Our church is journeying in prayer this month. Our preaching series is “Questions of Prayer,” which aims to be honest about questions we share about prayer and give us orientation points for our praying. An optional step past Sunday morning is working through Steve Harper’s book, Talking in the Dark: Praying When Life Doesn’t Make Sense.
Chapter two of Talking in the Dark is titled, “The Human Problem.” Steve relates the many stumbles and falls of a child learning to walk to our learning to pray. There are plenty of human problems and difficulties connected to learning to prayer, but God is like a parent who continues to encourage us, to help us, to lead us as we take new steps in prayer.
Steve shares several human problems. He admits, “the older I get, the more content I am to leave some situations in the realm of mystery and wonder,” but still insists that there are human problems we can name, and hopefully avoid. I’ll share them over the next couple of posts or so. Let’s start with these two:
- The extremes of underselling and overselling prayer
- The notion that prayer is magic
Underselling and Overselling Prayer
These opposites spring from the same source: an incomplete reading of the whole Bible on prayer. Often we begin with our own ideas about how prayer should work and do no more than memorize a few Bible verses that reinforce what we already believe. We need the whole Bible’s teaching on prayer as our orientation point. Steve warns: “When we pitch it too high, we create unrealistic expectations; when we pitch it too low, we leave the impression that it doesn’t matter much whether we pray. In either case… prayer is caricatured and perhaps even counterfeited” (p. 35). The rest of the human problems fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
Question: Do you tend to fault toward underselling prayer, or overselling prayer?
Prayer as Magic
Another human problem in prayer is our temptation to treat prayer as magic. “Many people believe that if they use the right words in the right way and with the right spirit, God is obligated to answer in the way they have requested” (p. 35). “Prayer becomes a formula, and the purpose of prayer is to get results” (p. 36). This is a mindset that we can slip into no matter our spirituality in praying, whether guided by ritual or characterized by spontaneity. In not underselling prayer we affirm that God does use prayer to work out results in the world. Two comments though. First, prayer cannot be reduced to being only, or even primarily, about being a “spiritual technology” for getting results. And second, most often we lack the wisdom and perspective to understand what results God is looking for in a given situation, so we wouldn’t be able to evaluate it simply based on the results we think we see.
Question: When have you felt/thought, “ I prayed what/how I was supposed to, why didn’t God do what he was supposed to?