Musings about Prayer: What It Is and Does

Musings about Prayer: What It Is and Does October 26, 2012

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.

"I don't know. I'd have to comb through the almost 1K page biography to see. ..."

Cruelty to Children: Clear Evidence of ..."
"I totally agree. But I would call it "participation.""

The New American Evangelical Liturgy
"Very funny. Lots of things get attributed to Lincoln, don't they. I see a poster ..."

Cruelty to Children: Clear Evidence of ..."
"I said I don't dispute either statement. I only disagree with the statement that "Whatever ..."

The Watershed Difference between Calvinism and ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Bev Mitchell

    “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.”

    Having spent lots of time in both groups, this about sums it up. If only it were easier to find both insights/practices combined in one congregation!

    I did look for some comment on spiritual warfare in your piece. There is opposition to God’s will that does not come directly from people and we should pray against it, in agreement with the Holy Spirit.

    For example, in our church, perhaps many churches, there are numerous husbands who never appear to have come to Christ (or to church) and who are always the subject of much prayer by their wives, families and the faithful. Part of the problem is spiritual opposition and we should confront this in prayer. The problem is never any lack in the Spirit’s call to them, or any question of it not being God’s will that they should respond in a better way to the Spirit.

    Of course, this realization can be taken to extremes in charismatic/pentecostal circles, and extremely neglected in Baptist circles. Another example of how much we need each other.

    • rogereolson

      Whenever I’ve been in a setting where Christians were practicing “spiritual warfare” someone starts talking to Satan and demons (e.g., “Satan, get your hands off God’s people!”) I cringe when I hear that. There is biblical warrant for speaking powerfully to demons oppressing or even possessing someone. But I don’t recall “prayer” ever being to anyone other than God. I prefer to do spiritual warfare with prayer to God, not talking to Satan. So I shy away from the term “spiritual warfare” unless I can explain I don’t mean talking to Satan or demons (unless it’s in the context of an exorcism).

      • Bev Mitchell

        You are correct. After I sent the post, I thought this is not, strictly speaking, a topic for a discussion on prayer. I also share your cringe. 🙁

        However, to continue with one example, when people resist the gospel for years having heard it, understood it (to some point) and seen in lived in their midst, even in their home, we are probably correct to consider that some kind of spiritual oppression/confusion is at work. Agreeing with the Spirit that this oppression/confusion be overcome is part of spiritual warfare and we should search for appropriate ways to express this out loud and corporately in appropriate prayer.

        Of course, this concern is a classic one of Calvinism as well. The “God just made them that way for his purposes” is not an option as an answer. Neither is acceptance of any kind without using all the scriptural options at hand.

      • William Huget

        cf. Michael/Satan in Jude…

  • I think this tension that you mention between scriptural promises and “unanswered” (“refused”?) prayer is just too much for many Christians to face. Prayer so rarely changes things (at least in the way the pray-er expects) that a psychological crutch is sought. I see an analogy to putting a “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven” bumper sticker on my car. It proudly proclaims that prayer and faith have failed even to change me!

  • Jesse Reese

    Pretty good observations and I think we should appreciate the distinctions, but I do not appreciate Bloesch’s unwarranted qualification about recitation. There is no basis for disqualifying recitation of prayers as genuine dialogue with God, quite the opposite in fact. But again, I am Anglican.

  • Steve Seipke

    Thank You for your thoughts on prayer. I think that Donald G. Bloesch’s The Struggle of Prayer is the best book on the theology of prayer. James M Houston’s The Transforming Power of Prayer: Deepening Your Friendship with God is my favorite.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Best line: “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.”

    Thanks for this. I have been hoping to find a short essay on prayer for a while that asks/answers all the questions you posed here. I appreciate it.

  • Michael Anderson

    I have a friend who would say, “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me.” His understanding is that either we are servants of sin or servants of God, and when we accept our role as His servant, He will give us His thoughts. Therefore when we petition God, to the extent that we are conformed to His image, we are simply a conduit of His thoughts. When God said of the children of Israel, “Let Me alone, that I may destroy them” (Deu 9:14), Moses interceded in prayer for forty days and forty nights, and then God relented, my friend says that God never intended to destroy Israel but rather make Moses more compassionate like Him. But for me this comes close to saying that God is deceptive, and it robs us of any meaningful relationship with Him.

    • rogereolson

      I agree. It sounds like your friend is a Calvinist? Interestingly (to me) here is where consistent Calvinism and liberal theology (usually naturalistic) coincide–undermining the efficacy and urgency of prayer. Sure, evangelical Calvinists often say that prayer moves the hand of God (I believe somewhere John Piper has a sermon about this), but they go on to add that prayer is only a foreordained means to a foreordained end (like evangelism). Schleiermacher says the same in The Christian Faith–that if a miracle happens in response to a petitionary prayer God had already “built it into” the system of nature which is closed.

      • Michael Anderson

        He would bristle at the thought that his views are Calvinist. He says he has the power of contrary choice to either follow God or our sinful nature, so he is a synergist.

  • Bob

    “Pray without ceasing” is more a stance before God not necessarily a listing off a bunch of petitions. When Jesus prayed all night he wasn’t repeating Our Fathers or Hail Marys. Jesus was doing Centering Prayer along the lines of what Keating and Pennington describe according to them. Centering prayer or Contemplative prayer is becoming very popular because folks are looking for a personal experience of God and not one of rules and laws. You can’t experience God in worded prayer it’s too noisy.

    • rogereolson

      I respectfully disagree. I have experienced God and heard from him while praying worded prayer. How do you reconcile what you’ve written with Scripture? There’s no indication there that Jesus was practicing “centering prayer” (not really prayer in my opinion)? Obviously, “pray without ceasing” means “don’t stop praying.” It doesn’t mean “pray all the time” as some interpret it.

      • Bob

        Thanks Roger, for the response, you’re right about Centering Prayer. Sorry, my statement was too “in your face”. What do you think “pray without ceasing” means? I’ve wrestled with that all my 25 evangelical years, hence my default to centering prayer.

        • rogereolson

          I take it to mean “Don’t stop praying” as in “Pray often and keep it up.” I don’t take it as “Pray continuously.” (I clearly remember this coming up several times in Bible studies in the church I attended as a kid. There were people on both sides.)

          • Joel Kime

            I wonder Dr. Olson, if Brother Lawrence’s “continual conversation” with God is an application of “pray continuously.” I have found his experience and thought in The Practice of the Presence of God to be quite helpful.

          • rogereolson

            I read it years ago and thought it was quite unrealistic about what is possible for the ordinary (non-monastic) Christian. I have had conversations with God, but I don’t think it’s possible all the time.

  • Joe Canner

    The “prayer changes me” quote has been attributed to CS Lewis. In the movie “Shadowlands” he says: “That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”

    Some claim that this quote can be found in The Weight of Glory, a collection of sermons given by Lewis, but I have not been able to verify this.

    • rogereolson

      I would be very surprised if that were really Lewis’ view of prayer (viz., that it doesn’t change things). Sure, prayer doesn’t change God if one means God’s character or nature. It’s been a long time since I read Lewis’ book on prayer (a series of letters to someone named Malcolm, as I recall). I would be disappointed to find out this was really Lewis’ stable view of prayer. Occasionally a person throws out a saying like this without thinking it through. In other words, people say “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me” and only really mean the second half. When challenged about it, they often back off of any literal meaning of the first half. But my point was I’d rather they didn’t say it at all!

      • Aurelia

        I’ve heard this C.S. Lewis quote from “Shadowlands”, and it never struck me as the same as “praying doesn’t change things; it changes me.” Isn’t there a huge difference between saying “praying doesn’t change things…” and saying “prayer doesn’t change GOD…” ?

  • James Petticrew

    William Barclay was actually NT prof at Glasgow University and was influenced by classic liberal scholarship, Bultmann etc so denied any former of miracle, if you read his DSB on the Gospels he always offers an non supernatural explanation for miracles. I would suspect that attitude shaped his understanding of prayer.

    Interestingly he was largely despised by his academic peers because he put more effort into publishing works aimed at the average Scottish Christian rather than academia. He had a tremendous impact on post war Scotland when for a short time the Church of Scotland rallied numerically.

  • Craig Wright

    On a human and mundane level, one of my biggest problems with prayer is that I can’t see who I’m talking to (which is why I don’t like talking on the phone) and that I don’t hear a voice in response. I sometimes wonder if I am talking to myself.

    A personal incident is that in October, 2009, my Army unit from Viet Nam received a presidential citation. At the White House, I was able to tell President Obama that I pray for him. He thanked me and said, “I believe in the power of prayer.” Later that month I found out that someone had started a bumper sticker crusade to pray from one of the Psalms for the death of the king. I sure hope the president didn’t misinterpret what I told him.

  • Dr. Olson, I immensely enjoy reading your thoughts. You never cease to stretch my mind and cause me to think. I often catch myself saying and audible “Yes!” when I’m reading one of your posts and I often encourage others to read your material. Thank you for writing; never stop!

    Regarding your thoughts here on words and prayer, a Scripture keeps ringing in my ears: “Thank God for his gift that words can’t describe!” (2 Cor. 9.15 CEB) And so, if God’s gift is truly beyond the ability of words to fully describe (and I believe it is), and if thanksgiving to God is prayer (and I believe it is), how then can I fully thank God? It seems to me that I can do this in two ways. First, I can thank him in verbal prayer for what I am able to describe with my words of his gift. And second, in/with my silence too, for it is there that I can pray non-verbal thanks to him of his gift indescribable in ways that words utterly fail me. As God communicates with us by means of words and silence, it seems to me we too can communicate with him with and without words.

    Your thoughts?

    • rogereolson

      Well, thanks for your kind words. But here I’ll have to disagree. I can’t communicate without words. I can commune without words. Communing with another person (or persons) isn’t prayer, IMHO. It may be worth doing (meditation, contemplation, etc.), but it’s not prayer. (By no means do I mean to detract from the spiritual experiences of people who say they experience God in meditation and contemplation.) I take Paul’s statement in 2 Cor. as saying that our best attempts to thank God for his gift fall short of its worth.

  • David Hess

    great post – especially your part about people who tag on “If it be thy will”. I think one thing that you said that isn’t accurate is the characterization of some healing evangelists “command God to heal someone”. I thought that was the case for years and even would utter the same critique until I began to walk more deeply into healing ministry and discovered that commanding a sickness/pain to leave is NOT commanding God. it is taking authority over the actual affliction. It can “sound” like someone is commanding God I guess, but that isn’t something I’ve EVER heard anybody do. if there are in fact people who are commanding God, (i.e. “I command you God to take this sickness…”) then I am not aware. However, to command a sickness or pain (to take authority over something that we’ve been given authority over by God) is a totally different thing entirely.

    • rogereolson

      First, I don’t have a problem with “commanding” a sickness to leave a person unless it’s being called “prayer” or people listening think it’s prayer. Second, I have been in situations (I taught at a healing evangelist’s university for two years and grew up Pentecostal and in my early twenties was deeply involved in the charismatic movement) where healing evangelists demanded that God heal someone. When I was growing up in Pentecostalism, we believed physical healing is in the atonement, so God has already “purchased” healing for everyone. Receiving it is only a matter of laying claim to God’s healing power with faith. Of course, many of the Pentecostals I grew up with were moving away from that and I suspect most have given it up (viz., the idea that healing is in the atonement). But believe me, I’ve been in some of the (to outsiders) strangest healing services you can imagine and the worst feature to me was evangelists “confronting God” with his promises (for healing).

  • John C. Gardner

    Many of your musings are helpful since several in my family have been ill or do have health problems. I have usually asked for God to heal them but felt somewhat uncomfortable about it. Thank you for this post.

  • Experience is the great bugaboo of prayer doctrine. “Thy will be done” is the handy phrase to explain away why God didn’t do what we said. It is a throw away line meaning, “Since I know you won’t do this anyway, just do whatever.” Few ever chalk up their lack of prayer answers to sin in their life, yet the Bible also links sin and lack of response from God. Wonder why we don’t like that?

  • I still consider contemplation prayer if an incomplete model of prayer; moreover, I think it often is a dialogue, just one that starts with a question and then entails lots of listening. Where petitionary prayer is being abandoned, however, that is a good reminder. You have several cogent points regarding prayer as magic or positive thinking. Although your experience with these problems appears to be more fringe, it seems to me that these practices abound in many charismatic/pentecostal circles today in tandem with a personal God (rather than separate from that as you have experienced). I had never seen someone trace the notion that prayer changes us and not the situation to Schleiermacher before. I hear that sentiment frequently in the church, particularly among the 5 point reformed and those who may have at some point had experience in those circles and thus carried the notion to their new church and its small group. It was a mantra in a PCA group I fellowshipped with for awhile (the pastor used it), which made it understandable to me that most group members said they lacked a private prayer life and just weren’t very motivated to prioritize it. We did pray petitionary prayers for one another at the end of group however; as best I could figure it out, the idea was that God was going to do what He was going to do but wished for us (and I guess foreknew we would) to voice the prayer so that we could see what He would do as being in relationship with us, thus changing us, but not really having an effect on the circumstantial outcome. Conflicting things were sometimes said that suggested some belief in prayer effecting things, but “Prayer doesn’t change the circumstances; it changes us” was celebrated as the ultimate theology of prayer. I have always puzzled over it. I do think that sometimes prayer does change us more than it does the circumstances, but that does not change the nature of petitionary prayer.

  • Good stuff. I was about to argue with you on a few points, but you clarified and I also see it much the same. The one thing I don’t quite agree with is praying “if it be your will”. For me it’s a reminder that my prayers aren’t magic. They don’t guarantee that they will be answered the way I ask. Saying, “if it’s your will” is more for me – a reminder that God may have reasons beyond my knowing or understanding for not responding the way I want. With so much magic “prayer” in the world these days – power of positive thinking, commanding God, etc – this little phrase helps re-orient me towards reality.

    The one verse you don’t mention which I think creates room for wordless prayer is Romans 8:26 – “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit itself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

    • rogereolson

      That does seem to be the one exception to my rule about prayer using words. But I don’t take that as normative prayer; it’s a condition one may sometimes fall into during prayer. The only even somewhat reasonable explanation I’ve ever heard of that is speaking in tongues. Pentecostals and some charismatics have always linked that verse and reference to speaking in tongues as a prayer language. I suspect, however, that Paul was simply referring to his own experience of “praying in the Spirit” which may have sometimes been more with deep groaning and sighing and trusting that the Holy Spirit is speaking through him to God. That’s still far from “wordless prayer” in the mystical-contemplative sense of “centering” (which to me is more akin to Eastern religious practices such as Zen than to biblical prayer).

    • Many people do use Rom. 8:26 in support of wordless prayer, but that passage is describing something the Spirit does on our behalf; Paul doesn’t go on to make the connection to any sort of practice that believers ought to participate in. The practice may be biblical but I’m not sure this verse is the way it’s biblical.

      Roger, great thoughts as always – I may have to pick up Bloesch’s book. One of my favorite insights on prayer actually comes from John Ortburg in his book “The Life You’ve Always Wanted” – he makes the point that many Christians spend too much time trying to be someone that they are not when in prayer, and this prevents them from honestly bringing their brokenness before God to experience healing and the acceptance that is already theirs by grace. This is a psychological, rather than explicitly scriptural, insight, but one that I think has great value for the way many believers think they’re supposed to ‘clean themselves up’ in their conversation with God. This ends up stifling any meaningful or consistent conversation. It’s the same thing that happens when you find yourself trying to talk to someone who isn’t present with you or who is obviously trying to be someone other than who they actually are.

  • Ben

    This is a thoughtful and insightful post. I would also like to add three things. First, the Othodox Tradition encourages the use of the Jesus Prayer– both with words and, later, without. Thomas Merton once said, “Repetition is how we move things from our head to our hearts.” Unfortuantely, in a knee-jerk reaction to Jesus’ admonishment to not pray like heathens with vain repetitions, many have cast aside the power and potential of Christian chanting.
    Secondly, I think the Book of Common prayer still has a lot going for it. The sheer orality of using it brings people back from the depths of whispered or contemplative prayer, which, for me, usually ends in sleep. Even if one wants to argue that real prayer must come from the heart or be spontaneous, at least the BCP can be used as a primer. Surely the majesty, cadence, and durability of the prayers accompanied by Scripture helps frame one’s mind better than the “Jesus, I just, uh, just uh be with ____ and just uh___ just” prayers so often uttered at the request of someone else. Spontaneity does not equal holy just as written does not equal dead, religious tradition.
    Lastly, I’ve been a part of the third wave charismatic movement for some time and part of this movement emphasizes how our prayers are actually declarative– not for a Porsche, but for the Kingdom. In this sense, they prophesy an alternative reality that is created as we speak. One famous anecdote from this movement is of a prophet who was told to prophesy to a lady about having a child. The prophet wrestled with God because that didn’t seem legit and a bit embarrassing. According to him, God said, “If you don’t say it, it won’t happen.” Now aside from the veracity of the story, the idea that the spoken word has horizontal power depending on the person wielding it is a meme very consonant with Scripture. James and John ask to call down fire, Jesus never does a miracle silently, Peter, in my opinion, killed Annias and Saphira. Jesus also said speak to the mountain. Anyway, prayer at the level of being the future’s co-laborers with God is an area few would dare visit, but seems like an interesting idea at the very least.

  • Donald Morrison

    thank you for this and your many other helpful blogs, I have struggled with prayer for a long time, especially with my own lack of confidence in god to answer, am sure its cause is having imbibed the “deterministic theology” “from my youth” and now can’t undo it easily, part of my difficulty may also be my scientific vocation. I wonder if you would fault John V Taylor’s thoughts on prayer in the Christlike God (p223) where he says “minds conditioned by scientific empiricism can no longer believe in a God who responds to prayer…this is not atheism, on the contrary, we find it is the very people who have the most profound sense of God’s reality who find it most absurd to tell him what needs to be done or to ask him to interfere with the course of events…..their prayer is focussed entirely on communion with God”. I found this very helpful but am now distressed again in my lack of confidence in God. thank you

    • rogereolson

      Very Schleiermachian of Taylor! I liked that book, but not that part of it. 🙂

  • Matt Brady

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom on prayer. The catchphrase you mentioned has always rubbed me the wrong way…

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Thank you, Roger, for your timely and insightful words.
    You are quite right that prayer is not magical and very unlike a vending machine – no set formulas to equal desired outcome. I have not read Bloesch’s book on prayer, but have been decidedly impressed by the musings of Lewis’s “Letters to Malcom”

  • William Huget

    The biggest problem is not teaching, reading, thinking about prayer, but the discipline of actually praying consistently and with meaning. I appreciate the biblical, balanced insights of Roger Olson. We can and should avoid extremes and unbiblical beliefs/practices. It is a strength of Arminianism and Open Theism (vs Calvinism) to see a reciprocity and relational element in prayer. Hezekiah is a favorite passage where God changes His mind in response to believing prayer. It is both/and, not either/or (prayer can change circumstances and it changes us as we connect with God). Healing does involve the sovereignty of God and faith. We should ask and believe, but not demand.

  • Jeff

    I dont agree Dr. Olson about your take on “if it be your will” either.

    But then again I have a different take on faith than most do. Faith is being persuaded that God has the ability to do what he PROMISED. And so when we pray in faith for God to do something that He said he was going to do (i.e. give Abram the land of Canaan) then it will happen and in cases like these it would be silly to pray “if it you will” because we already know that it is.

    That truth alone would wipe out over half of the prayers, esp. in Pentecostal churches. But for praying for things that we have not heard what God has to say about it, we pray, and it is true that it might or might not be “God’s will” to remove it. Of course anything evil is not according to God’s will, but we know that there are some people who get healed and some that don’t.

    Also James 4 says something specifically to this topic – 13-15 And now I have a word for you who brashly announce, “Today—at the latest, tomorrow—we’re off to such and such a city for the year. We’re going to start a business and make a lot of money.” You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow. You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing. Instead, make it a habit to say, “If the Master wills it and we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that.”

    16-17 As it is, you are full of your grandiose selves. All such vaunting self-importance is evil. In fact, if you know the right thing to do and don’t do it, that, for you, is evil. – THE MESSAGE

    • rogereolson

      I think you are misreading my comments. I certainly do not endorse praying for selfish things (e.g., wealth for its own sake). I just don’t see where or how we’re disagreeing.

      • Jeff Martin

        I am referring to your point about attaching “if its your will” to petitionary prayers, which you did not like. I was saying that I see no problem with it, with the exceptions above not included

  • Phil

    If centering prayer has little or no biblical foundation, that is equally true of so many of the common evangelical assumptions concerning prayer–assumptions that seem directly contrary to the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Just one example: The prevalent assumption that in order for our prayers to be answered we must be specific in our requests! This is directly contradicted by Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (“Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”), and by Paul in Romans 8 (“We don’t know what we ought to pray for.”) Let’s be honest enough to admit that, in this sense at least, prayer can’t be totally dependent on the words we say or don’t say!

  • Cary

    I am late to this discussion but did want to note a view that has been very helpful in praying for healing in regards to if it is God’s will or not. In the new heavens and new earth of Revelation 21 we see that in the end there will be no more death, sickness, or pain. Therefore, we know that God’s ultimate will is to bring healing to a person. The only question is the timing of whether He will grant a foretaste of the Kingdom now or will we have to continue to wait for it in faith. But we don’t have to question God’s will. Sickness is part of the curse that Jesus defeated. His Kingdom has already begun its renewal and reversal of the curse, but the battle rages and it’s fullness is not yet complete.

  • Frank Viola

    So true. “If it by thy will” has overturned many a prayer, for it undercuts how Jesus taught us to pray in faith, demanding the mountain to be moved in His name. It’s good to hear someone outside of the “faith teaching” camp to stress this point. Great post, Roger!

    • Jeff

      The context of “moving mountains” especially in Mark is one where Jesus is telling people to pray for things God wants. If you know what God wants to do, then of course you should pray without saying “if it is your will”, because God told you it was going to happen. The goal is to align ourselves with His will, so much so, that when we pray it is God’s will as well.

      It is similar to picking up things at the grocery store for you spouse knowing that they would want those things becasue of the closeness of your relationship and knowledge of how much food is left in the fridge.

      So someone without this intimate knowledge should, by all means pray “if it is your will” because they don’t know!

      • rogereolson

        What does adding “if it is your will” do? How does it function? God knows if your heart and mind are submitted to his sovereignty. If it is, then adding those words doesn’t do anything (IMHO).

  • Tom Harkins

    I thought it might be pertinent to note as to C.S. Lewis that he definitely believed in the efficacy of intercessionary prayer to “change things.” As best I recall from my distant past reading of him on this point, he believed (as I do) that even though God may call the end from the beginning, and thus knows what he will do, part of what God “takes into account” in his eternal foreknowing is what we will pray “when the time comes.” In fact, Lewis even went so far as to note that a prayer AFTER an event had occurred, if one did not know the event had occurred, could likewise have been taken into account by God in His prescience in deciding from before time began what He would do at the appropriate time in history.

    Perhaps an analogy may be appropriate. A playwright may also choose to be an actor in his play. As such, he knows what will happen, but he actually takes his action as the actor “when the time comes” in the context of what is going on in the play with the other characters and setting at that time. So God likewise is both “the author and finisher of our faith,” and as the “finisher” (or, if I might, the actor who actually brings things to pass at the appropriate time), he “acts” on our prayers “when the time comes.” The mere fact that He may have known what he would do does not take away from the fact that he also “decides” what to do at that time in history. Anyway, that is the best I can do on the subject. One way or the other, however, our intercessions are part of “what gets things done” the way that they do, as I think scripture clearly teaches.

  • I’ve heard people say that putting “If it be thy will” on the end of a prayer shows a lack of faith. I disagree and think those who say this are presumptuous.

    When I pray, I know my will but not God’s: Does God want me to get a raise? Does God want my daughter to get a part in the school play? Does God want Mitt Romney to be the next president?

    Unless we are praying about a situation where we already know God’s will (I don’t think this happens often), putting “If it be thy will” in our prayer shows humility and submission. I don’t know the mind of God, but I know His will is better than mine and I accept this.

    • rogereolson

      I thought I addressed this adequately. Yes, of course, if you’re praying for something about which God has not revealed his will, it’s not a lack of faith to say “if it be your will.” All the examples you gave fit that kind of prayer. However, there are things God has revealed fall into his “perfect will”–that which he always wants to do. That’s not to say there aren’t situations where he can’t do them because of a higher purpose. To tack on to every prayer “if it be your will” is as much as to say “God, I don’t know if you really even want to do this.” Few prayers in Scripture include anything like “if it be your will.” Can you imagine the early Christians praying “Maranatha!” (“Come, Lord Jesus!”) and ending with “if it be your will?” I can’t. That’s certainly not included.

      • No I can’t imagine early Christian praying “Maranatha!” (“Come, Lord Jesus!”) and ending with “if it be your will.” I agree with you that it’s pointless to tack this phrase onto a request if we know that this particular request aligns with God’s revealed will.

        But like I said, many or most of the petitionary prayers that I pray and that I hear others pray involve situations where God’s will in the matter is unknown. In this case I think it’s good to add “if it be your will” because it conditions us to remain humble and to accept that God knows what He’s doing regardless of whether or not He gives us what we ask for.

        You said in reply to Jeff’s comment, “What does adding “if it is your will” do? How does it function? God knows if your heart and mind are submitted to his sovereignty. If it is, then adding those words doesn’t do anything (IMHO).”

        Beginning my prayers with “Abba” Father and ending with “if it be your will” isn’t necessary from God’s point of view, but it sure help me! I like the way Rebecca says it in her comment above, “Saying, ‘if it’s your will’ is more for me – a reminder that God may have reasons beyond my knowing or understanding for not responding the way I want. With so much magic ‘prayer’ in the world these days – power of positive thinking, commanding God, etc – this little phrase helps re-orient me towards reality.”

  • gingoro

    Well said Roger! I don’t see anything to add or remove from your post.