Prayer and Pastoral Care

One should not be misled by the title, Pray Without Ceasing, for this is not just another book about prayer. It is indeed about prayer, for there is a brief exposition of the Lord’s Prayer as an illustration of prayers of petition, and there are lengthy discussions of prayers of intercession, prayers of lament, prayers of confession, and prayers of praise, thanksgiving, and blessing. These chapters are rich with insights about prayer as such, but the purpose throughout is to show their relevance to the ministr y of pastoral caregiving. Pray Without Ceasing As the subtitle suggests, the focus of this study of prayer is on how prayer can revitalize pastoral care. At the same time, Hunsinger warns that we must not view prayer as simply a pastoral resource. Prayer is at the very heart of pastoral ministry and, for that matter, the life of the church.

What makes this book distinctive, if not unique, is viewing ever y aspect of pastoral counseling from the perspective of prayer. A lso, in contrast to most books on counseling, this study is grounded in Scripture and has theological depth. This will not be surprising to those familiar with Hunsinger’s earlier work, Theology and Pastoral Counseling: A New Interdisciplinary Approach (Eerdmans, 1995), in which she proposes a framework for relating psychology to the theology of Karl Barth.

In that earlier study there were a few references to prayer, but they were incidental to the main argument. In Pray Without Ceasing Karl Barth again is one of the author’s chief resources, though she also appeals frequently to Calvin, Bonhoeffer, the New Presbyterian Catechism, and Scriptural passages.

Although this book is more biblical-theological than psychological in its approach to pastoral issues, it is by no means abstract and devoid of practical helps. Hunsinger writes from the perspective not only of one who is a professor of pastoral theology (at Princeton Seminar y) but also as a long-time practitioner of the craft. The book concludes with an Addendum on “Ideas for Engaging and Teaching the Text” (i.e., the content of the previous chapters), and several appendices: an “A nalysis of a Pastoral Conversation,” a case study, and another “Pastoral Conversation.”

Moreover, this book “had its genesis in two hospital stays.” The first was when Hunsinger was a student chaplain doing a CPE course in a hospital. The second came twenty years later when she was a patient recovering from an emergency surgery. “In each case,” she writes, “a minister of the Gospel gave me the gift of prayer and pastoral care at a time of personal need” (vii). So what we have here is an author who writes from existential concern, considerable practical experience, impressive biblical knowledge, and profound theological understanding. Hunsinger’s proposal for a prayer-filled pastoral ministry is based first of all on a koinonia theology. Koinonia, in this case, is not what is popularly understood as some kind of chummy fellowship group. It has, of course, a horizontal dimension, but true koinonia is grounded in the Trinity.

This Trinitarian theme continues throughout the book. God’s love for us is “mediated by Christ and communicated in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Likewise our love for God is mediated by Christ and communicated in the power of the Holy Spirit. The result is a mutual love among human beings, again mediated by Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit (9). Accordingly, pastoral prayer is not an individualistic matter but the work of the whole Christian community. It is one of the primary functions of the communion of saints, but unfortunately many members of the body of Christ do not know how to pray. So one of the functions of equipping the saints for ministry is to teach them how to pray and thus fulfill their calling. People have different gifts but all of them should be involved in the ministry of prayer, not just the ministers and elders of the church.

Before taking up the discussion of particular types of prayer–those of petition, intercession, thanksgiving, etc.–Hunsinger develops her thesis in three foundational chapters: “Listening to God,” “Listening to Others,” and “Listening to Ourselves.” In the first case, we must not only be familiar with but must meditate on Scripture so that it will shape the language of prayer. The Psalms in particular are helpful, for they “offer the entire range of human response before God, teaching us to call upon God in trouble, to lament in times of trial, to praise God for life’s blessings, to confess the sin that tempts us to despair, and to bow before God’s majesty and holiness” (29). Later in this chapter Hunsinger deals with the question of hermeneutics, encourages the use of the lectio divina, and concludes that “to be pastoral caregivers we must not only see through the lens of Scripture but also have a living faith that trusts in the concrete word that God gives us in our–and our congregation’s–moment of need” (50).

In the next chapter, “Listening to Others,” we are urged to listen with empathy. Here the emphasis is less theological and more psychological. One of Hunsinger’s proposals is to follow Marshall Rosenberg’s four steps for sending and receiving empathic messages. Effective pastoral care also requires master y of the three skills of good listening: accurate paraphrase, productive questions, and perception check. Mastering these three skills “fosters the emotional connection between persons. …When caregivers empty themselves of their own preoccupations in order to be present to another, they are, in their own small way, following the example of Christ, who emptied himself of his equality with God in order to participate fully in our human plight (Philippians 2)” (77).

So far, so good. Where I had some difficulty was in the next chapter, “Listening to Ourselves.” Granted, it is important for pastoral caregivers to be aware of their own feelings and have a secure sense of self. But the stress on self-empathy, facing one’s personal anxiety, and learning to focus (“a complex skill”), which requires that “you first rela x, close your eyes, and direct your attention down into the core of your body–toward your belly” and wait for a “felt sense” to emerge (87) –impresses me as being too self-absorbed. Such techniques may be important and meaningful for professionals in the field, but they do not resonate with this theologian. However, I can’t fault the concluding advice in this chapter, to wit, “Cast all your anxieties on [God], for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7) (98).

Apart from that caveat, I find this a wonderful book. Much of it is written in a quiet meditative manner. The following quotation illustrates this beautifully:

The spiritual fellowship to which we are called invites us into intimate communion (koinonia) with God and with one another. Life in the church is meant to mirror the mutual indwelling of the Holy Trinity… . In pastoral care, real interdependence becomes a reality when we reach out to one another in love. Only as we consent to open our inner lives to each other will we grow in trust. Only as we take steps to pray together will we find the unity we are called to realize. Each of us is called to listen to and intercede for others on the basis of their true need. Each of us is called to give witness to the One who sustains and renews our lives. Each of us is responsible for exercising the gifts we have been given for the good of all (27).

This practical theology of prayer, so full of wisdom and spiritual insight, not to mention solid Reformed theology, is a treasure house for all those who are involved in “the cure of souls”–and that includes all of us.

I. John Hesselink is emeritus professor of systematic theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.