It’s hard to write about prayer without being gimmicky or excessively pious. In his recent book, Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To (Doubleday), Anthony DeStefano, author of the best-selling, A Travel Guide to Heaven , avoids these pitfalls. Mostly.
The title itself suggests something gimmicky: Pop in a prayer, and watch the answer drop out the bottom of the machine. And there are moments in the book when he verges toward the tone of the title. I’m not sure, for instance, that “apology” is a strong enough term for confession of sin.
Overall, however, DeStefano’s book is better than his title. Sometimes much better.
He emphasizes early and often that prayer is not a machine. He believes that God will not be outdone in generosity, and that if we give, He will give to us. He believes that because that’s what the Bible says, and he carefully qualifies his whole discussion to avoid the shoals of prosperity theology.
He also, rightly, returns repeatedly to the fact that our prayers, and our confidence in prayer, has everything to do with the kind of God we’re praying to. DeStefano urges his readers to pray to a very specific God, a conversant and self-revealing God, One who is Triune love, One who knows human suffering from the inside, One who forgives sin only because His Son has paid the price in the atonement.
The cover copy says that the book “has the ability to dramatically change the lives of readers of all faiths.” That’s probably true, but only if those readers are willing to change their faith as well as their lives. This is definitely a book about Christian (and, at times, specifically Catholic) prayer.DeStefano also knows that prayer can become a subtle form of idolatry, an example of Luther’s turning-in-on-oneself that makes God a means for my own self-gratification. This is not a hypothetical danger. Prayer is deliberately often marketed in this idolatrous fashion.
Not by DeStefano. He does emphasize that God is good and wants to shower those who pray with good things. But one of his top-ten sure-thing prayers is “Make me an instrument,” and he emphasizes that the answer to this prayer might make considerable demands. In fact, sacrifice – the sacrifice of Christ and the responding sacrificial lifestyle of believers – is a central theme of the whole book.
The main weakness of the book is the weakness of most books on prayer: DeStefano too often gives prayer too restricted a scope. Most of the prayers he discusses are prayers for individual relief and help – from conflict, from suffering, from stress, from sin.
Nothing wrong with those prayers, nothing at all.
Many prayers in Scripture, however, are prayers for God’s justice. Even when the Psalmist prays for his individual needs, he frames the prayer in terms of God’s righteousness: Save me, he prays, as a demonstration that You are putting things right; save me as part of Your putting things right.
DeStefano says that God doesn’t give what we want, but what we need, and He gives what we need in view of the one important thing about us: “whether or not we make it to heaven.”
But our ultimate end is not heaven, but resurrection life in a new heavens and earth. And besides that, DeStefano’s point needs to be broadened, a lot. God does give what we need, not what we want, but He does so in view not only in view of our personal destiny, but in view of the destiny of His creation and His intention to display His glory triumphantly from one edge of the universe to another.