“The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). In our culture, predicated as it is on the notion of instant gratification, the thought that one ought to be prepared through discipline in order to pray sounds alien. We tacitly assume that prayer is something one does whenever one feels like it; which is why this verse struck me as so odd, so inimical to the way we ordinarily think.
In this short verse from 1 Peter, prayer and discipline are linked with the parousia (i.e., the second coming). The way I would normally see the progression of discipline and prayer is here reversed. Namely, I would usually think about it in these terms: “Therefore be serious and discipline your prayers for the sake of your selves.” That is to say, prayer is generally thought of as a discipline—and rightly so, for prayer is a matter of disciplined practice—for the improvement of the self. In other words, we are accustomed to viewing prayer as an activity that we enter into seriously and with great discipline so that we might somehow be better people. But the structure of this sentence indicates that the author of 1 Peter believes that prayer is a means of being prepared for the parousia, and that what needs to be disciplined is the self in order to pray appropriately.
Prayer, on this view of things, is so central to the life of faith that folks need to be prepared to do it. The church has always resisted the assumption that prayer is available to anyone walking in off the street. No, what the church has said is that prayer is a practice that is so important that we want you to learn how to do it from someone who has already demonstrated a measure of competence in it. One has to be taught to pray.
One doesn’t enter an operating room with the assumption that one has within oneself all the knowledge necessary to perform surgery. Medical schools as a matter of principle contest the idea that it is possible, without any prior training, to walk into an operating room, pick up the tools, and successfully perform a surgical procedure. Why? Because there is a certain body of information that needs to be wrestled with, a certain amount of practice that needs to take place before the medical profession turns one loose on a patient. Otherwise, you might kill someone.
This lack of attention to the necessity of preparing people to pray suggests that we do not think much is at stake in prayer. “If you can't kill anyone with it, then it must be pretty safe.” What this fails to take into consideration is that prayer is the act of being invited into the very presence of God. And if you remember anything from Sunday School about the stories of those who have been in God’s presence, you will remember that characteristic of being in God’s presence is fear for one’s life. Perhaps, we ought to recapture the notion that entering the presence of God means lives are at stake. Prayer assumes that we are the type of people who have been prepared to meet God.
All of which brings us back to 1 Peter. It seems to me that what is at stake in this verse is that God intends for us to be prepared “for the sake of your prayers” so that when “the end of all things” finally arrives, we will be prepared for another eventuality—meeting Jesus. And we all know how much is at stake in that meeting.