Executive summary: Philip Yancey deals with controversial topics of living a Christian life with brutal honesty. Yancey’s niche is writing about subjects that are challenging and difficult to understand. He puts in words, what many Christians are feeling but are afraid to articulate. In this book Yancey communicates his thoughts on tough questions like; what is prayer? Does it change God’s mind or ours—or both? If God knows everything, what’s the point of prayer? Why do answers to prayer seem so inconsistent, even capricious?
Yancey stated that to him, prayer is the area where two themes of struggle in Christian life meet: “Why God doesn’t act the way we want God to and why I don’t act the way God wants me to.” The key, Yancey writes, is that prayer is a window into knowing the mind of God, whose kingdom is entrusted to all of us frail, selfish people on earth.
Most of my struggles in the Christian life circle around the same two themes: why God doesn’t act the way we want God to, and why I don’t act the way God wants me to. Prayer is the precise point where those themes converge.
In prayer I shift my point of view away from my own selfishness. I climb above the timberline and look down at the speck that is myself. I gaze at the stars and recall what role I or any of us play in a universe beyond comprehension. Prayer is the act of seeing reality from God’s point of view.
Norwegian theologian Ole Hallesby settled on the single word helplessness as the best summary of the heart attitude that God accepts as prayer. “Whether it takes the form of words or not, does not mean anything to God, only to ourselves,” he adds. “Only he who is helpless can truly pray.” What a stumbling block. Almost from birth we aspire to self-reliance.
Prayer is a declaration of dependence upon God.
In truth, Christians often treat prayer the same way. If I do my duty, then God “owes me”. Worship becomes a kind of transaction: I’ve given God something, so it’s God’s turn to reciprocate. Prayer as transaction rather than relationship can decline into a practice more duty than joy, an occasional and awkward exercise with little connection to life.
Jonathan Aitken, a former Member of Parliament in Great Britain, compares his early relationship with God to that with a bank manager: “I spoke to him politely, visited his premises intermittently, occasionally asked him for a small favor or overdraft to get myself out of difficulty, thanked him condescendingly for his assistance, kept up the appearance of being one of his reasonably reliable customers, and maintained superficial contact with him on the grounds that one of these days he might come in useful.”
Jesus valued prayer enough to spend many hours at the task: If I had to answer the question “Why pray?” in one sentence, it would be, “Because Jesus did.” He bridged the chasm between God and human beings. While on earth he became vulnerable, as we are vulnerable; rejected, as we are rejected; and tested, as we are tested. In every case his response was prayer.
These things feed my faith: epiphanies of beauty in nature, sunbursts of grace and forgiveness, the portrait of God I get in Jesus, stirring encounters with people who truly live out their faith.
These things feed my doubts: God’s baffling tolerance of history’s atrocities, my unanswered prayers, sustained periods of God’s seeming absence. Meetings with God may include ecstasy and joy, or withdrawal and silence; always they include mystery.
Christian discipleship is not a question of our own doing; it is a matter of making room for God so that he can live in us.
God is already present in my life and all around me; prayer offers the chance to attend and respond to that presence.
How often do I come to God not with consumer requests but simply a desire to spend time with God, to discern what God wants from me and not vice versa?
The main purpose of prayer is not to make life easier, nor to gain magical powers, but to know God. I need God more than anything I might get from God.
God delegates work to human beings so that we do history together, so to speak. Clearly, the partnership has one dominant partner—something like an alliance between the United States and Fiji, perhaps, or between Microsoft and a high school programmer.
“There are no atheist in foxholes,” Army chaplains like to say.
If our trivial prayers do get answered…that raises other, serious problems. As one philosophy professor put it, “If God can influence the course of events, then a God who is willing to cure colds and provide parking spaces but is not willing to prevent Auschwitz and Hiroshima is morally repugnant. Since those things did occur, one must infer that God cannot (or has a policy never to) influence the course of worldly events.”
To discount prayer, to conclude that it does not matter, means to view Jesus as deluded. Jesus truly believed that prayer could change things.
For whatever reason, God now tolerates a world in which fathers abuse their physically disabled sons, children live with congenital birth defects, breast cancer metastasize, and distressed young people commit suicide. Why does God so rarely step in and bring miraculous intervention to our prayer requests? Why is suffering distributed so randomly and unfairly? No one knows the complete answer to those questions. For a time, God has chosen to operate on this broken planet mostly from bottom up rather than from the top down—a pattern God’s own Son subjected himself to while on earth. Partly out of respect for human freedom, God often allows things to play out “naturally”.
History is the story of God giving away power. After entrusting the human species with the gift of free choice, God invited its representatives to act as partners, even to argue and wrestle with the One who created them. Yet virtually everyone God picked to lead a new venture—Adam, Abraham, Moses, David—proved disappointing in part. Apparently God committed to work with human partners no matter how inept.
When I pray, coincidences happen, when I don’t, they don’t.
Why do bad things happen? We live on a planet ruled by powers intent on blocking and perverting the will of God.
Sometimes, like the boy who asks his parents to solve a math problem while he plays video games, we ask God for things we should be doing ourselves.
Anderw Murray, himself a Calvinist, concluded that “God does indeed allow Himself to be decided by prayer to do what He otherwise would not have done.”
C.S. Lewis sums up the drama of human history as one “in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise. It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all; but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method.” Prayer is a designated instrument of God’s power, as real and as “natural” as any other power God may use.
All to often pray-ers use God’s presumed changelessness as an excuse not to pray: “If God has already decided the future, why bother?” That very fatalism, ironically, defeats the second half of the formula, for we do indeed change in the very process of storming heaven with our prayers. If I stop believing that God listens to my requests—the emphatic point of Jesus’ two parables—I will likely stop praying, thus closing off God’s primary mode of relationship to me.
In prayer we present requests, sometimes repeatedly, and then put ourselves in a state to receive the result. We pray for what God wants to give us, which may turn out to be good gifts or it may be the Holy Spirit. (From God’s viewpoint there is not better response to persistent prayer than the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s own self.) Like Peter, we may pray for food and get a lesson in racism; like Paul we may pray for healing and get humility. We may ask for relief from trials and instead get patience to bear them. Asking, seeking, and knocking does have an effect of God, as Jesus insists, but it also has a lasting effect on the asker-seeker-knocker.
The paradox of prayer is that it asks for a serious effort while it can only be received as a gift. We cannot plan, organize or manipulate God; but without a careful discipline, we cannot receive him either. Henri Nouwen
Along with Nouwen, I too appreciate prayer mostly in retrospect. The process itself feels like work. I look for ways to avoid it and keep glancing at the clock as I’m praying. During the day, however, thoughts and impressions come to mind that stem directly from my prayers. I am far more likely to view events that occur and people I encounter from God’s point of view. Like a lingering scent, prayer carries over into the rest of the day.
Just what does God expect of me in my prayer life? The answer I come up with is he wants a love relationship. He doesn’t want a hired servant; he wants a bride. A true love will always find a way. It may no always be the same way, or the prescribed way, but it will be a way that reflects love. That’s what God wants from me.
For years I resisted a regular routine of prayer, believing that communication with God should be spontaneous and free. As a result I prayed infrequently and with little satisfaction. Eventually I learned that spontaneity often flows from discipline.
Regular prayer helps me to protect inner space, to prevent the outer world from taking over.
Prayer involves a “renewing of the mind”, a two stage process of purging out what displeases God and damages me (the same, it turns out) and allowing God to fill my mind with what matters far more.
Contact with God doesn’t just provide a moment of spiritual ecstasy; it equips me for the rest of life. I corral a few minutes of calm in the morning in hopes that I can carry some part of that calm into the rest of the day.
God, show me what you are doing today, and how I can be a part of it.
I am convinced the main requirement in prayer is honesty, approaching God “just as we are.”
Jesus taught a model prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, but otherwise gave few rules. His teaching reduces down to three general principles: Keep it honest, keep it simple, and keep it up. Mainly, Jesus pressed home that we come as beloved children to a Father who loves us in advance and cares deeply about our lives.
It does little good, I have found, to spend much time dwelling on the “why?” questions. The Bible itself moves the emphasis from past to future: not “why did this happen?” but, “now that it has happened, what can I learn from it and how should I respond?” Thus the major New Testament passages on suffering all focus on the productive value of suffering, the good that it can produce in us (perseverance, character, patience, hope and so on).
You can respond to the silence of God in two ways. One response is for you to go into depression, a sense of guilt, and self-condemnation. The other response is for you to have an expectation that God is about to bring you to a deeper knowledge of Himself. These responses are as different as night and day. Henry Blackaby
Prayer invites us to rest in the fact that God is in control, and the world’s problems are ultimately God’s, not ours. If I spend enough time with God, I will inevitably begin to look at the world with a point of view that more resembles God’s own. What is faith, after all, but believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse?”
Thus God flatly declares that, in addition to our private spiritual state, our social concern (or lack of it)—for the poor, for orphans and widows—also has a direct bearing on how our prayers are received. The book of Proverbs states the principle bluntly: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.”
I cannot say to my neighbor, “I love you and enjoy spending time with you, but I hate your stupid dog and keep those bratty kids out of my yard, will you?” How I treat what belongs to my neighbor affects how he receives my love. The same applies to God: how I treat God’s creation, God’s children, will determine in part how God receives my prayers and my worship. Prayer involves more than bowing my head a few times a day; it pervades all of life, and vice versa.
I must repeat that prayer does not work according to a fixed formula: get your life in order, say the right words and the desired result will come. If that were true, Job would have avoided much suffering, Paul would have shed his thorn in the flesh, and Jesus would never have gone to Golgotha. Between the two questions “Does God answer prayer?” and “Will God grant my specific prayer for this sick child or this particular injustice?” lies a great pool of mystery.
Some, but not all, unanswered prayers trace back to a fault in the one who prays. Some, but not all, trace back to God’s mystifying respect for human freedom and refusal to coerce. Some, but not all, trace back to dark powers contending against God’s rule. Some, but not all, trace back to a planet marred with disease, violence, and the potential for tragic accident. How, then, can we make sense of any single experience of unanswered prayer?
One who works in close partnership with God grows in the ability to discern what God wants to accomplish on earth, and prays accordingly.
In all my prayers, whether I get the answers I want or not, I can count on this one fact: God can make use of whatever happens. Nothing is irredeemable. “Teach me, O God, so to use all the circumstances of my life today that they may bring forth in me the fruits of holiness rather than the fruits of sin.”
Checklist before requesting healing miracles:
Am I expecting a miracle as an entitlement?
Am I using the benefits of God’s “common grace”—the healing built into our bodies and the medical knowledge we have gained?
Do I wrongly blame God for causing the suffering?
Am I prepared for the possibility that physical healing may not take place?
In its most detailed passages on suffering, the New Testament moves the emphasis to what we can learn from the difficulty and the good that can be produced.
God offers us a minimum of protection and a maximum of support, as one minister wryly put it. God “comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.”
When I struggle with guilt, I find that inner conversation revolving around myself, attempts to rationalize or explain away my behavior, resentment against others who caused it, feelings of self-pity and remorse. Only confession can clear away that self-absorption and open my spirit to God’s soft voice.
Medical research is discovering that gratitude is the one emotional trait most likely to benefit physical health and recovery. Grateful people tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives, and may actually live longer. “A grateful heart might be a healthy heart,” one researcher concluded after studying the effect of gratitude on relieving stress and hypertension.
Peter Marshall, former chaplain of the U.S. Senate, once remarked that God has equipped us to go deep-sea diving and instead we wade in bathtubs. What makes the difference, I firmly believe, is how seriously we take prayer. I see prayer as the process of becoming available for what God wants to do on earth through us.
God wants to do miracles every day through us, if only we make ourselves available.
Henri Nouwen suggests that we “create space in which God can act.” God, who made space in the most literal sense, the universe, needs us to protect a God-space, to prevent our lives from filling up with other things. For control freaks like me, that means sheltering space in which something unexpected and unplanned may happen.
God often speaks quietly. Memories, phrases from the Bible, images of friends in need drift into my mind unsummoned. Hope stirs to life where previously I felt despair. A spirit of forgiveness rather than revenge settles in after a wrong, I feel a call to engagement and not passivity. These things tend to happen, though, only when I’m tuned in to God.
All too often I crowd out prayer because in other activities I see tangible results. With prayer much of the benefit takes place behind the scenes, beneath the level of conscious awareness, in ways difficult to measure.
Ultimately prayer proves its power by producing changes in us the pray-ers. “Prayer is taking the time to let God recreate us, play with us, touch us as an artist who is making a sculpture, a painting, or a piece of music with our lives.”
It occurred to me that I do something similar in my prayer practice. I tend to bring a tangled mess of problems to God, not unlike the snarl of weeds I carry home in my collection bag, while overlooking opportunities for praise and thanksgiving. My prayers are essentially selfish, an effort to employ God to help me accomplish my ends. I look on God as a problem-solver (a weed-puller) while overlooking the striking evidence of God’s work all around me.
“This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” He prayed to enter that day as God’s own messenger; carrying God’s presence to everyone he met. Then at night he would review all that had happened, committing both the progress and the failures to a gracious God. The day is now spent; it rests in God’s hands.
Does prayer operate like a pyramid scheme—the more people who pray, the more likely the answer? Does a sick woman who happens to have praying friends stand a better chance for recovery than an equally deserving person who does not? Exactly how does prayer benefit someone other than the pray-er? And how can something I pray have an impact on another person without infringing on his or her free will?
Surely prayer does not operate according to a mathematical formula in which God calculates the total amount of prayer-pressure being applied.
“How’s your prayer life? People sometimes ask. For a Christian, how does that question differ from How’s your life?” Our problem is that we separate, we compartmentalize. Spending time with God is what’s important. We spend the time anyway. Why not recognize that we spend it with God, and then act like it?
I am learning the difference between saying prayers, which is an activity, and praying, which is a soul attitude, a “lifting up of the mind to God.” Praying in that sense can transform every task, from shoveling snow to defragmenting a computer’s hard drive.
Prayer consists of Attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. How do we pray “without ceasing” in Paul’s phrase? Our minds have the potential to attend to more than one thing at once, and I have found it possible to give God attention even while doing something else: to pray simultaneously as other activities are going on. I simply try to direct Godward the inner dialogue that is taking place all the time. To pray without ceasing taps into the mind’s multitasking ability.
“Mental habits of inward orientation” as Thomas Kelly called this practice. The prayerful person takes ordinary things that happen and moves them “into the Light”. Everything gets realigned.
After reviewing the prayers contained in the Bible, I have stopped worrying about inappropriate prayers. If God counts on prayer as a primary way to related to me, I may block potential intimacy by devising a test for appropriateness and filtering out prayers that may not meet the criteria. According to Jesus, nothing is too trivial. Everything about me—my thoughts, my motives, my choices, my moods—attracts God’s interest.
Jesus calls us to “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind.” In other words, you shall love God with everything you have and everything you are. Everything. Every longing, every endowment, each of your intellectual gifts, any athletic talent or computer skill, all capacity for delight, every good thing that has your fingerprints on it—take all this, says Jesus, and refer it to God. Take your longing, and long for God; take your earthly riches, and endow God; take your eye for beauty and appreciate God. With your heart and soul and mind, with all your needs and splendors, make a full turn toward God.