What does the word prayer bring to your mind? A regular meeting at church? A last-ditch effort to stave off some disaster? An intimate communication between you and God? All of these images, or others, might come to mind when we think of prayer.
Sometimes we can tell what a thing is by discovering what it is not. This is true with prayer. There are several popular ideas about prayer that are wrong, but these ideas are stubborn and keep cropping up in every generation. One major reason for this fact is that they are immature notions. New Christians especially are prone to believe these ideas. When a person has a chance to grow and mature in relationship to Christ, prayer life takes on a deeper meaning.
Prayer Is Not a Lottery
A lottery is a game of chance. A person gambles that what he bets will reward his efforts by paying off more than the original bet. Some people seem to think of prayer in this fashion. They think, “Hey, I’ll say a prayer in this situation. It couldn’t hurt anything and it might pay off big.”
This way of thinking is purely selfish. The sole motive behind the act is to gamble that a few words mumbled to God might “do some good.” As you read the Bible you will find many prayers addressed to God. Many of those are said by people who were in trouble. They asked for help. The difference in that and the contemporary prayer-as-lottery view is this: the people in the Bible who prayed for help already had a relationship with God established. They are asking the help of the One whom they knew as the Lord. They were not just casting out words in the hopes that it might possibly be heard by “the man upstairs” and answered affirmatively.
Prayer Is Not a Twist of God’s Arm
Another popular notion about prayer is that it is a way to make God do something He does not want to do. It is a way to twist God’s arm to force Him to do your will. Most people would never state the case so boldly and probably most would even deny that is what they believe. However, when you hear what some people pray for, and the way they ask for it, you realize that they are trying to force their will upon God.
Doesn’t the Bible have examples of this? Aren’t some situations in the Bible exactly that? Consider the example of Jesus who cursed a fig tree. On what we call Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem but then went back to Bethany to spend the night. The next morning, on Monday, He and the disciples were on their way back to Jerusalem when Jesus spotted a fig tree in full leaf. He went up to it expecting to find it as full of fruit as it was full of green leaves. He found nothing, however.
This story causes some modern people trouble because of a misunderstanding of the concept of curse in the Bible. A curse was not what we today would call a “four-letter word.” It was not “nasty” or a scatological reference. A good Oriental curse was earthy, specific, and a call to action. It might be something like: “May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits,” and “May all your teeth fall out but one, and in that one may you get a toothache.” In cursing the fig tree, Jesus was calling for action on the part of His disciples and using it as an object lesson or prophetic symbolism.
This story is tied by Mark with the cleansing of the Temple. A fig tree with no fruit was exactly like a Temple which produced no fruit. The cursing of the tree was a prophetic sign. The fig tree’s leaves promised fruit but there was no fruit. The tree’s appearance was deceptive. It was a symbol of what Jesus had found in the Temple. It, too, looked promising. The Temple had a long history and promised seekers that they could find a place of worship, a place that would help them find God. What they found was chaos like the day after Christmas at Wal-Mart. To this farce Jesus raised His whip and His voice and said in effect, “Enough! You shall not make my Father’s House a place of empty promises in which you are more interested in revenue than reverence.”
You see, Jesus called for action with his curse. It was a form of prayer in that he used it to accomplish God’s will. He was not simply being spiteful nor was he lashing out from hurt pride. The key is that Jesus did not try to make God do something He was unwilling to do. Jesus worked in harmony with the will of God and not against it.1 That fact is central when we think about prayer. We pray to lay hold of God’s willingness, not to make God do our will.
Prayer Is Not an Automatic Guarantee of Success
A subtle misunderstanding of prayer is to think of it as a guarantee of success. Someone might think, “I really need to get an edge. I’ll ask God to help me win.” Now we certainly want to pray in all things but to imagine that prayer will give us a guarantee of success is immature. So how do we pray for things like our jobs and decisions we need to make? What good does prayer do in these situations? Consider the example of John Marks Templeton.
He is the founder of the successful Templeton Mutual Fund Group. He is regarded as one of Wall Street’s wisest investors. Many years ago he committed himself to Christ and became a man of prayer. He began to open all of the directors’ and shareholders’ meetings with prayer. But he points out that prayer is never used as a tool in making specific stock selections.
Templeton notes, “That would be a gross misinterpretation of God’s methods. What we do pray for is wisdom. We pray that the decisions we make today will be wise decisions and that our talks about different stocks will be wise talks. Of course, our discussions and decisions are fallible and sometimes flawed. No one should expect that, just because he begins with prayer, every decision he makes is going to be profitable.” He continues, “However, I do believe that, if you pray, you will make fewer stupid mistakes.”2
Prayer is no substitute for hard work and personal responsibility. It helps us make decisions and work smarter but it is not an automatic guarantee of success.
Prayer Is Not a Meaningful Ritual
My family has prayer at meal times. My wife and I have done since we first married and we have taught our children to say grace at the table. This ritual is important to us and it expresses our daily gratitude for our food. Many people say a prayer at meal times, or before bed, or at a ball game. The saying of prayers might be meaningful or it might just be a ritual performed at stated times simply because you have always done it.
We will do well to remember that such prayer might seem strange to some. A traveling preacher went to a frontier town to hold religious services. The town had received very little religious influence before the preacher’s arrival. He stayed with a family in town who had a little boy. On the first evening of his arrival everyone gathered around the table for supper. The preacher bowed his head and said an audible prayer. The boy had never seen anything like that before. The child saw the preacher on the street the next day and asked, “Are you the fellow who talks to his plate?”3
Prayer Is Not a Purely Personal Religious Act With No Social Consequences
Praying is one of the most intimate things a person can do. To reach out to the God of creation with words and feelings is a tremendously personal act. In fact some people have described religion in general and prayer in particular with reference to this privacy. I have read definitions such as, “Religion is what one does with his solitude.” I am not sure what that means because there are many things we can do with our solitude. Such a definition tries to paint religion and prayer as nothing more than a purely private communication between a person and God.
The problem with that definition is that it stops too soon. Prayer is personal and intimate but it is not purely private. One of the overwhelming teachings about prayer in the Bible is that prayer moves us from our selfish preoccupations to something beyond ourselves. The book of James in the New Testament has this passage: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (
Prayer, in other words, should move us not only toward God, but toward our fellow humans. Frederick Douglass was a slave who narrated his life in a book that was first published in 1845. He told of the conditions under which he lived. Consider one section from his autobiography:
There were four slaves of us in the kitchen — my sister Eliza, my aunt Priscilla, Henry, and myself; and we were allowed less than a half a bushel of cornmeal per week, and very little else, either in the shape of meat or vegetables. It was not enough for us to subsist upon. We were therefore reduced to the wretched necessity of living at the expense of our neighbors. This we did by begging and stealing, whichever came handy in the time of need, the one being considered as legitimate as the other. A great many times have we poor creatures been near perishing with hunger, when food in abundance lay smouldering in the safe and smoke-house, and our pious mistress was aware of the fact; and yet that mistress and her husband would kneel every morning, and pray that God would bless them in basket and store!4
How does that stack up against the instruction of James?
Prayer Is Not Getting in Touch with Mystical Powers
We live in an age of generic spirituality. We often hear about spiritual values but by that term many people mean inner personal values rather than a reference to God. A term that is often associated with spirituality today is New Age. That is something of a catchall term that lumps all religious, metaphysical, and spiritual quests into the same category. It might include channeling, Tarot cards, belief in reincarnation, and other such manifestations. I have noticed that some people use any talk of religious values to include even the major religions such as Judaism and Christianity.
So what is prayer in New Age philosophy? It is the attempt to get in touch with the mystical forces of the universe and to influence those forces. That is done through repeating a mantra — a special word or phrase — or by deeply meditating. The attempt to influence the powers of the universe traditionally has been called magic.
Magic is defined this way: “1. The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural; 2. The practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural effects or to control events in nature.”5
Christian prayer is different from all of this. It seeks to get in touch with, not a what, but a Whom. In other words prayer reaches out to God as a loving Heavenly Father who wants the best for His children rather than to be a mysterious, capricious force of nature.
All of these things, then, tell us a little about what prayer is not. Prayer is not a lottery. It is not a twisting of God’s arm to make Him do what we want. Prayer is not an automatic guarantee of success. It is not a meaningless ritual. Nor is prayer merely a private act with no consequences. Prayer is not getting in touch with the mystical forces of the universe.
Prayer is communicating with God, the creator and sustainer of all life. No wonder prayer is misunderstood. But it is too important to be left to chance.
1For more on this see Don M Aycock, Eight Days that Changed the World (Nashville, Broadman Press, 1990), chapter 2.
2John Marks Templeton, The Templeton Plan: 21 steps to success and happiness as described by John Marks Templeton to James Ellison. (San Francisco: A Giniger Book in association with Harper & Row, 1987), p. ix.
3Ross Phares, Bible in Pocket, Gun in Hand: The story of frontier religion. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971, p. 6.
4Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” in The Classic Slave Narratives, edited and introduced by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Penguin Books USA, 1987), p. 286.X.
5The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1969.