Formal prayer: How to get distant with God.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 April

Let’s get right to it: The purpose of formality is distance. It’s to measure off a “proper,” unapproachable space between you and the person you’re being solemn with. Because decorum considers closeness and informality to be inappropriate.

I know; a lot of people insist that’s not at all why they’re formal with God. They do it out of respect. Like the way you respect your boss, a judge, an important official, royalty, or even your parents: You show your respect by treating ’em formally.

Well that’s rubbish. And parents are a perfect example of why it’s rubbish. I respect my mom—and I don’t treat her formally at all. If I did, she’d think I was angry with her for some reason. Because again: Formality is about distance. People who treat their parents formally are not close with them. And parents who raise their kids to treat them formally, who demand decorum from them because they feel it means respect, always wind up with emotionally distant kids. Sometimes they wonder why they aren’t close, and can’t figure out why their relationship is so dysfunctional. Well duh.

So if you’re formal with God, but you can’t fathom why you’re not as close with God as other Christians: Well duh.

I respect God. Of course. But we’re not formal. We were never meant to be. God went out of his way to deliberately bridge every gap which might exist between himself and humanity. Sin?—defeated and forgiven. Death?—getting undone. Distance?—he’s everywhere! Karmic debt?—he doesn’t even do karma.

So why do Christians treat God formally? Either because, like kids whose parents foolishly raised them to be distant, it’s what we were taught. Our churches are led by dysfunctional Christians who are distant from God, and they’re getting us to repeat their behavior, and likewise be distant from God.

Or worse: They like being distant from God. A present God is uncomfortable. They feel unworthy, or convicted of sin, or judged. (Whether these feelings are legitimate is another discussion.) They prefer there be some space between them and the Almighty. Formality is the perfect way to maintain the illusion: He’s a holy, holy God, far removed from his sinful creatures… and so he leaves ’em alone.

So if you wanna be distant from God, formality’s the way to go. And I would hope you’re as repulsed by the very idea as I am.

Respect, distance, and love.

Back to parents. It’s really easy to both respect and love a person. Good fathers are good examples: As a child, you love your dad. You can romp around with him, do fun things together, and love one another. But when Dad gives you a command, you obey—or there are consequences. When Dad gives you advice, you heed it. When Dad teaches you something, you accept his authority. You do respect your Dad—and all the more because you have a close relationship.

Whereas children who don’t really know their fathers, who aren’t close, don’t respect them. Oh, they’ll go through the motions when it’s demanded of them. But more often than not, they defy their distant, absentee fathers—for the very reason they are distant and absentee. “You’re never around; what do you know? What kind of father are you?” These fathers might imagine they’re due some respect, simply because they’re the father… but their kids know better. There’s no real relationship. They’re strangers.

Same with God. Imagine God were an absentee father. Then imagine he shows up and demands our love and obedience—and if we don’t give him those things, he’ll get out the belt. Good luck loving that guy. It’s a completely dysfunctional relationship, destined to stay distant and formal until the father finally loosens up and shows some love.

Unfortunately this is how too many Christians see God: He’s never around, never really answers prayers, wants us to follow some commands but is never around to help us do them, and is only gonna show up at the End to hand down fiery punishments or give us shiny trinkets. He’s not Dad; he’s some jerk who rules over us thanks to the threats of hellfire, and we’re to suck up to him so we can stay out of the fire. He’s the God whom dark Christians worship.

Yep, it’s not at all who God is, nor what he wants.

Through Jesus’s atonement, God eliminated the distance between us and his holy self. He still has nothing to do with sin, but sinners don’t make him flinch any more than they did Jesus. Mt 9.11-13 He doesn’t back away lest we contaminate him: He draws near to help. Neither should we back away lest his holiness scorch us: We draw near to be loved.

Thanks to Jesus we can boldly approach God, and seek his mercy and grace in our many, many times of need. He 4.16 Yeah, if it makes you personally feel better about it, you can go through the motions of formality. You can bow before him, close your eyes and fold your hands, weep and moan and whip your back, and use King James Version language. But nobody needs to do any of these things; God never required it! The most he ever demanded from people is they take off their shoes. Ex 3.5 That’s it, and that’s nothing. Really it’s just a reminder of whom we stand before—and again, kneeling or lying prostrate is optional.

And since God would really rather embrace us like the father did in the Prodigal Son Story, Lk 15.11-32 our formal distance, and formal postures, get in the way of that.

Show God all the respect you want. He’s totally worthy of it. But never, ever distance yourself from him. Nor think of him as distant from you. He’s not. He’s Dad.

Formal language.

There is one good thing about formal prayer: We tend to be a lot more careful with our language than usual. We compose those prayers considerately and carefully. We don‘t wanna misspeak; we don’t wanna say anything to God which would be inappropriate or unprofitable or stupid. We put effort into those prayers. So that’s good. Wish all Christians did that—whether we use the KJV’s grammar or not.

Thing is, as I said in my article about KJV English, we don’t see formal address used of God in the King James Version. At all. When people in it address God as “thou,” they’re not using the formal pronoun for God: They’re using the informal. Like French’s tu and vous, or Spanish’s tu and usted, English used to have informal and formal pronouns: thou and you. We dropped thou and started addressing everyone formally and respectfully… and over time forgot that’s what “you” meant.

Other languages still have informal and formal pronouns. Family is tu, and strangers and bosses are usted/vous. But in every single one of those languages, how does custom insist you address God? With tu. Because you’re meant to be close. He’s our Father, remember?