What Is “Prayer?”
Very few subjects provoke my thoughts more than prayer. Of course, praying is more important than thinking about praying. But, setting that truth aside, I turn to a theology of prayer because I have encountered so much confusion about prayer among even evangelical Christians.
No theologians has influenced my own thoughts about prayer more than the late Donald Bloesch (d. 2010). In fact, I would say that no single theologian influenced me more than he did. I began reading his books when I was in seminary in the 1970s and continued to read him. I still read in his seven volume Christian Foundations series (InterVarsity Press). I got to know Don personally in the 1990s and found him to be a “gentle conservative” theologically. But even more important, he was a true man of God, a genuine pietist of the best kind. A man with a deep spiritual life—as shown in his published journals as well as his published theological writings.
When people as me to recommend a book about prayer (and often when they don’t ask but the subject is under discussion) I strongly recommend Don’s book The Struggle of Prayer (Helmers & Howard, 1988).
According to Don, prayer is conversation with God.
Now, I don’t have space here to repeat everything Don wrote about prayer. “Wear the old coat; buy the new book” (attributed to Austin Phelps but also by others to Petrarch). Buy the book.
(By the way, Helmers & Howards is a Denver-based publisher that specializes in Don’s books.)
“Conversation with God” covers a lot of things—but they all involve words or groanings (Romans 8:26) or deep feelings offered up to God or impressions or intuitions from God.
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For some years now the idea and practice of “wordless prayer” has been growing among even evangelical Christians. It comes out of a Catholic mystical tradition and has been popularized especially by Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O. Many other authors have jumped on the bandwagon of wordless prayer and promoted it as perhaps (in some cases) the most important form of prayer. It is really a kind of meditation. Bloesch said it is preparation for prayer but not prayer itself.
Another idea of prayer that I have trouble with is that “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me.” Another version of the cliché is “Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes me.” I can trace this idea back at least to German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher who denounced petitionary prayer as “immature.” He believed that asking God to do something displays a non-religious and unchristian attitude—that God is dependent on us rather than us being dependent on God. For Schleiermacher, God is always already doing the best, the wisest, and therefore asking God to change any circumstances is to imply that God is not wise and that he is dependent on us to know what he should be doing.
These two wrong ideas of prayer have invaded evangelical Christianity and not been subjected to biblical-critical-theological investigation as they should be. At least not enough. When I have dared to speak out critically about them, I have found myself attacked as insulting people’s “prayer lives.” Sorry, people. But that is a theologian’s job: to evaluate and sometimes criticize beliefs and practices that are less than fully biblical and Christian.
To the best of my knowledge, nowhere does the Bible say or imply that petitionary prayer is immature or wrong; it strongly emphasizes petitionary prayer. And, at least in the Old Testament, some praying did change what God intended to do—as God heard and relented because of Moses’s prayer (for example).
Also, to the best of my knowledge, nowhere does the Bible say or imply that wordless meditation is itself prayer. Bloesch was right that such a spiritual practice is preparation for prayer but not prayer.
We have a tendency to stretch words to cover too much and often we stretch them to the breaking point. I have heard people say that everything a Christian does is prayer. One Christian dentist told me that fixing a patient’s teeth is prayer. He didn’t mean that he prays as he works on a patient’s teeth; he said he meant that everything he does is prayer when it is for the benefit of someone else. (I had to wonder if he charged his patients for fixing their teeth but I didn’t want to have an argument with him or take away his illusion about prayer.) Not everything a Christian does is prayer. Prayer is a specific spiritual discipline.
Then I am asked about Paul’s admonition “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5). I believe what Paul meant was “Don’t stop praying; pray often.” Yes, I know there are those especially Eastern Orthodox Christians who believe “The Jesus Prayer” can become such a part of one’s being that it is being prayed even when he or she is not consciously aware of it. But I don’t think that is what Paul meant. I just don’t. I have nothing against The Jesus Prayer.
Prayer is conversation with God; prayer can change things and even God (what God intends to do or not to do). Prayer is normally with words or at least deep impressions or intuitions or feelings. Even then, I believe it will manifest with words or “groanings” and not be just a silent meditation akin to Buddhist meditation or “mindfulness.”
So, since the Bible is full of petitionary prayer (including the so-called Lord’s Prayer!), why do so many evangelicals (and others) say “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me?” I suspect it is because they don’t want to have to explain to themselves or others why petitionary prayer doesn’t always “work.” But that betrays a deep cultural desire to explain everything. When prayer doesn’t “work” we rest in God’s sovereignty and trust that God knows best and has his reasons. We do not blame the prayer or the person(s) who prayed.
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