There is an old proverb in the Levant that says, “If I student is dull, it is his fault; but if a student is bright, the teacher gets all the credit.” Charlatans babysit geniuses in order to pass off their student’s accomplishments as their own and lambast anyone who isn’t “smart enough” to follow their “advanced techniques.” The true teacher, however, makes anyone feel brilliant because he or she is able to adjust their method to suit the student’s learning style.
When I apply that idea to pastoring, particularly preaching, I am confronted with a sober truth — if someone leaves feeling confused, defeated or uninspired by what I’ve said then it is probably my fault, not theirs. The sign of a good teacher, the kind of teacher I want to be, is that they are able to take complex concepts and make them easy to understand and relate to. I don’t think I did that very well on Sunday in my message on prayer and I’m looking forward to fixing it. That said, after 12 hours of working on this piece I stand in awe of the mystery and complexity of prayer and admit that communicating cogently about prayer may well be beyond my abilities. What follows is my best attempt.
The Paradoxes of Prayer
Prayer is the art of holding multiple truths in tension with one another and finding God in the midst of them. For instance, the Gospel of Matthew teaches us that God is a Good and Gracious Father who knows what we need before we even ask, so our prayers can be short and childlike while the Gospel of Luke teaches us that prayer is more like banging on the door of a lazy friend in order to get something or heckling a judge until he rules in our favor. Do we only pray about something once, trusting that God knows what we need or do we pray repeatedly about the same issue until it happens? I would say that the answer to both of those questions is “yes”.
The Right Tool for the Right Situation
My wife frequently uses the analogy of tools in a tool belt when it comes to prayer and other ministry skills. You don’t use every tool for every job, some are for special situations, but knowing which tool to use for a particular circumstance (discernment) is the mark of a master craftsman. Some tools can perform functions they weren’t designed for (I could try to drive in a nail with the butt of a screwdriver), but it is never as easy or as pleasurable as using the tool built for the job.
The art of prayer is being able to discern which way of praying is best suited for a particular situation. Sometimes we need to pray simply, like a child asking their loving Father for what they really want or need. These kind of prayers might be as simple as “Help! I can’t do this on my own” or as loaded as “Dad, I’m leaving this in your hands. You know what is best for me and my family.” Other times we need to pray like an attorney prosecuting a criminal as is often the case with breaking soul ties or generational curses. Our enemy has a tendency to take more than what he is entitled to and we get it back by appealing to our Father, the Just Judge, in Heaven.
It occurs to me that I operate from a different understanding of prayer than some other people and that taking a step back to define prayer would be helpful. For me, prayer is about growing in intimacy with God and partnering with him to manifest his Kingdom on the earth. Depending on which stream of the Church you grew up in, it is possible you will be familiar with one idea or the other but not both, so please allow me to explain.
Prayer is a self-disclosing dialogue with God where we share the things most important to us with him, he shares the things most important to him with us, and we are transformed as a result. If that seems esoteric, it isn’t. It happens every day as people fall in love. Two people start off as total strangers, but as they share their likes, dislikes, dreams, fears, successes and failures a relationship is formed. As this relationship blossoms into a mature expression of love, neither of the two remains as they were before the relationship started because each has adjusted to the peculiarities of the other. This is the essence of prayer, self revealing love-language and Other-oriented listening that results in lives that are transformed as they are woven together.
The other essential aspect to prayer is asking for things. We ask for things for ourselves (called “petition”) and for others (called “intercession”). However, the primary thing we ask is for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven because that is how Jesus taught us to pray. I’ve come across some folks who lean heavy on the intimacy side of prayer and almost totally neglect the asking side because it seems unspiritual. I disagree. Not only did Jesus teach us to ask for things, but asking, receiving and doing what someone else asks of us are primary ways of building trust, affection and love. For instance, when I plan out my week on Sunday evening, I almost always ask my wife if there is anything I can do for her over the course of the week that would make her feel loved and cared for. When God answers our prayers and gives us what we asked for, a huge deposit is made into our relationship with him. Asking and receiving is a sure path to intimacy and connection.
The Wrong Way to Pray
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus teaches the crowd what it means to be his disciple as opposed to a disciple of the Pharisees. From Matthew 5:21 on, the sermon can be boiled down to “they do it that way, but we do it this way.” When the Pharisees gave money to the poor, they would “blow trumpets” or make a big deal about the fact they were giving, but Jesus’s disciples give in secret. Where the Pharisees wanted the respect and honor that came from the people who saw them give, the disciples of Jesus only want the respect and honor that comes from our Father who sees in secret. Similarly, when the Pharisees fasted they wouldn’t bathe and would mope about so that everyone could see they were suffering for the sake of their piety. But Jesus commands us, his disciples, to follow our normal routine when we are fasting so that no one will know but God. The Pharisee’s reward was having people see them — the disciple’s reward is having God see them.
When the Pharisees prayed, they would position themselves in places so that they would be seen by others. They would pray long, impressive sounding prayers that were ultimately devoid of meaning. Jesus instructs his disciples to do the opposite — to pray privately when possible and to approach God simply, knowing that it is our relationship with him that will get an answer, not an impressive speech.
When we examine the Sermon on the Mount through the lens of “do this, not that” a number of things come into focus. We realize that much of the Pharisees’s behavior, especially prayer, was an attempt to manipulate how people perceived them. They wanted to appear spiritual, to make it seem like there was more going on in their relationship with God than there actually was, so that the crowds would look at them in a certain way. They wanted respect, admiration and special treatment from people and used spirituality as the way of getting it. Jesus called them out on it and taught his disciples another way — the way of secrecy and sincerity that would result in a reward from God rather than people.
The only wrong way to pray is when we to try to control other people through our prayers. That could be trying to control their perceptions of us (as the Pharisees did) or trying to control their actual behaviors by asking God to violate their free will. This is where things got confusing yesterday, so I will take the time to elaborate on the concept and provide a few examples.
I’ll discuss three particular situations — salvation, disagreement and alcoholism — in order to demonstrate what manipulative prayer looks like and how we could approach those situations in a better way. We will move from the theological/theoretical to the practical and see how the principles of one situation apply to another.
Paul tells us in his first letter to Timothy that “God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth”, yet Revelation 20 makes it clear that many people will not be saved. How does that work? If God wants everyone to be saved, he clearly has the ability to make that happen — a few tweaks in human mindset or DNA and BOOM, instant converts.
Instead, God has chosen to honor our free will — he honors it so much that he even allows us to make horrible decisions. God has given us as human beings unimaginable dignity, honor and respect by making us in his image and allowing us the ability to choose wether we will reflect that or not. When given the choice of creating us for absolute obedience or genuine affection, God chose to create us to love. And love requires the ability to choose to reciprocate.
For instance, it is impossible for me to love my desktop computer because it doesn’t have the capacity to respond. I could write a program that would simulate affection (Artificial Intelligence), but it could only respond with the script I gave it. Humanity could have been created as a divine version of AI, but that isn’t what God wanted. He wanted lovers, kids. And that required him to limit himself by not controlling us.
So why isn’t everyone going to be saved? Because God respects our free will. God refuses to violate our free will, even when it would keep us (and him) from immense amounts of pain and suffering. And if God refuses to do such a thing, then it is only fitting that we, his people, should refuse to do it as well. Instead of directly controlling us, God attempts to woo us, to win us over through love, sacrifice, generosity and service. He is uniquely capable of creating the perfect set of circumstances that will give us the best chance of choosing him and eternal life. That is the method I believe we should use.
Let’s pretend I got in a fight with my son and he said or did something that really hurt my feelings. I could choose to wallow in my pain and build up a case against him for how he wronged me or I could choose to give him the benefit of the doubt by realizing that we really do love one another and the hurt was almost certainly unintentional.
Almost any prayer that comes from a heart posture of hurt, anger or fear is going to be manipulative in some way because our default human response is to try to gain safety, security and comfort through control. We see this a lot with parents, especially parents of teenagers. As the kids grow up, they have exponentially more potential to cause physical, emotional and spiritual harm to themselves and to their parents. The typical parental response to this is control — rules and punishment. Boundaries are absolutely necessary for children, but where those boundaries come from in the parent’s hearts is critical and so is the intended purpose. If the rules were made to protect the parents from emotional trauma, they will almost certainly be broken, along with the relationship with their teen. If the boundaries were set to protect the child, they might still get broken, but there is a much higher likelihood the relationship will be preserved and the parents and child can work through the issue together.
So if I get into a fight with my son, I’m not going to ask God to change him, correct him or punish him. Instead, I’m going to ask God to bless me with wisdom, courage and compassion so that I can talk with him and discover what was really going on. Because if I stand in the truth that we really love one another and really want what is best for each other, then I know that his actions were the overflow of something else in his life and the fight we had was him giving vent to something that was bothering him. So I might ask God to arrange a time for us to talk or thank the Holy Spirit for being Emory’s counselor and comforter, but I need to be careful to respect Emory’s personhood and not treat him as a problem needing to be fixed for my own convenience.
In the above instance, would it be alright for me to ask God to take away Emory’s pain? I don’t think so. Emory could ask God to take the pain away or we could pray together for that, me vocalizing Emory’s desire, but the truth is, Emory would be the one who needs to first give up the pain in order for it to be dealt with — I can’t give it up for him. Now, it is certainly my desire as Emory’s dad to see him happy and pain free, but I can’t allow pain relief or pain management to be my primary motivating factor in prayer.
Let’s look at the ministry of Jesus. Did Jesus have compassion on people and take away the things that were oppressing and distressing them? Absolutely. But if pain relief had been his primary goal, he would have healed everyone, which was not the case. He healed everyone who came to him, but he walked past many sick people lying next to the pool of Bethesda. Again, the issue of respecting people’s free will — Jesus healed those who came to him or who the Father sent him to, but he didn’t force healing on the people en masse. An uncomfortable truth is that people are often attached to their sickness, disease or pain in unhealthy ways — they embrace it because they feel it gives them special treatment. I know of a man who chose to get around in a wheelchair rather than walk because he felt people were nicer to him. Now he has put on a bunch of weight and could hardly walk on his own even if he wanted to. Which leads us into the next topic, alcoholism.
What do we do when people we love chose to embrace a lifestyle of self-destruction? How do we pray for them?
Before I get too far in on this topic, let me use another proverb — this time from American lawyers — “difficult cases make bad law.” In difficult cases, like alcoholism or 9/11, so many factors are involved that it is difficult to create good laws that apply across the board. Outliers like these need to be seen and treated as such. That said, let’s dig in.
We typically pray for alcoholics for two reasons: they are in pain and we have compassion for them or we are in pain because of them and want relief.
When praying out of compassion I have a simple metric, if an alcoholic doesn’t want to be set free from their addiction, then I don’t pray for it to be taken away. I remember the story of the blind man who heard Jesus was passing by and created a ruckus to get his attention. When the blind man finally comes face to face with Jesus, Jesus asks him a simple but profound question — “What do you want me to do for you?” Isn’t it obvious Jesus? Can’t you see that the man was blind? Why don’t you just initiate and give the poor guy what he clearly wanted?
Jesus asked the man what he wanted because Jesus treated him with dignity and realized that people are complicated. The man might have been perfectly fine being blind and maybe would have asked for some other thing. Jesus didn’t presume to know what this man wanted or needed, he didn’t view the man as incomplete or invalid, instead, he asked him what he wanted.
Some alcoholics don’t want to give up drinking — it is familiar, even comforting, to them. They don’t even want to imagine what life would be like without alcohol. They have made peace with their situation and only their change of heart can set them free. As Danny Silk often says, “If you don’t have a problem, then I can’t have a solution.” If the person doesn’t want to quit, the only thing we can do is ask God to orchestrate a set of circumstances that convince them of their need to quit.
But suppose the person does want to quit, they just can’t — they are caught up in the cycle of addiction and habit, what then? In this instance, if the person wants to quit and is asking you for help (i.e. spiritual support), then we have license to pray in every way we know how. This is much like someone hiring a lawyer to represent them in court. The individual in question may not know how a trial goes, the details of their particular case or whatever, but they do know that they have a reasonable chance of walking away free if they bring in someone who knows what they are doing. Fortunately, Jesus is the best defense attorney there ever was and he is praying along with us.
I seem to keep circling around to the idea of respecting people’s free will. I think it is desperately important to keep in mind that we as prayer warriors and intercessors are not people’s saviors. We can’t bust in Rambo style and clean house. First of all, it isn’t our house, we are trespassing if we come in without permission. Second of all, even if we did succeed in cleaning house, if the person isn’t engaged in putting their life back together, then that demon is going to come right on back and bring a bunch of friends — we could very easily make that person’s situation worse, which is why God typically prevents it from happening in the first place.
Now, what about the other scenario, the one where we want to pray because we are being harmed physically or emotionally by an alcoholic. First, never use prayer as an excuse for action — get out. You can ask God to change their heart once you are at a safe distance. Don’t stay in a bad situation asking God to change it, do what you need to do to be safe and get healthy yourself, then worry about the other person and pray for them as described above.
As it usually does with me, it all comes back to heart posture. The place our prayers come from within us matters much more than the actual verbiage we use, though that is important too — “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” If we pray for someone from a place of love and have their permission to ask for God’s will to be done in their life then we are good to go. But if we are praying from a place of hurt, anger or fear we will very likely ask God to control the other person, which he is very much opposed to doing.
Writing this article has been quite a lot of work. I’ve invested at least 12 hours into writing it and tracking down the biblical references that make me feel confident to say the things I’ve said and that doesn’t count the additional hours I’ve spent thinking about it and searching my own heart. What I’m left with is a profound thankfulness that Jesus and Holy Spirit pray with us and for us, taking our ignorance and sincerity and transforming them into something beautiful before God that he is pleased to answer. I frequently feel like I am leaning to pray all over again and am often embarrassed by my infantile understanding of prayer — something so basic and foundational, yet complex and mysterious.
What I want to leave you with is the confidence that however you pray is good enough because of Jesus. Father sees and hears everything about us filtered through Jesus’s sacrifice and that should comfort us greatly. I do think it is important to take times like these to dissect our prayers and ask ourselves why we pray like we do and if it is in alignment with God’s word, but at the end of the day we should still be praying, trusting that God will teach us as long as we have a listening ear.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this lengthy piece. If you have any questions or comments or wish I would clarify something further, please don’t hesitate to ask.