Musings about Prayer: What It Is and Does
Prayer is not exactly a controversial hot button issue, but maybe it should be. Not that I want it to divide people or want people to fight over it. My point is that people, and here I’m concerned mainly about Christians, should think about prayer as well as pray. Is everything called “prayer” really prayer in a biblical and theological sense? Does simply calling a practice prayer make it so? Also, can prayer actually change “things” (circumstances) or only the person praying? There’s an old saying that “Prayer doesn’t change things; prayer changes me.” Is that so?
I suspect most Christians will agree if I say that positive thinking is not prayer. The other day I saw another newspaper advertisement announcing a seminar on “prayer” with a “nationally recognized expert.” Only the fine print revealed that she is associated with a “church” that believes sin, sickness and even death can be conquered through positive thinking. That religious organization grew out of a 19th century spiritual movement called New Thought that emphasized mind over matter—that people can change their life circumstances (poor health, poverty, etc.) through aligning their thoughts with the infinite mind of “God.” For most of them, “God” is not so much a person as the Mind or Spirit of the universe. Human beings can harness the power of God’s by tapping into his or her thoughts. Different New Thought religious groups have different spiritual techniques for this. Some call their technique “Affirmations” (positive sayings). In any case, what is being called “prayer” is really a form of magic—manipulating reality through powerful thoughts, rituals or techniques. There is no idea of a sovereign, personal God in most forms of New Thought. And yet it often goes under the name of “Christian.” In orthodox Christianity, prayer is not magic.
Now, having said that, I do not deny the power of positive thinking. What I deny is any guarantee that just the right positive thinking or speaking will manipulate God or Mind or Spirit or whatever to do one’s bidding. Books like Pray and Grow Rich abound in modern New Thought circles and among Christians influenced by New Thought. And I deny that positive thinking or even positive speaking (e.g., “I am a healthy and whole person loved by God who wills my total well being”) is prayer.
Now I suspect I’m going to touch a nerve and cause a bit more consternation among orthodox Christians when I say that, in my opinion, “wordless prayer” is also not prayer—at least not the heart of prayer. Much of what goes under the label “contemplative prayer” is wordless prayer. I prefer to call it meditation and wish Christians who exercise it in their spiritual lives would call it that instead of prayer.
During the past twenty to thirty years (at least), “contemplative prayer” has swept into evangelical Christian circles. Its sources are diverse. At least some are Catholic mystics and contemplatives. Two who have promoted wordless prayer and influenced evangelical Christians to practice it are Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington. I’ve read their books (at least some of them) and practiced their meditative practices with others in Bible study and prayer small groups. In fact, over the past two to three decades, it seemed sometimes that every time I engaged in spiritual, devotional practice with a group of fellow evangelical Christian educators wordless prayer has come into it at some point.
Let me make clear what I am NOT talking about under the category of wordless prayer. I am not talking about “lectio divina” which is meditating on a passage of Scripture and being open to hearing the voice of God speaking to one through the words of Scripture.
“Wordless prayer” is silently listening for the voice of God while abandoning all words and thoughts of one’s own. It is silencing what Buddhists call “the monkey mind” (thoughts jumping around in one’s mind) and emptying oneself of all thought in order to be more open to God entering into that silence to speak or influence one’s motives and intentions.
I have nothing against such practice; what I oppose is calling it “prayer” or allowing it to become the center of one’s spiritual life to the neglect of real prayer.
So far as I know and can think, nowhere does the Bible refer to non-verbal (as in using words even if silently) contemplation or meditation as prayer. Yes, of course, the Psalms mention meditating on God’s Word or God’s law, but that involves words. And it doesn’t (so far as I can recall) anywhere refer to that as “prayer.”
My favorite book on prayer (I’m not expecting it to be everyone’s) is Donald G. Bloesch’s The Struggle of Prayer (1988). Bloesch does not dismiss meditation or contemplation, but he argues, rightly I believe, that prayer is normally “dialogue with God.” He says “The thesis of this book is that true prayer will always give rise to words.” (p. 50) He elaborates: “There is no such thing as nonthinking prayer in the sense of prayer that is wholly divorced from rational intent. We will always have some intimation of our deepest concerns and needs, even though we may not comprehend them.” (p. 50) He acknowledges “inaudible prayer,” of course, but refers to wordless prayer, contemplation and meditation, as “preparation for prayer,” “aid for prayer,” etc.
Bloesch writes “While acknowledging the mystical dimension in true prayer, I basically stand in the tradition of the biblical prophets and the Protestant Reformation, which sees prayer not as recitation (as in formalistic religion) or meditation (as in mysticism) but as dialogue between a living God and the one who has been touched by his grace.” (p. vii).
I agree with Bloesch that we need to reserve the word “prayer” for dialogue with God in which words are involved and contemplation, meditation as preparation for prayer or aids to prayer.
Bloesch’s concern and mine is that wordless contemplation and meditation, especially when thought of as “prayer,” can lead to or be associated with belief in an impersonal divine or becoming one with the divine (or realizing one’s divinity). It can reduce the relationship with God to something impersonal and/or it can be spiritual therapy that has little to do with an I-Thou encounter with God in which the human subject is challenged, confronted, brought to his or her knees by God in conviction and repentance.
I resist the common saying that “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me.” Of course it does change me. That’s not the part to which I object. The part I object to is “Prayer doesn’t change things.” Scripture is filled with prayers that change circumstances, not by means of magic but by appealing to God who responds by changing circumstances. I have trouble even understanding why a person whose worldview and spirituality is shaped by the Bible would ever say that prayer doesn’t change things, it only changes him or her. Even Calvinists normally don’t say that prayer doesn’t change things (although that would seem to me to fit better with their deterministic theology).
I’ve tried to track down the origins of the saying that prayer doesn’t change things but only changes the person praying. One source seems to be Scottish theologian William Barclay whose little Bible commentaries (often referred to by young pastors as “Saturday night specials” because they’re handy for getting sermon ideas and illustrations) have been popular and influential. But I doubt he coined the saying. Whoever did coin it was, I suspect, influenced by liberal theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher who argued in The Christian Faith (his systematic theology) that petitionary prayer is immature prayer and should be abandoned. His reason was that it implies God’s dependence on us whereas true “God-consciousness” is based on the feeling of utter dependence on God. It was convenient that abandoning petitionary prayer fit with Schleiermacher’s deterministic (Newtonian) worldview in which nature is harmonious and closed to miracles or anything supernatural. (Although he admitted that miracles might happen, he said that they would already be built into the cause-and-effect network that is nature by God and not happen as interventions or responses to prayer not already planned and programmed into nature and history.)
I cringe whenever I hear evangelical Christians (really any Christians but especially evangelical ones!) say “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me.” I wonder why they are saying that. Is it to avoid the difficulty of having to think about why some prayers are not answered (at least the way they were prayed)? Do they still pray petitionary prayers? If so, how do they reconcile that practice with the first part of the saying? I suspect that for many evangelical Christians, attaching “If it be thy will” to the end of a prayer reconciles petitionary prayer with “Prayer doesn’t change things.”
I am personally opposed to attaching “If it be thy will” to every petitionary prayer. If the Bible says something is God’s will, then we should pray that he do it. What if he doesn’t? Then we live with the tension of that and acknowledge God’s sovereignty and higher wisdom. But to always attach “if it be thy will” to every prayer somehow weakens the prayer’s power. Jesus taught there is power in prayer and that we should expect answers to prayers unless they are prayed to fulfill our own selfish wants and wishes. (I am assuming here that James 4:3 echoes Jesus’ own sentiments.) The Bible encourages confident prayer, not weak praying that lacks confidence in God’s desire to heal, to provide and to save. So long as petitionary prayer is prayed with understanding of God’s superior wisdom and sovereignty, attaching “if it be thy will” doesn’t, in my opinion, serve any purpose when the prayer is for something God has revealed to be his will. That something is revealed to be God’s general will doesn’t necessarily mean he will do it in every case when prayer is offered for it. Only God knows the total circumstances and whether something is possible even for him. (I’m not talking about his power here; I’m talking about his plans and purposes.) Generally speaking, in Scripture, healing of bodies is God’s will. But we are told that total healing is eschatological. Nevertheless, the apostles’ prayers and Jesus’ prayers for others’ healings do not normally come with the caveat attached.
When I pray for someone’s healing, especially if the person is suffering, I do not say “if it be thy will.” I understand that God doesn’t always heal in response even to powerful, confident prayer. God knows best; we simply have to rest in that at times. But Scripture models confident praying for healing. I would never presume to command God to heal a person (as some “faith healing evangelists” do). But to ask God please to heal someone is, I judge, thoroughly biblical. Adding “if it be thy will” implies that we’re not confident God wants to heal. Jesus always wanted to heal people, especially when they were suffering. Jesus is the revelation of the character of God. God’s character is that he wants to heal people. When he doesn’t, when we have prayed powerful, confident prayers on their behalf, we simply leave it in God’s hands and believe that God’s why he couldn’t heal the person.
I know many people recoil at the word “couldn’t” in such a sentence. Can’t God simply do whatever he wants to do? Well, yes, if we mean “has the power to.” But, I believe, in his wisdom, God, and sometimes only God, knows why it would not be best to heal someone or answer another prayer that accords with his general character and desires for people. The apostle Paul reports that God simply said “no” in answer to his prayer for healing. Does that falsify everything I’m saying here? I don’t think so. We should always be prepared to accept a clear “no” from God. But to anticipate God’s “no” is, I think, wrong. James says that “the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man [person] avails much.” He also says “the prayer of faith shall save the sick and the Lord shall raise him up.” My point is that petitionary prayer, in Scripture, is said to change things, not just the person praying, and that anticipating a “no” when we pray is likely to reduce the power of the prayer. Saying “if it be thy will” does not seem consistent with the clear Scriptural instructions about praying. But I also know that there are no guarantees that God will, for example, heal. We have to live in the tension of powerful, fervent, confident prayer (for things God has revealed wants to do and give) and the lack of response to the prayer as it was prayed.
To think that a certain kind of praying guarantees the response one wants is to reduce prayer to magic. To think that praying does not change circumstances but only “me” is to reduce prayer to spiritual therapy.
Now, of course, someone is going to ask about Jesus’ prayer in the garden “Not my will but thine be done.” I believe that, at that point, Jesus knew what God’s will was. As God, it was also his will. But, in the moment of human weakness and fear, he was conflicted. I don’t think it’s a sin to pray “not my will, but thine be done,” of course, but neither do I think it is something we need to or should attach to every prayer, especially when we don’t already know (as Jesus did) what God’s special will is in a particular case.
Those are my musings about prayer. Don’t carve them in stone and come back to me a year from now and say “But on such-and-such a day you said….” Context is so important in these matters (of musings). If a year from now I’m in a context where everyone around me is demanding that God do their bidding (as one person I knew a long time ago said “I confront God with his Word….”) I might write about acknowledging God’s sovereignty in prayer. I doubt that I will change my mind about not always praying “if it be thy will” in petitionary prayers, but I might emphasize the importance of resting in God’s wisdom and sovereignty. In brief, the majority of evangelicals need to learn to pray more powerfully and fervently and confidently. The majority of charismatics and traditional Pentecostals need to learn to acknowledge God’s sovereignty more.