This is a grammar lesson which, if you persevere, tells us a lot about prayer.

The verb is that part of a sentence which affirms action or state of being. Younger pupils define it as a ‘doing’ word.

Verbs have voices. Voice is ‘that property of the verbal idea which indicates how the subject is related to the action’ (Dana & Mantey, ‘A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament’ P 155). In English, we nowadays have two main verbal voices: the active and the passive. The active voice describes the subject as producing the action or representing the state expressed by the verbal idea: the dog barks, the cat miaows, the man ran, I am writing this blog post. It has various tenses to describe when the action is done (yesterday I blogged about the Family Service, tomorrow I will do something else, by Friday I will have written masses of lesson plans etc.)

The passive voice is that use of the verb which denotes the subject as receiving the action: the cat was chased by the dog, the lessonplans will be written.

But in Greek, there is another voice called ‘the middle voice’. Dana and Mantey say ‘it is impossible to describe it adequately or accurately in terms of English idiom, for English knows no approximate parallel’ (ibid, P 156). The middle voice is “that use of the verb which describes the subject as participating in the results of the action.” (Active – I counsel; passive – I am counselled; middle – I take counsel).

With me so far? I’ve known these grammar things for years, but today when reading ‘The Contemplative Pastor’, Eugene Peterson made a link between grammar and prayer which caused my eyes to widen in wonder. I apologise if this doesn’t have the same effect on you, but I do believe that we are able to learn spiritual truths from every aspect of life!

“In prayer, I do not control the action. That is a pagan concept of prayer, putting the gods to work by my incantations or rituals. I am not controlled by the action. That is a Hindu concept of prayer in which I slump passively into the impersonal and fated will of gods and goddesses. I enter into the action begun by another, my creating and saving Lord, and find myself participating in the results of the action. I neither do it, nor have it done to me; I will to participate in what is willed.” (Eugene Peterson, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ P 103)

He goes on to say “Prayer and spirituality feature participating, the complex participation of God and the human, His will and our wills. We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are we manipulated by God (passive voice). We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice.) Prayer takes place in the middle voice.” (ibid, P 104)

The relationship between our wills and God’s will in prayer is at the forefront of our thinking as we meditate on the Garden of Gethsemane as we prepare for Easter. We think about Jesus praying ‘not my will, but Yours be done’ (Luke 22:42). We don’t always understand how human free will and God’s sovereignty sit together. But maybe that’s because English has no ‘middle voice’. We think things either have to be active or passive; we don’t understand another way. But clearly there is another way: “At our human and Christian best we pray in the middle voice at the centre between active and passive, drawing from them as we have need and occasion, but always uniquely and artistically ourselves, ‘participating in the results of the action.’ ” (ibid, P 105).