, that Life goes beyond death, that death is not the end of Life, that death has no sting, that death need not be dreaded, that we need not despair of death, that death is not our enemy. But how can we do this unless we relate to Jesus beyond his humanity?
How in the world can someone be both God and human? The Christian doctrine of Incarnation can help. Jesus is said to be “fully God and fully man.” Christians affirm this everywhere. Yet rarely do we realize its ramifications. In particular, if Jesus was fully human, that means he was one of us. He was one of our own. Conversely, we are of the same species as Jesus. If Jesus was human and we are human, then we have to conclude that he was no different than us, at least in terms of nature and potential. But in how he fulfilled that potential? That’s where we can affirm Jesus’ radical uniqueness. That’s why we honor and even worship him throughout the earth, 2,000 years later. So we can’t simply say, Jesus was the same as the rest of us. He was different too.
But how was he different? Our answer here has huge implications on our ability to follow him and be like him. Many will be quick to point out that He is God and we are not. In other words, he is different in nature than us. He had a different potential than we do, a potential that none of us will ever have. But wait a minute. All of a sudden, Jesus no longer sounds human. He sounds superhuman, or humanoid. The Incarnation was a nice thought (that Jesus was actually a human being like us), but the prevailing operative viewpoint among Christians holding to orthodox theology, though unconscious, is that Jesus was of an alien species. He was “human,” but he was not our kind of human. There is an essential dividing line between us and Jesus which we will never be able to cross. This too is unconscious (and ironic), because the very nature of the gospel message is that all such dividing lines between us and Jesus, and therefore us and God, have been removed!
What if we conceived of his potential in a way that does not keep us forever separated from him? The Incarnation says he was fully human. If we are fully human, you might say we’re no different than Jesus, because he was fully human. But are there ways in which we might say we are not fully human? Yes. We say this all the time. Any time a person abuses an animal, we say that they are being inhumane. So too whenever we are cruel or lack compassion. In our very language, we imply that to be human is to be compassionate, gentle, and kind. So although we don’t consider cruel human beings to be of another species (even though we may call them “monsters”), we do consider them to be living out of alignment with their humanity. They are not being fully human. They are falling short of their human potential. To be fully human then doesn’t just mean you’ve got unambiguous DNA, it means you are fulfilling your human potential. From this perspective, Jesus can still be special to us, but the path is left open for us to actually become like him. He is not on another road which we’ll never reach. He is further along on the same road. Now wouldn’t that be good news! Shouldn’t that give us more hope than any other account? Isn’t that the point? That Jesus was really human, and so we can be like him?
Christians everywhere desire to be like Jesus. How audacious! I suspect that most of us don’t realize how audacious this is. Again, it’s because when we say we want to be like Jesus, we don’t really mean it. Sure, we’d like to exude some of his characteristics, follow his commands, look up to him. But to actually be like him? We won’t go there, not really. That would have huge implications. That would imply that we would take seriously what he said: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.” (John 14:12) No, we’ll have to explain around that one. After all, Jesus said, just a few verses up, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, emphasis added) We are quick to point out that he didn’t say we are the way, and thus we conveniently take ourselves off the hook. It is the singlemost often cited verse for affirming that Jesus is God and we are not. What we less consciously affirm at the same time is its corollary: “I am human and Jesus was not.” The problem is this: there’s no getting away from the union of divinity and humanity that Jesus’ life and teaching represent. What if Christianity’s best-kept secret, hidden in plain sight, is that to be fully human is to be fully God?
So did Jesus pray to Jesus? In a sense, yes he did. If Jesus identified with the Father, then when he prayed, he prayed to Himself. Of course, that’s not how he was relating to Himself at the time. He was relating to the Father, or you might say, his “Higher Self,” as other. That’s what you do in prayer. But when he spoke “I AM that I AM,” he was not praying. He was not principally identifying as human. He was principally identifying with the Whole Shebang. Here was God speaking through a dust-made man, a dust-made man who had flesh and bone, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, hair, teeth, skin, and sweat. In other words, Jesus incarnated God. In yielding his life fully to God, he allowed God to live as him. In identifying with the Father, the Creative Principle that continues to give rise to the Universe, he gave God the opportunity to experience God—to glory in God—like never before. And when he told us we would do the same, he wasn’t limiting this opportunity to himself. His desire was that we would be like him. His desire was that we too would give our lives to God, that we would be filled with the Spirit, that we would identify with Christ, that we would realize our “sonship,” that we would live as one, that we would trust God and be at home in the Universe. And that, as we move further along this road of manifesting the glory of God, the real truth of who we are and the truth of Who lives within us would be given the light of day so that what he called “the kingdom of God,” or “the kingdom of heaven,” would be realized at higher and deeper and richer and richer levels.
Now, what seemed like Jesus’ rambling, confused, imprecise prayer for us in John 17:20-26 makes a lot more sense. In this prayer, he is glorying in the absolute interconnectedness of all of us and all of Reality, including all of us “from the future” who weren’t even on the scene yet. He intimately knows this interconnectedness that spans all of space and time and he wants that experience for all of us. If it seems that he is blurring the distinctions between him and the Father, and him and us, and us and the Father, he is! Let them be blurred! For this is what enables Love to flow. When you see your neighbor as yourself, then the natural consequence is that you will “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) And when you see yourself as a creation of, an emanation of, an extension of the Father, you see that there are no absolute dividing lines between you and God. You see that forgiveness and reconciliation are eternal realities. You see that your sin has been your blindness, your choice to stay in the dark, your choice to keep believing the endemic lie that sums up the tragedy of the human condition: the belief that you are separate and disconnected from God. And once you see that, you are no longer blind. When Jesus prays for you in John 17, this is what he wants for you.
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Jesus’ prayer for you is that when you pray, the same distinctions that are so blurry with him might be just as blurry with you.