Turning Prayer from Monologue into Dialogue with God

Turning Prayer from Monologue into Dialogue with God

From Monologue to Dialogue

Though, sadly, he is not well known in many Christian circles today, Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) remains one of the giants in the Western theological and philosophical tradition. Anselm seems to have coined the highly influential shorthand definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” His satisfaction theory of the atonement was an important forerunner for later Reformed formulations of the penal substitutionary accomplishment of Christ’s cross. And numerous contemporary apologists, in seeking to offer theistic proofs to skeptics, draw from the well of Anselm’s writings. In this last respect, Anselm’s Monologion is an outstanding example. In this work, Anselm offers some eighty chapters of arguments (though he referred to it as a “short tract”!) for the existence and the necessary nature and attributes of God. Dense and thought-provoking, the Monologion is a marvel of philosophical and theological meditation.

But its sequel is what interests us here. For but a year after writing Monologion, Anselm again took up the pen to write Proslogion.

In the Proslogion, Anselm can still be seen to be arguing for the existence of God, but his manner is very different from the year prior. What differed, or in what way did Anselm think his reasoning needed to improve? For one thing, he wanted to offer a simpler, more streamlined (only twenty-six-chapter) argument. But another crucial difference comes through a mundane point of grammar. Consider how the first chapter of the Monologion begins:

Of all things that exist, there is one nature that is supreme. It alone is self-sufficient in eternal happiness, yet through its all-powerful goodness it creates and gives to all other things their very existence and their goodness. Now, take someone who either has never heard of, or does not believe in, and so does not know this.1 And on it goes in this mode.

Compare this with how the Proslogion opens. Anselm rouses his soul to “fly for a moment from your affairs” and turn “to God and rest for a little in Him.” He gives an invitation: “Speak now, my whole heart, speak now to God.” Then he commences his renewed theological labor: “Come then, Lord my God, teach my heart where and how to seek You, where and how to find You.”2

And on the Proslogion goes in this mode. What is the difference between the modes of the Monologion and the Proslogion? In grammatical terms, the former is written in the third person, while the latter is written in the second person. The first is written about God; the second is written to God. The Monologion is a personal meditation, a soliloquy of the would-be theologian alone with his own thoughts (mono = alone; logion = word); the Proslogion is a word of address (pros = to; logion = word), the true theologian’s truthful discourse with the God who speaks to his creatures. The Monologion is philosophical study; the Proslogion is prayer. In the space between these two writings, as Eugene Peterson puts it, Anselm “realized that however many right things he had said about God, he had said them all in the wrong language.”3 He was compelled to “translate” philosophizing into the true theology of prayer, for all true knowledge of God begins in prayer.

If Anselm was on target, then crucial for growing in truthful understanding of and relationship with God is the life of prayer. One (if not the) main pastoral task in the life of the church is teaching God’s people to pray. One (if not the) main personal responsibility for every Christian is to learn to pray.

Our Part in the Dialogue

Thankfully, the Christian tradition is filled with resources offering instruction and inspiration for the life of prayer: expositions of biblical prayers (e.g., the Psalms), systematic treatments of the nature of prayer, meditations on the “power of prayer,” and devotional collections of advice and encouragement for the ups and downs of praying continually. Some of these facets will also appear in the reflections below, but I want firmly to anchor all of what follows in the dialogical sensibility exhibited by Anselm. For our understanding of and engagement in prayer (our theory and our practice) will mature to the extent that we continually press into the fact that prayer is our part in a covenantal dialogue with God.

Prayer is always and properly our response to God’s initiating word and work.

True prayer is communicative and relational. Prayer is not a strategy or mechanism to get things done. It is not a magical incantation to control the outcome of events. It is not thinking the right thoughts. It is part of a dialogue. Any growth in the life of prayer is necessarily a maturing in relationship with the one whom we would address in prayer, and a maturation in our dialogical skill and sensibility.

The word of our covenant Lord in Psalm 50 is instructive:

Hear, O my people, and I will speak;
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God. . . .
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me. (vv. 7, 14–15)

Here God first speaks (Ps. 50:7). He speaks to “my people,” his covenant people (note God’s self-identification with the covenant title “your God”). What does he say to his people, to us? It is an invitation to respond to him with a sacrifice not of thanksfeeling but of thanksgiving—that is, words given in thanks. These are to be joined with our words of commitment to God (“vows”) and their attendant practices, as well as our words of petition to God for his help in the day of trouble (Ps. 50:14–15a). God addresses us in his covenantal word, calling us to respond to his gracious word of address with fitting words of our own. What happens when we respond in this way? God responds in love to our response to him Ps. 50:15b). To what end? That we might respond yet again back to him with words of praise (Ps. 50:15c). Psalm 50 is God’s invitation to enter into a practice, a rhythm, a life of dialogical prayer.

Charles Spurgeon once called Psalm 50 “Robinson Crusoe’s text,” because this was the text that proved instrumental in the conversion of Daniel Defoe’s famous protagonist. What Robinson Crusoe was converted to by way of Psalm 50 was a life in which, as Spurgeon put it, “God and the praying man take shares.”4 Our life with God is a linguistic back and forth, an ever-continuing dialogue. That is, it is a life of prayer.

”Answering Speech”

But we can be more specific about the starting point and the connecting thread for the following explorations of prayer. It is not simply that prayer is our part in dialogue with God generally considered. More specifically, prayer is properly our word of response to the God who initiates the conversation. Notice again in Psalm 50 that God graciously initiates the relational dialogue by means of his word. He calls his people to attention and speaks first: “Hear, O my people, and I will speak” (Ps. 50:7). Without this initiating word, none of the ensuing words of thanksgiving and vow and petition and praise would be forthcoming or make sense. That is to say, there would be no prayer were it not for the initiating speech act of God.

This is, in fact, the nature of all our life and all reality—it all flows from divine benevolence and initiating action. God is the one who always gets things going, as it were. From beginning to middle to end—from God’s “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), to his shining in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6), to his “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5)—everything that is is ever and only response to God’s prior word and creative/saving activity. This includes prayer. Prayer is not trying to twist God’s arm to do something we have first conceived of.

Prayer is not pleading with a God who is not already there to somehow show up. Prayer is not enticing a silent God to finally speak. Prayer is not mere sincerity and authenticity voiced to God, an outpouring to him of whatever we feel by instinct. Rather, prayer is always and properly our response to God’s initiating word and work. Or, as Eugene Peterson has put it, prayer is fundamentally and always “answering speech.”5 As a result, “What is essential in prayer is not that we learn to express ourselves, but that we learn to answer God.”6


  1. In Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 11.
  2. Davies and Evans, Anselm of Canterbury, 84–85, emphasis added.
  3. Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Dallas: Word, 1989), 100.
  4. Charles H. Spurgeon, “Robinson Crusoe’s Text,” sermon preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, August 30, 1885, https://archive.spurgeon.org/sermons/1876.php.
  5. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, 16.
  6. Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 6.

This article is adapted from Answering Speech: The Life of Prayer as Response to God by Daniel J. Brendsel.

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Author: Daniel J. Brendsel

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