The Divine Protection Racket? A Fixer God?

This is going to sound real cynical to some of you. Forgive me if it’s a bit too much. My Charismatic friends can start praying for me 🙂

I hear a lot of prayer requests in my job.

On a weekly basis, I probably participate in 10-15 different sessions of prayer requests. Over my evangelical lifetime, I’ve participated in thousands and thousands of prayer request sessions.

For quite a while, I’ve wanted to write about what I hear in those prayer requests, but I don’t want to seem snarky or elitist, so I’ve hesitated to say what I’m going to say.

It seems to me that a lot of evangelicals have a religious experience that basically amounts to a kind of protection racket; a Christianized version of paganism, where you beg the gods to keep bad things from happening to you and work out your problems.

Those prayer requests are full to overflowing with directions to God to stop the bad that hasn’t happened and solve the results of the bad that has.

I’ll admit that I’m having more than my share of theological problems in developing a practical experience of the “sovereignty of God” as a central principle of Christianity. It’s not that I don’t believe it- I do. It’s that I have absolutely no idea how it works and especially no idea how it relates to my life and the lives of people around me. The problem is that I have a serious case of burnout from the reformed version of pastoral care: the answer to your suffering is that God did it, probably to give you a dose of his temporal wrath.

God may be in control, but I don’t think my prayers providing him with lists of things that need to be prevented and rescued really gets his attention.

So I’m having trouble joining in with prayers for God to protect various people from various things, or prayers asking God to straighten out all kinds of problems which I suppose he could have stopped from happening anyway.

In my desire to have a Christ-shaped spirituality, I’m convinced that Jesus didn’t offer his services to “protect” his disciples from bad things. He seems pretty clear that all kinds of bad things are going to happen to them, and he’ll work with whatever comes along.

What about miracles? Aren’t they showing us a God who will pay off that credit card, keep our spouse from leaving us and protect our child from bad influences? Aren’t we entitled to pray things like “put a hedge around him, Lord?”

I believe miracles are 1) revelatory in scripture and 2) an aspect of God’s mercy and freedom now. I had a co-worker once tell a roomful of students to ask God for miracles and he would do them. This was a bunch of kids with alcoholic parents, dying relatives, absent dads and major dysfunctions in the family. God had plenty to work with in the miracle department if he wanted.

I just don’t think God does miracles according to our requests. I believe he answers prayers in accordance with his purposes, and there is no telling what that’s going to mean. Maybe things will work out well and you’ll be sharing a “praise” at the next prayer group. Or maybe you’ll watch things get worse and your whole ship sink, because we can’t tell God what to do anyway.

I believe we can pray for God’s revealed kingdom purposes. I believe we can pray boldly for all things related to the Gospel. But that Mrs. Smith’s niece will make a better choice in a boyfriend? I don’t thin he’s that kind of God.

I’ve sat in the chair where I am typing this and I have cried like a little child praying for God to intervene in situations and to stop bad things from happening.

The result? Lots of bad things have happened, but I am trusting Christ in the midst of them more. Some things have changed in a way I can praise God for, but mostly God seems to be going about his business and I’m not really getting to make suggestions.

Robert Capon says that God is sovereign, but most of the time he runs the world in a way that looks like he’s not. That’s precisely my experience. I can call upon God for people to be healed, Christians to have their “needs” met and unbelievers to hear/believe/trust the Gospel.

I can’t ask for God’s protection and expect that bad things that happen to other people won’t happen to me. I can’t ask for God to straighten out messes in a miraculous way and still honestly say I believe what scripture says about what it means to follow Christ in my life.

Jesus doesn’t run a protection racket, and he isn’t a rescue squad. He gives meaning to suffering and shows us the way of kingdom repentance and the cross. That’s where I am these days. I don’t want to tell unbelievers that God works things out for me because I’m on his team.

53 thoughts on “The Divine Protection Racket? A Fixer God?

  1. Hey,

    A few thoughts, I don’t do this very much, so pardon any gaffes, please 🙂

    “God may be in control, but I don’t think my prayers providing him with lists of things that need to be prevented and rescued really gets his attention.”

    So God tells us to pray just so He can ignore us? Maybe God IS in control, and He uses us to do His will whether with our hand, feet or prayers?

    “I just don’t think God does miracles according to our requests. I believe he answers prayers in accordance with his purposes, and there is no telling what that’s going to mean.”

    Are these mutually exclusive?

    “If people want to boast, they should boast about this: They should boast that they understand and know me. They should boast that they know and understand that I, the Lord, act out of faithfulness, fairness, and justice in the earth and that I desire people to do these things” (Jer)

    “I can’t ask for God’s protection and expect that bad things that happen to other people won’t happen to me.”

    How do we know this? Do we know everything that God has kept us from in His purposes? Some things will happen to us, some won’t, but that is no reason to stop praying, is it?

    God is Sovereign.

    We have free will.

    God usually plays by the rules he has made (Gravity) but he doesn’t have to. Quite often the consequences of our free will catch up to us.

    David was a man after God’s own heart. He knew Him.

    Why not pray? David prayed, even when God told him his first child with Bathsheba would die. He fasted and prayed for like 6 days, then the child died. He got up, washed up and went in and worshiped.

    David prayed because there was a chance that God would change His mind.

    Later, the Israelites got God mad and God stirred up David to take a census of the people. Joab of all people begged David not to, but he insisted. God talked to David through his seer Gad and gave him 3 options for punishment (Famine, Flight or Plague) and David said “I prefer that we be attacked by the Lord, for his mercy is great; I do not want to be attacked by men!” God did start the attack in a plague, but, “When the angel extended his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord relented from his judgment. He told the angel who was killing the people, “That’s enough! Stop now!”

    Is relenting changing your mind?

    Just pray.

    Pray through the bad, pray through the good. Pray for parking, pray for healing, pray for your kids, pray for your travels, pray.

    And don’t forget to thank God for every day and everything.

    Keep writing, ’cause we all need to dig deeper.

    I really appreciated this entry. I just found your blog listed in my Cornerstone Festival program.

    Hitting submit with trepidation.

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  2. I don’t have time to read all the comments, but I do have a few thoughts on the original post.

    First, though God sometimes says the cup will only pass from us if we drink it, it seems that it is quite right to refuse to pray that it pass from us. Indeed, it seems distinctly anti-Christian (not that you are guilty) to not pray in tears that evil would pass us by. Anti-Christian because Christ prayed in tears that the cup would pass from Him. Yet also anti-Christian to assume the cup will pass from us without us drinking it.

    Second, it seems that some defiance is in order in our prayers. I can’t imagine having a wife who always added “if that’s ok with you” as a post-script to all her requests. Yes our prayers should be prayers of adoration. Yes we should say “not my will but thy will.” But yet, wouldn’t you and I rather be Benedick to a Beatrice than have an obsequious wife? Wasn’t Orual rewarded for writing her book?

    When God is unjust, when his providence is evil, we shouldn’t pray that he would make it better, we should demand that he fulfill his promises. We should pray “I’ll not let thou go except thou bless me!”

    Finally, I think we should perhaps see the sovereignty of God in the resurrection. The Father proved Himself to be sovereign over Pilate and the Sanhedrein by raising Christ from the dead. We should expect to find the Christ’s sovereignty in the fact that whatever we suffer here, The Judge shall vindicate us, shall make all right, that indeed we are made conformable to his sufferings that we may be made to conform to His glorification. When we suffer, we hear the words spoken to us when we betrayed our beloved “thou too shall be Psyche.” We shall realize that the Gods write history backwards, and make all evil good. Even our sins, though they be as scarlet, shall be white as snow.

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  3. It’s encouraging to know that there are other people out there wondering the same things I’m wondering. Thanks.

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  4. Uhh … what’s wrong with the pagan idea that, when you get in supernatural trouble, you holler for supernatural help? God gets offended if we go to anyone else for supernatural help.

    For my part, I find that prayer works better when I approach it with his will as my goal first and foremost. If, as you say, I simply start reading off a laundry list of what I want, it’s pretty much a waste of time. But if I really seek his will in prayer, I am sometimes led to pray specific things in accordance with his will. And *those* prayers, more often than not, are answered to the letter.

    I see prayer as more like a dance between two partners, where you may lead off with a request but it’s necessary to follow the partner where he wants to go with it. A relationship with a living being who loves us, don’t you see, and not merely inserting coins into a vending machine to push the button.

    And I’m not at all saying that’s what anyone’s doing … but it is the naive form of prayer you seem to be taking aim at, and while I agree with your criticism I nonetheless think there is more to the story. It *is* possible to develop these kinds of prayer into a two-way dialog, and the results of those prayers are often more fruitful than a one-way laundry list.

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

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  5. I’ve grown up with this ‘coin in the slot’ idea, and never been happy with it. It also makes conversations with unbelievers difficult.

    All prayers are answered, it’s having the eyes to see that. When we prayed for a friend to be healed, and he died a couple of months later, were our prayers ‘unanswered’? That is the wrong question.

    Prayer does not change God. It changes us. Intercessory prayer forces us to realize that He is the source of all that is good, and that in asking for something we are reminding ourselves of this. When we pray for healing, what we are really saying is “Dad, help *me*.” We are thrown back into the Kingdom way of thinking, where we are utterly dependent on and trusting in God.

    I prefer, these days, to think of prayer as a conversation. I love my two daughters to ask me for things, even if I’m going to give it to them anyway. Every time we talk we build our relationship. God loves us to talk with him. In doing that we become more like Christ. “Not my, but Your will be done”.

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  6. I should say that Open Theism is different from process theology, in that it answers the theodicy question not by God’s Being as dependent on history, but God’s Knowledge as dependent on “perceiving” historical events. So Process theology questions omnipotence in a way, while Open Theism questions God’s omniscience. I think that both these attributes needed to be affirmed in light of who God is in Christ, and not just generally affirmed because of some abstract philosophical notion of what God is. Of course, I’m getting most of this from Karl Barth foundationally, and Bruce McCormack’s essay on Open Theism in his new book Engaging the Doctrine of God.

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  7. Thanks for these thoughts Michael.
    When I think about suffering and prayer, I realize that I’d rather have the problem of not knowing why God allows suffering and bad things to happen while at least knowing that God in Jesus Christ solves the problem of evil eternally at the Cross. (God works all things (Creation) together for THIS good – i.e. our redemption). This seems to me a better way theologically than to make God to be the Puppet of history (this is bad Reformed theology – it’s also deist and rather pagan as you point out). It’s also better than making God as weak and vulnerable (however psychologically comforting that seems at first) into a progressing and becoming Being who is dependent on history for His being (process theology/open theism). Prayer to the God in Jesus Christ is grounded in the fact of our reconciliation that has been achieved. This to me is the greatest comfort in the face of suffering. Christ is the theodicy. I may not be able to give a traditional philosophical theodicy for where evil came from or why it happens or why God allows it to happen, but I can say with assurance along with Paul “O Death, where is thy sting?!” even as I lament to God in the Psalter, because God will not let death have the last word.

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  8. I don’t believe that there is anything intrinsically wrong about praying about all aspects of your life.
    I’m pretty sure that if it concerns you as His beloved child it concerns God.
    However, In prayer groups that I’ve participated in and in dozens of seminars and books God is relegated to being a big Vending Machine in the sky.
    If we say or do this…He will do that.
    One other thing I’m pretty sure about is that the infinite God of the universe does not respond as an automaton to anything or anyone.

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  9. There was a member of my family who was diagnosed with cancer. She lived in a distant place, so our ability to visit her was limited. But me and my family did the best we could to take care of her (and her children) by visiting her. I’m the only active Christian in our family, so I prayed constantly, and asked my church to pray. We had more than one prayer meeting devoted exclusively to her. My main focus of prayer was her salvation. She had experienced a very hard life, and I desperately wanted her to know Jesus before she died.

    This happened over a course of several years. And many times, after I had prayed, or the church prayed, her cancer went into remission. Her doctor told her more than once that it seemed miraculous because it was so rare. Sometimes her symptoms would reappear, and it seemed like she was near death. We would pray, and she would get better again. She never believed in the Lord during this time, but the healings were very real. Other members of my family, not Christians, acknowledged that things were happening that seemed supernatural.

    Eventually, we found out that the whole thing was a hoax. She was lying the entire time. Somehow she was able to get away with it. Perhaps she had some kind of deceptive spirit. No one knew that she was faking the whole thing, even her live-in boyfriend. Her doctor was just treating a stomach ailment and did not know that she was lying to her family.

    After it was discovered, and her defenses collapsed, she prayed with me on the phone and received the Lord. We are still estranged, and I don’t know how real her prayer was, but it seemed genuine. I’m hoping that she was saved.

    I still don’t know why this happened, and why the Lord would allow me and my church to pray for something that wasn’t really true. All the miraculous healings turned out to be her manipulations.

    But I do know that I learned to love the Lord, depend on Him, and pray desperately for someone’s salvation, in a way I never would have otherwise. In the midst of all that pressure, grace was there. No doubt the Lord used those prayers in His own way, and for His own purposes. And if she did receive the Lord, then those prayers were answered.

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  10. Speaking of protection rackets some use Malachi and a few other proof texts to ascribe Godfather status to our Heavenly Father by insisting that a clean 10% off the top of your income is necessary to keep “things from happening.”
    (“That’s a nice boy you got there, sure would hate to see anything happen to him.”)

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  11. Once again an excellent post. I can relate perfectly with your thoughts. I’m at a place of “rediscovering” what prayer is. It seems to me that prayer has become more of a way to get what we think we need as opposed to what God wants for/from us. This from a pastor who served for almost 5 years in Pentecostal churches!

    I too believe in prayer, but have concerns over what the church today has come to look at prayer as. It’s almost like God is a genie there to give us what we want. I know that’s cliche, but you get the point!

    It’s easy to “give it to God” and expect Him to answer it. The problem may be…are we asking the right things?

    Great post, love reading your blog.

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  12. One more thing (since I rarely comment in blogs).

    Peter Toon in his April 16 “brief reflection” (far down in his post on “God and sickness,” http://pbs1928.blogspot.com/), says something pertinent to this discussion.

    Toon, tracing changes in the Anglican prayer book over the centuries, notes that modern thinking has changed “with respect to considering how God deals with us and allows sickness to visit his adopted children, to whom he has already given the gift of everlasting salvation and life. Further, it appears that we do not see this life, and its ups and downs, so clearly and obviously in the light of our eternal vocation in Christ, as did our foremothers and forefathers.”

    Ok, no more comments. Three is plenty. Thanks for your initial post.

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  13. At the same time, God tells us to pray for all men everywhere. He tells us the effective, fervent prayers of a righteous man avails much. He tells ut that prayers do change things in Daniel and in other places of the bible. God says He gives good gifts to those who ask and that we have not because we ask not.

    I don’t get any of it, honestly. I for years came to a Calvinistic approach to my theology, not because I was taught it (I was mostly around Arminians or something in between), but because of my love for Job and Proverbs and how I read the bible generally. Despite that I can’t read all of the above and not see a partnership – a friendship with God. A mission together. And He desires it and chooses us. It is amazing.

    So, do I think we should think of God as Santa – absolutely not. But I also think we absolutely should ask God for everything – showing and living our total dependence on Him.

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  14. Also, on prayer, Peter Toon — who has long labored to at least return Anglicans to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer — is suffering from serious health issues (in fact, he announced Apr. 18 that his “blog” postings are at an end).

    He had some interesting recent thoughts on what the 1662 BCP had to say about prayer for the ill (and other problems). It seems to me this is a far better “big picture” view and approach for getting away from this “protection racket” type of prayer (of course, feel free to update the one section from King James English!):

    Toon wrote this: “Since God is THE LORD prayer for the sick cannot simply demand recovery or renewed health. Rather this prayer must be submissive, asking the Lord to minister to his sick servant and do for him what is according to the divine will, which will always including forgiveness and may include restoration to health.

    “Here is the address that the Minister may actually use as is, or as a guide, in speaking as a pastor to the sick person:

    “Dearly beloved, know this, that Almighty God is the Lord of life and death, and of all things to them pertaining, as youth, strength, health, age, weakness, and sickness. Wherefore, whatsoever your sickness is, know you certainly, that it is God’s visitation. And for what cause soever this sickness is sent unto you; whether it be to try your patience, for the example of others, and that your faith may be found in the day of the Lord laudable, glorious, and honourable, to the increase of glory and endless felicity; or else it be sent to you to correct and amend you in whatsoever doth offend the eyes of your heavenly Father; know you certainly, that if you truly repent you of your sins, and bear your sickness patiently, trusting in God’s mercy for his dear Son Jesus Christ’s sake, and render unto him thanks for his fatherly visitation, submitting yourself wholly unto his will, it shall turn to your profit, and help you forward in the right way that leadeth unto everlasting life.

    “Here the relation of the baptized believer with his heavenly Father by adoption and grace is a primary thought, and so sickness is placed in a large context, that of a vocation leading to everlasting life, which begins in this life and has no ending, for it is in and with the eternal God.”

    So, for what it is worth, that’s just a thought on a view of prayer far from our age of “me-ism.” Peter Toon’s farewell of a sorts is at http://pbs1928.blogspot.com/.

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  15. Michael: You said “… a lot of evangelicals have a religious experience that basically amounts to a kind of protection racket.”

    Perhaps this approach to prayer reflects deeper issues. I just happened last night to listen to a John Piper sermon on the “Gospel for 11-year-olds and up” (his daughter was making a profession of faith at the time).

    In regard to a concern about Christian nominalism, Piper said “many people I fear receive Christ in a way that requires no new birth.” For example, “they receive Him as protector because they love being safe.” Or, instead of cherishing Him and delighting in Him, “they receive Him as sin-forgiver because they really enjoy being guilt-free,” Piper said, or “they receive Him as rescuer from hell because they love being pain-free.”

    I found that “protector” comment somewhat interesting in regard to this discussion on prayer. Please note, it is NOT that I’m saying this is always a “nominalism” issue.

    But you might be hitting on something with this “protection racket,” and hearing that Piper comment made me think. I haven’t read Piper all that much or listened to him much either, but his sermon on the “Gospel for 11-year-olds and up” was good (especially a briefly-mentioned concern about raising children who “love” Jesus but do not “believe” in Him).

    I realize you were making other points as well, but the way people pray can say a lot about what they believe as well. (Including me, the “worst” sinner I know!)

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  16. I agree that God answers prayers according to His purposes, but I can’t agree that there’s no telling what that’s going to mean. Many times I’ve asked Him for something and He immediately said, “No. I’m not going to do that. It’s not My responsibility to rectify this situation. It’s yours. Here’s what you need to do. First, repent…” and so on.

    I find God regularly lets us in on what He’s going to do before He does it. The trouble is that we don’t listen. We expect the only way He answers prayer is by either fulfilling the request, or not. When nothing happens, we assume the answer is “no” or “not yet.” But often the answer is conditional: “I will, but here’s what you have to do.” God is love; love requires relationship. God wants to accomplish things by relationship rather than by fiat.

    One type of request I’ve heard a lot is, “God, heal this person, for Your glory.” God’s response is often, “How is My glory shown by healing her? She doesn’t believe in Me. She won’t change her mind just because I heal her; she’ll chalk it up to natural causes or a freak of nature. It does My glory or Kingdom no good to simply heal her. You need to go to her. You need to talk to her about Me. Don’t give her the ‘You just need Jesus and it’ll all be better’ line. Just be there for her. Demonstrate love. Let her see Me through you. Then, once she’s finally recognized that I’m there, then I can heal her. Then I’ll get the glory you’re talking about.”

    But we don’t want a solution that requires effort on our part. We want quick fixes. And He is not the God of quick fixes.

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  17. Katie – you are correct, I was just making a point. The Bible says we can make our petitions known to God, but as you correctly said our attitude must be His will be done. Thanks.

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  18. Rick,
    He should pray that God’s will be done in regards to the life of either soldier. My mother-in-law has been praying since my husband’s first tour that he wouldn’t have to back again. We are now on his fourth. Do I want God to bring him home safe? Of course. Who wouldn’t? But if God’s will is that he sacrifice his life over there, then I would honestly rather have God’s will be done.
    Before my husband left this time, he told his mother that he believed it was God’s will for him to go again, and that she should stop praying against it. It is hard to accept that what is easiest for us is not always what God has in store. I think we should try to be content with God’s will for either soldier.

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  19. Hi Richard,

    [Evangelicals generally spend much more time in sharing prayer requests than in actually praying. … Many people love sharing prayer requests. I wonder why?]

    I think that sharing prayer requests in a small group setting is one way that we ‘bear one another’s burdens’– it takes time to hear one another’s hearts. I think that it can be good to close the prayer request sharing time by simply acknowledging that God has heard our requests and commit the requests to Him. (I don’t believe that God requires that the requests be repeated again in a more ‘holy’ manner).

    Regards, Owen

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  20. Once I was hundreds of miles away from home, and something happened on the trip that made it feel like my car was running on 2 cylinders. I prayed to make it over a steep bridge. I just barely made it.

    It was late on Sunday, and no garage was open in town. I had to leave the next day. My wife and I sincerely prayed that when we cranked our car up it would return to normal. 15 minutes later when we tried it cranked up and ran like normal.

    Oh, how some of the things we encounter in life are unnesesary (God could have prevented it altogether I’m sure) but they build and strengthen our faith when we put our trust in what He can do.
    Did I change God’s mind by praying? I would hope not. I would hope that it was stumbling block God put in front of me that humbled me in prayer before Him, and it did more for me than you could imagine.

    If mortals like ourselves could change God’s mind by praying, then I don’t think thats the kind of God worth worshipping. God’s immutability and sovereignty is at stake when it comes to some evangelicals practical theology concerning prayer.

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  21. “I believe that prayer has many values, but Jesus didn’t explain an entire theology of prayer when he taught us to pray.”

    Are you seriously suggesting an unseen faith factor might be involved?

    How about a Christian prays that God will protect his Christian son in Iraq, but in reality shouldn’t he pray that God protect the unsaved soldier so he might come to Christ? And shouldn’t our attitude be, however painful, that like Abraham “Lord take my son so others who do not know You may live?”.

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  22. Hebrews 11:32-38 is a sobering testament of how faithful (and assuming prayerful) people are sometimes delivered and sometimes not.

    I agree that often our prayer is amiss and fraught with all kinds of defective motives and desires. That is who we are. The Pharisees were shining examples of this, and James 4:1-3 speaks to this malady as well. But in almost the same breath he warns that we often don’t have simply because we have not asked. Talk about neglect!

    We should always examine our hearts and motives as expressed through our prayers, but we should also not be timid and hesitant to plead before our Father who is over-flowing with desire to give good gifts to his children in response to their prayer.

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  23. As I stated in the next post, one can pray, as I do, and not believe certain things about God or prayer that others do. I am not denying prayer. I an denying that God fixes or prevents things just because we ask or because he plays a game of “ask and I’ll protect you” with humans.

    I believe that prayer has many values, but Jesus didn’t explain an entire theology of prayer when he taught us to pray.

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  24. I agree with Bill above. Michael, your post resonated with me and I agreed with much. But I think you have gone too far in the other direction.

    Your post leaves too many passages of Scripture unanswered. Take Philippians 4:6-7 for example. We are told to pray for everything and there seems to be no qualifiers upon this.

    Admittedly, your post is not a comprehensive study of prayer. But it does strike me as a bit reactionary and unbalanced.

    You may always make me think and I hope that some of us can make you think too. 🙂

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  25. My experience resonates with everything you wrote, Michael. I’ve often wondered about the “advantages” of being a believer in this world. People may disagree theologically, but no one can disagree with the experience. The world’s “f’ed” up. It just is….for everybody.

    False expectations have given me “faith” issues.

    On the other hand, I wonder if we couldn’t all offer examples of answered prayer regarding very mundane issue- both small and large. God has done amazing “intersections” from time to time in my family. They’ve been weighty and life changing… and almost unbelievably synchronistic or coincidental, if his hand is disallowed.

    And it’s not just the big things: when my wife and I first married, we had even less disposable income than we do now. We wanted a coffee maker, but couldn’t afford one. We prayed for one, privately. Next Sunday a church member approached us after services with a box. Guess what was in it. Guess what they no longer needed and wondered if we could use?

    It was wonderful; not because coffee is so grand, but because it was a reminder that God knew who we were.

    Of course, there have been graver situations where our petitions have gone unanswered. Many of them. I would rather have God skipped the appliance provision and preserved my sister from cancer. I have no idea what God is up to. I know I would do things differently, but that doesn’t negate the fact that I do believe he is up to something.

    I should pray for healing because his servant James told me to. It’s proper to ask for prodigal instances of truth, beauty and justice because that’s what his kingdom is about.

    The Father of our Lord is my Father, now. I know that in my home it’s rare that we get into the checkout line at the grocery store without my kids asking for candy. 95% of the time, I say no. I understand why they ask. It’s rare that it aggravates me, and… sometimes I say yes.

    If my children ever believe that I am there to keep them in candy, then I’ve failed as a father and they fall very short of the humanity God intended for them. If my children ever get to the point where they don’t think I care about their happiness or are cynical about my love, then we’ve failed as a family.

    In the end our final hope lies on the other side of Christ’s return, but it seems right to think of Dad at the wheel of the family station wagon- driving the family to that vacation beach that seems so… far…away. Maybe he’ll let us get a Kid’s meal at the next exit.

    “Dad, are we there yet. I gotta pee!”

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  26. While this doesn’t address all of the points you’ve covered, I’ve been observing and contemplating lately the juxtaposition of the sovereignty of God with his respect for the sovereignty of man’s will. This is why when we pray things we KNOW are according to His Will (so-and-so to be “saved”, to develop a closer relationship with Him, after all He Wills all men to be saved), that it yet may take years to see any progress. When we are praying for changes in behavior or choices, we need to realize that God will not superimpose Himself on our decisions or anyone else’s. I think we should be careful how we pray, to keep this in mind. I’m sure our prayers would be more effective, and as well we would find ourselves praying for more eternal things–fruit of the Spirit, growth toward perfection, etc.

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  27. We ought pray. Jesus ssid, “You recieve not because you ask not.”

    Jesus taight us to pray Against ourselves in the Lord’s prayer..”Thy will be done…”, not as I would like…’my’ will be done.

    In case anyone is wondering, God lets everything happen. From kids being killed by drunk drivers, to tyrants invading other countries, to people getting Alzheimers, to the tragedies in your’s and my life. God lets it all happen. Whatever happens, He makes use of it for His ppurposes. A hard pill to swallow. But we must. This is the theology of the cross.

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  28. Good stuff!

    Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will…” “Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

    It’s okay for us to ask God to “fix” our situation but we should be mindful that His will is best. Perhaps we should pray that God would give us the faith to endure our trials and sufferings if it is not His will to remove them. It’s far better to walk through the inevitable trials of life WITH Christ at our side than to walk through them without Christ by our side.

    Yes, it’s much better to endure trials knowing that God is with us and will not forsake us, than to wait on God to fix them. That way we will begin to look forward to the joy set before us as in – “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

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  29. Michael,
    If you are burning out over the thesis that “God is sovereign is central to Christianity,” may I invite you reconsider. I’m not saying we question God’s sovereignty. He is sovereign, and that is a fact that may even be described as a central truth of the Christian faith. However, It hardly seems be the center of what God is trying to reveal to us in Scripture, and quite frankly, putting that thesis front and center makes us start talking about God in the same way muslims do.
    We might start with the cross. It seems to me that was the goal of Scripture, the final revelation, the ultimate revelation of God, not as sovereign, but as the propitiation for our sin. Scriputre focuses in on the cross at Genesis 3, the rest is just the unfolding of history to get us there.

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  30. Maybe many Christians are approaching prayer with the “magic book” view of the Bible you wrote about earlier this week.

    I own some books that seem to advocate a “magic verse” approach to prayer. Each chapter has an abundance of verses on a subject- you pray by plugging your issue into the blank provided as you repeat the verse. I also participate in a group of moms that pray weekly for their kids; the group philosophy is to take a particular verse each week and plug your child’s name in the verse and “pray the scripture” over your child. I think the purpose of this method is that you will succeed in praying God’s will rather than your own.

    Sometimes though, I feel a prick (mental, nobody has made a voodoo doll of me – at least not yet) because the verse is applied in a way that does not relate to the surrounding text. It seems like a voodoo approach to prayer: if I use God’s Word to pray, I will evoke the Holy Spirit to act.

    I’m not going to stop praying for my children this way because I don’t believe it is necessary to use or avoid a particular method to prayer – maybe because prayer is less about method and more about knowing that God is in control.

    Still, I feel bothered by this approach at times. I realize I keep using the word “feel”. I don’t have any training in theology and I am not able to put into words why I believe this approach to prayer to be at the very least incomplete, maybe even misleading at times. And as I read the Bible, I don’t observe David praying this way. When Jesus gave the disciples the Lord’s prayer, He didn’t pray this way. I have wondered how Daniel and Esther prayed.

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  31. I think, like everything else, it’s easy to get out of balance (such as praying for a hedge of protection around a pool cleaner 🙂

    But we are exhorted in scripture to humble ourselves before God and cast all our cares upon him. We’re told to let our requests be known. We’re told to pray for our daily bread. We’re not to worry, but to pray. We’re told to pray for the sick.

    I’ve got teenagers. So I’m praying like crazy right now 🙂 – for protection for them, guidance, wisdom. I’m not sure that that amounts to assuming God is running a “protection racket”.

    In other words, I agree with much written here, but would caution against swinging too far the other way. Hope that makes sense.

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  32. I always pray that God’s will be done, and usually when praying for healing, or for a family with death or tragedy, I pray that whatever the outcome God would receive honor and glory.

    Nevertheless, I’m reminded of scriptures that say things like “You have not because you ask not,” and call for us to cast our cares upon him. “The effectual fervent pray of a righteous man avails much,” and the such like. I know the type of people and situations that you’re describing, and I’m inclined to agree; somewhat.

    We read that God knows what we have need of even before we ask, so I’ve sometimes wondered what the purpose is of praying at all. I believe praying is more for out benefit than it is for God’s. God doesn’t need a list of things to do, but when we sincerely ask for his blessing/healing/protection, that shows we understand we cannot provide those things for ourselves and are relying on Him to do them. God does when we admit we can’t, and cry out Aba Father.

    I recently wrote about Romans 8:28. That verse doesn’t say nothing bad will ever happen. It does promise that bad and good will be used by God for his purpose, which will be for our good.

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  33. This has been a quandary for me for sometime. If it actually worked regularly that the millions of christians who prayed regularly for healing and salvation of everyone we knew, it seems like we are asking for the New Heaven and the New Earth, where no one gets sick or dies, to be here now.

    Until Christ returns, we live in a fallen world with death and disease and sin where the death rate is 100%.
    Even still we pray for healing for our 99 year old grandparents.

    And yet, the Bible seems to say that we should “in all things, through prayer and supplication, make our requests known to God” and “the prayer of a righteous man availeth much”

    As a physician whose young sister recently died of ovarian cancer, I can say that despite the many prayers for healing I have seen and participated in, its seems to be a rare thing overall.

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  34. Thanks for this, Michael. I’m a little conflicted on praying corporately anyway, in light of Jesus’ words to go into our closet and pray to our Father in secret. Most verses in the NT can easily be interpreted with His admonition in mind, yet we have made prayer a weekly slot, an planned event, where people are often pressured to pray out loud just because “that’s what we came here to do.”

    Strange thing is, many believers will tell you they don’t enjoy having to pray in front of others. And it all seems so contrived and it can quickly degenerate into being seen/heard by others, giving announcements, and even gossip! “And Lord, please forgive the chairman of deacons for refusing to speak to me the past couple of weeks, just because my son’s baseball team skunked his son’s team in the regional playoffs!”

    The few NT examples of corporate prayer seem more spontaneous than planned: the response of the believers after hearing the threats against Peter and John, after their release from prison (Acts 4); the time when Peter was imprisoned and the saints gathered in someone’s home to pray for him (Acts 12); when Paul knelt and prayed with the Ephesian elders (Acts 20) and a group of disciples on the beach in Tyre (Acts 21), as he made his way by ship to Jerusalem.

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  35. Timely enough, Ecclesiastes 5 is on the Mcheyne reading calendar today:

    “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.” v(1-3, ESV)

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  36. Richard,

    I suspect that several reasons that people like sharing prayer requests are: building community and making our own lives feel better.

    One of my favorite prayer styles is to stand before God bearing the name of another. I don’t have to tell God what to do, or even which one I’m praying for. (Some names are common, and I’m willing to let God decide which one or all are getting prayed for).

    As a Catholic, I am comfortable asking appropriate saints to join me in prayer, and trust that they with their better view on the situation, can pray more wisely.

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  37. I’m curious:

    What about the Psalms? It seems David is the perfect example of someone who prayed all the time, for all kinds of things.

    He prayed for God to make him just. He prayed for God to slaughter his enemies. He prayed for God to reveal His face to him. He prayed for God to bring him into earthly safety.

    I think that prayer for material goods is something very Biblically justified. The disciples met together and fasted and prayed for Peter’s release from prison–I think because they honestly felt that was how God wanted them to come to Him with requests, not because fasting and praying was a means of admitting that God’s will will be done regardless.

    If God doesn’t answer in the way we “wanted” or “asked,” we should bless His name and seek His will. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to keep him in one’s prayers for everything. After all, at the very least asking God for something should mean we have a greater incentive for praising Him when He gives us our request.

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  38. Something about your post stirred me to remember this word from Thomas Merton:

    “Prayer and meditation have an important part to play in opening up new ways and new horizons. If our prayer is the expression of a deep and grace-inspired desire for newness of life–and not the mere blind attachment to what has always been familiar and “safe”–God will act in us and through us to renew the Church by preparing, in prayer, what we cannot yet imagine or understand. In this way our payer and faith today will be oriented toward the future which we ourselves may never see fully realized on earth.”

    Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a world of Action.

    I think it identifies that nebulous and noumenal place somewhere between the easy poles of “prayer changes things” vs. “prayer changes me.”

    Perhaps real prayer designs to deliver us from this lever-like technological approach altogether and liberate us into a place that looks like identification with God. Now– rather than abuse your comment field with my musings– I’ll take the rest of this to my own back yard (i.e. blog).

    Thanks Michael for the generosity of your time with us at Asbury Seminary. It continues to mean a lot. jd walt

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  39. But what about that good parking place close to the door of the mall? Are you saying that God really doesn’t care about that? 🙂

    Great post, as usual

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  40. Prayer in most evangelical churches is an odd thing. Most of them are just petition’s or “keep these people safe”. I have always thought that prayer requests served as “holy gossip” and that the best way for a baptist to procrastinate was to pray about it.

    Michael, what do you think about the integration of classic prayers back into the Church? I know that most expository prayer easily slips into asking for things, using church words and substituting the name of God for the usual uh’s and awkward pauses in conversation.

    Maybe we need to learn to pray again?

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  41. (Moderator edited)

    As I am in the habit of doing, I am now going to say “C. S. Lewis wrote a very helpful essay about this”. It’s called “Petitionary Prayer: a Problem Without an Answer”. It’s in several anthologies, and can also be read online thanks to Google Books: http://tinyurl.com/5wdc2w

    Seems to me that, nine times out of ten, when I wrestle with a theological problem, Lewis has been there before, thought all of my own thoughts twice as clearly as I did, and gone twice as far.

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  42. Beside the issue of massive prayerlessness in evangelicalism, this is a great topic. Selfishness, nebulousness, manipulation, and other features of western prayer reveal a religious perfunctoriness. My own western model:

    “Dear Lord, I need a miracle. My automatic pool cleaner is making a strange sound, please set a hedge of protection around it.”

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  43. #2
    My grandfather was a pastor, and it pained me to watch him pray for a miracle as my grandmother lay dying, the tests all showing irreversible brain damage. We all thought he was in denial about the situation. I confronted him about it one day and the conviction of his faith still teaches me. He knew full well the reality of my grandmother’s impending death; he was happy she was going to see her Savior face to face. But His prayers for a miracle (not that he didn’t want one) were an acknowlegement that the God he served was big enough, and powerful enough to be capable of any miracle. His prayers were really praise for God’s sovreignty. To him, to pray for less was to limit God’s power to only what was humanly possible. It was a matter of praying with the centurion’s faith that believed that God could accomplish anything.

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  44. Michael – great post! This is not cynical – it’s Biblical (i’m pretty sure). The “Maytag Man” idea is what happens when the focus of Christianity becomes what’s in this for me instead of what’s God up to in the world. When the message we preach is “give Jesus a try – see if He’ll solve all your problems,” the journey’s already off on the wrong foot.

    I’ve been struggling with this very thing over the last couple months and am going to try to flesh it out on my (infant) blog. I’m hoping to be able to harmonize the thoughts you’ve expressed here with a lot of the passages I’ve been reading lately. Guess I’d better hurry before you beat me to it!

    Anyway, this is spot-on – keep it up.

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  45. Oooh, this was tough to read! It’s so easy to fall in to this mindset, even when you know better. We used to pray with our kids for safe travel as we left home on long car trips. But one day it hit me that our prayers for protection were a good faith building exercise…as long as we actually arrived at our destination safely. But what devastating faith message would our children get if we prayed for God’s protection on our trip and we got in an accident anyway? How could they avoid thinking that God had failed us? Now we try to keep our travel prayers within biblical promises, focusing instead on God’s presence and care no matter what circumstances we encounter: “I will be with you always.”

    Similarly, when our 16 yr old drives away for the evening, I don’t believe that God is watching over her to keep her from harm any more than I would believe He somehow wasn’t doing His job if something terrible happened to her. A quick prayer for safety isn’t a magic talisman. The promise I’ve been given is an eternal one. If something awful happens to her I know she’s headed for heaven, I know God doesn’t want us to suffer, I know He will be there for me in His word and with His Spirit to comfort me, and I know that ultimately He will use the situation for good, even though I don’t understand it now(and may never understand it). No magic protection…and when we perpetuate that myth through seemingly innocuous platitudes, we relegate God to our limited scope of His power and a vision of His will that is centered, quite selfishly, on our own well-being.

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  46. I think you are incredibly well-spoken.
    I’m 20 years old and I’m going through a lot of tough times in my life and to be honest, I come back to your site often enough because it’s as though you wrote my biography lol.

    I agree with what you’re saying. I have read a few of your essays… and I can assure you, you make a difference in peoples’ lives. You’ve made one in mine.

    Keep it up!

    People tend to lose faith because they’ve been taught all the wrong things concerning God. Often, we forget that He is a loving God.

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  47. Last semester I did an assignment on petitionary prayer and what it told us about Christology. Perhaps the biggest influence on my approach was a throwaway comment by our lecturer that prayer doesn’t change God’s mind, it changes us (he’s a Barth fanatic). When I did my research for the essay I came to much the same conclusion (with some reservations – I’m not a Barth fanatic). I hope you don’t mind if I share a few quotes with you:

    Prayer begins with the movement in which a man wishes and seeks to win new clarity about the fact that “God is the one who rules.” A man prays, not in order to sacrifice his work or even to neglect it, but… so that he may do it under the illumination and, consequently, under the rule and blessing of God. – Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: an Introduction, 1979

    The outcome of petitionary prayer is submission to God’s will. – Donald Capps The Psychology of Petitionary Prayer

    I don’t know whether it can be considered a paradigm, but perhaps the most basic petitionary prayer is the one we pray that says (generically speaking), “Lord, save me, a sinner.” With it, we don’t change God’s mind about us, rather we change ourselves through knowledge of God/Jesus and, therefore, come to salvation through Christ.

    Whatever it is that Jesus does, therefore, he does it not in order to change God’s mind or his attitude or his actions, but to transform ours. – Trevor Hart, “Redemption and Fall”, in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine. 1997

    I think your last paragraph is a pretty succinct summation of this.

    Finally, on a more frivolous note:

    A journalist heard about a very old Jewish man who had been going to the Wailing Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for sixty years. The journalist went to the Wailing Wall and there observed the old Jew.
    The journalist enquired, “What do you pray for?”
    The man replied, “I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims. I pray for all the wars and hatred to stop, I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults, and to love their fellow man.”
    “How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?” asked the journalist.
    “Like I’m talking to a brick wall”, he replied

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  48. Evangelicals generally spend much more time in sharing prayer requests than in actually praying. Each request gets discussed, anecdotes are compared (eg. “The same thing happened to my neighbour…”) There’s a lot of wasted time and energy there. So whenever I can, I encourage groups to not share requests but to present their requests in prayer (eg. tell us your uncle needs prayer to recover from his hip surgery by actually praying for him out loud in our presence).This works ok but it’s not wildly popular. Many people love sharing prayer requests. I wonder why?

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  49. A much needed post, Monk, and I almost agree with it. Praying for temporal favors is not the problem; praying for nothing but temporal favors is. A dear friend of mine died of cancer eighteen months ago. For weeks I prayed several times a day for the Lord to heal him, even when the doctors said his case was hopeless. Healing, however, was not the only thing I prayed for. I asked the Lord to reveal Himself to my friend, to make him a witness to the medical staff, and to bring his son closer to Christ. The Lord said no to my prayers for healing, but yes to the others. Our duty, it seems to me, is to cast all our cares upon Him, and let Him decide which ones are amenable to His kingdom purposes. In other words, to pray with our Savior, ‘Nevertheless not My will, but Yours be done’.

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  50. Michael,

    Maybe it’s just misperception, but it seems like this is a growing problem in popular Christianity. (Maybe it’s because I am surrounded by family members that buy into the “God as problem solver” theology.)

    I went through an ugly divorce a number of years ago where my wife of a decade refused to work on our marriage and left me along with our two young children. It hurt like hell, and I remember sobbing and asking God, “Why?” But I never asked Him “Why me?” and I never asked Him to take it all away. Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t; I’m pretty quick to complain and terribly selfish. But while I’m not glad those things happened, I’m sure glad I serve a God who never left my side and who was constantly teaching me to rely only on Him.

    When you think about it, a God who solves all your problems and protects you from everything doesn’t really sound like a God I want to serve. After all, would *I* really be serving *Him*? Or would it be the other way around?

    Great post,
    Peter

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  51. I once heard an evangelist share a personal story about his experience in WWII. Somewhere in the Pacific he’d been separated from his unit for some time and when he was finally liberated he wrote a letter home telling his folks that he was ok. His mother replied that she’d known he was ok because she had prayed for him the whole time. He stated, “Friends, I survived the war because I had a praying mother.”

    My immediate thought was, “What about all the other praying mothers whose sons didn’t survive the war.”

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  52. What a challenge! That we stop asking and expecting God to make our ways His ways. Gotta admit, this hits where it hurts. Thank you!

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