Recently I have become more aware of the way in which people solicit prayer support from other believers. There is nothing wrong with asking others to pray for things, quite the opposite. But recently I have become aware of a trend where praying for ‘X’ to happen seems to be given the highest status on people’s priority lists. This may sound presumptuous, or worse, but it seems to me that prayer is becoming a form of ‘idolatry’ in some respects. I do not mean prayer in general, but prayer in specific terms that I shall lay out below. Also, I do not mean idolatry in that it supplants God as God, but that one form of prayer may supplant another higher form. I will get in to that later.
The aim of this line of questioning, then, is to find out if:
- We appreciate the nature of prayer
- We emphasize the aspects of prayer that are demonstrated in the Bible:
- What is the primary purpose of prayer?
- In what manner should we pray? What guidelines are offered?
I hardly ever receive requests to pray for some internal change in the requestor. The vast majority of requests I receive that deal with a ‘change of heart’ are for someone else that the requestor knows. Those requests are very few in the total number of requests I receive. Everything else deals with praying for circumstances “X” to occur. Now it can be debated to what extent those kinds of prayers should be offered and answers sought for. But I do not wish to get into that at this time.
For the time being let us focus on praying for “X” circumstances to occur. Other kinds of prayer will be discussed later. The first question would be:
- Can praying ‘change God’s mind’ about circumstances “X”?
Let us, for argument’s sake, say the answer is ‘Yes’. If we say ‘No’ we must entertain a long discussion about the semantics of such terms as “omniscience”, “determinism”, “free will” and “God’s Will/Plan” and discuss, at length, the nature of God’s knowledge of the future (the “openness of God”) if we are to avoid saying “it doesn’t matter whether or not we pray for certain events to occur”. I want to avoid saying “praying doesn’t matter” and I also want to avoid a long tangential discussion (perhaps that should be a discussion in the future). So let us just say “Yes, in some way, praying for circumstances to occur can have some influence on the outcome of the situation.”
So, if we accept the possibility that prayer can influence events, the next question is:
- How much prayer does it take to influence the situation?
When stated like that, this question seems very silly. But it seems silly because no one ever asks it. Strange, then, that the majority of Christians I know already have an answer, even if it lies in their subconscious: “The more prayer that is offered, the more likely it will work”. I have been many requests by people who seem obsessed over how many people they can get to pray for circumstances “X” to occur, and how often those prayers can be offered. This obsession has often gone to the point where it appears that they believe that “praying for circumstances ‘X’ to occur” is the primary purpose for prayer.
This is what I mean by ‘idolatry’. Elevating this manner of praying relegates all other aspects of prayer and, in my opinion, belittles the nature of our relationship with God. Praying for situations to play out a certain way seems to be more important that building a relationship with God, more important than participating in a conversation.
If we allow that faithful prayer can influence events, what does the quantity matter? Don’t we have precedents in the Bible where, when God seems receptive to solicitations from his people, it doesn’t take a nation’s worth or prayer to “convince” God? To extend Hezekiah’s life took only Hezekiah’s prayer. People seeking Jesus healing did not have to bring friends to repeat the requests, he healed who he willed. The disciples were sent out in pairs to accomplish the work of Jesus and usher in the Kingdom. Where we see the multitudes offering similar prayer request things look very different.
When the exiled Israelites groaned in captivity, was God waiting for a certain quantity of, and fervor in, prayer before he would free them? No, God waited until the nation realized their unfaithfulness and repented of it before he could release them. It dealt with the hearts of the people.
How long did Israelites pray in post-exilic ‘exile’ for God to bring about his Kingdom and put Israel in its rightful place as the light of the world? When were those prayers answered? They were answered when the hearts of some of the nation of Israel, and the Gentiles, were ready to follow the Messiah and the Son of God. And the ready hearts were those willing to except a Messiah that did everything in a manner different than what the rest of Israel was praying for. The rest were praying for political revolution, and national power. That was too small, too worldly a request.
My point is, then, simple: If God will respond to faithful prayer in certain circumstances, then one should offer the prayer faithfully and in humility. Doesn’t it seem that God will respond to that faithful action of the individual or the few? Others can certainly pray, but is it necessary, especially to the point where these prayer initiatives balloon into the consuming mode I’ve witnessed? I propose God does not need the mobilization of an entire country behind you in prayer for ‘circumstances “X” to occur’. For that is not what prayer is for, and should not be the focus of our efforts. What would be helpful is if an entire country could pray not for circumstances “X” to occur, but to pray for their hearts to be brought closer to God; for their minds to seek God’s will.
To put those last two statements in to perspective we need to revisit the very first question I asked. What is the purpose of prayer? I would claim that, as the Lord’s Prayer indicates, the purpose of prayer is:
- To draw near to God
- To call forth God’s will and vision into our understanding
- To earnestly seek to make God’s will our own
- To be held accountable to taking up God’s calling
- To beseech God for the means to accomplish God’s will
So, while praying for circumstances “X” to occur can fall into the last category, it is by no means the primary focus. Prayer accomplishing the items listed above indicates the main nature of prayer, I believe: Prayer changes us, not God.
Now there is one last question I need to tackle.
My point of this line of questioning is not to be divisive. It may sound that way, but this is not something I am exploring to belittle others. I am pursuing it to grow myself. I think the summary I offered above poses a huge challenge to me personally. Not that I am to discount how others pray, or what they ask of me. But this new way of thinking radically changes my focus and my intent when I pray.
I don’t mean these ideas to be something I insist other people adhere to. I don’t mean them to be a means by which we perpetuate an insider-outsider or right-wrong mentality. But the challenges I feel from them are genuine, and my insight into and understanding of prayer feel like they have been greatly deepened by this exploration.
Just as I don’t agree with the conventional, modern, Western institution of Protestant Christianity on many grounds, I don’t agree any longer that prayer ‘for circumstances “X” to occur’ is highly important when we think about what we should pray for corporately. The corollary goes further; just as my disagreement with said mode of Christianity is not grounds for me to belittle or chastise people who find themselves there, my disagreement with this mode of prayer is not grounds for me to belittle or chastise people who employ it.
Who am I to say they do not find fulfillment or a genuine faith in God in those places where I cannot? What I can do is find those who walk the same path I have, who find those modes unsatisfying and falling short of what they believe a relationship with God should be. With those people hopefully we can venture forth into this new mode of Christianity together. Together we can explore this undiscovered country…