Republished, with permission, from Voice magazine, March-April, 2011.
By Dan Fredericks
Prayer. Who doesn’t believe in it? Who doesn’t, in some form or another, engage in it? With the exception of a few self-deceived and self-deluded atheists/agnostics, prayer is universally accepted and valued, or so it would seem. Even the seemingly hardest-hearted, unbelieving atheist would actually welcome prayer on his behalf, despite his unbelief. After all, the adage, “There are no atheists in fox holes” largely holds true.
For the most part, I am encouraged by our national and local leaders who speak of the importance of prayer and even call upon the nation to pray. When tragedies shock the nation, expressions soon follow of “thoughts and prayers” on behalf of all impacted. Yet at the same time, I harbor a healthy skepticism, knowing that not all prayers are created equal.
Among true believers, it seems ironic that those who most vocally espouse prayer often neglect its practice. The “prayer meeting” seems to be dropping off the local church calendar at an alarming rate. And those who still hold a midweek prayer meeting often clutter it up with any number of other time-consuming activities so that little praying actually takes place. Admittedly, at times I have been guilty of this.
I am not simply advocating for a commitment to the mid-week prayer meeting, although that is a good thing. I am advocating the necessity of soul-satisfying communion with our precious Lord. We should pray because we love Him, not merely to fulfill a religious obligation. Empty, ritualistic praying is a perversion.
I believe that prayer and the Word of God are the key components to the Christian life and ministry. As I state this conviction, I am equally concerned and disturbed at the increasing ways in which prayer is distorted and perverted.
Prayer can be perverted.
A casual Google search reveals that our culture invokes prayer for a variety of reasons and purposes. This is what I call the perversion of prayer. Entering “pray” or “prayer” into the Google search engine identifies over 31 million choices and options, revealing every imaginable, and often twisted, idea and practice in the name of “prayer.”
Appeals to prayer are everywhere it seems. As one secular author put it, “the world that prays together, stays together.” On behalf of prayer, who could deny construction of a Hindu temple in Minnesota (the country’s largest Hindu temple is in Maple Grove, Minnesota) or a Muslim mosque near the remains of the World Trade Center? From the most animistic cultures to the most elaborate monotheistic religions, from the eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism to Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism, prayer is mystical, regimented, restricted, and regulated.
I grew up on the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona where prayer was viewed as a vital activity for all aspects of life. Ceremonial prayers were offered for every phase and aspect of life and death. The spiritistic superstitions were frenetic and compelled people to pray and seek out medicine men to invoke spiritual power for every imaginable need. Drumming, dancing, burning sweet grass, using tobacco and ingesting peyote all found their ways into prayer services. Since they are “indigenous,” some say that these practices should be embraced as sincere heart expressions before the Lord.
The degradation of communication with God is demonstrated in the account of Elijah’s conflict with the prophets of Baal. Elijah simply spoke to God without the trappings of pagan dancing and incantations. In stark contrast to this, the pagan prophets of Baal followed their religious customs of dancing before their gods (read the full account in 1 Kings 18).
The Bible, in 1 Kings 18, records that the pagan prophets of Baal—the medicine men of their day—“leaped about the altar which they had made.” And when their controlled dancing did not achieve its anticipated results, they stepped things up a notch. “They cried out with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom.” All of this was a perversion of true prayer.
Richard Twiss is a recognized leader in the evangelical world for his ministry to Native peoples. He teaches Native Americans that God gave them a native way of worshiping Him. Twiss promotes “dancing prayers” and incorporating other traditional and culturally familiar practices into the worship of God in “the Native American way.” Dancing Our Prayers International Teams have been formed by Richard Twiss and his Wiconi ministry.1 Though I appreciate Twiss’s burden for First Nations people and his desire to promote effective ministry to indigenous peoples, cultural syncretism is a cause for great concern which requires great discernment and biblical discipline. This is a dangerous and potentially misleading, if not deceptive, way of teaching Native Americans how to communicate with God.
Prayer can be perplexing.
This is demonstrated in numerous biblical accounts. Think of the perplexity in prayer when Abraham cried out to God in Genesis 18:23-32 over the conditions in Sodom. Or how about Moses’ perplexities as he wrestled with God’s plan to deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage through him, in Exodus 32:11-13. And what of Habakkuk’s perplexity as he sought to make sense of God’s dealings with His chosen people when He utilized the wicked Assyrians and Babylonians to exercise discipline on Judah? Habakkuk famously cried out, “How long, O LORD, will I call for help?”
In the notes of The MacArthur Study Bible regarding Habakkuk 1:12-2:1, we read, “Habakkuk, in his reaction to the perplexing revelation (vv. 5-11), declared his confidence in the Lord (v.12), then unveiled his second complaint, namely, how could the Lord use a wicked nation (the Chaldeans) to judge a nation (Judah) more righteous than they (vv. 13-17)? The prophet ended by expressing his determination to wait for an answer (2:1).”
For the true believer, prayer has its moments of perplexity. Conflict of heart and confusion in mind comes after we have prayed, and prayed, and seemingly God does not answer us. Such seasons of perplexity are often tritely explained away by a rationalizing anecdotal triad: God sometime says, “yes,” “no,” or “wait.” And on the face of it, this is not completely inaccurate, but neither is it adequate.
Prayer is not simply about our experience in time. Prayer is about His purposes for eternity, for His glory. God is both faithful and sovereign and, as such, no eternal harm will befall His children and no seemingly historical injustice will ultimately go uncorrected and righteously judged. This is our assurance in prayer as well. Our heart’s cry before God will be comforted by His faithful and true character. As the meaning of Habukkuk’s name suggests, “embracer or one who embraces,” we too need to embrace the Lord in confidence and rest our questioning hearts and minds in Him. Charles Ryrie says of Habakkuk, “Ultimately, [he] realized that God was not to be worshiped merely because of temporal blessings He bestowed, but for His own sake” (The Ryrie Study Bible, Habakkuk Introductory notes).
Prayer should be a pleasure.
Prayer may have its perplexing moments in our temporary experience and perspective, but it is also one of the believer’s great spiritual privileges and pleasures. When the truth of God’s Word and the Spirit of truth combine in our hearts during sweet seasons of prayer, it is indeed a peace-producing privilege and pleasure.
Scripture and prayer sustain the spiritual life of the believer. The God-breathed Word and our Word-inspired prayers keep our spiritual life thriving. Our prayer life before the Lord is a refreshing, life-reviving pleasure. It is sweet communion with our Lord whether it is planned or unplanned, spontaneous as well as corporate. It’s a “return to the Garden” where our heart is adjusted to God’s will and ways.
The great missionary Hudson Taylor put it this way, “Do not have your concert first, and then tune your instruments afterwards. Begin the day with the Word of God and prayer, and get first of all into harmony with Him.”
We pray not out of duty, but from a heart of delight. We pray not to get our way done on earth, but for our Lord to have His way done in our hearts. We pray because it is the way the Holy Spirit works, through the Word, to reach others for salvation and sanctification in Christ Jesus.
For the believer, prayer can be as awkwardly articulated as a toddler with a one-word vocabulary. It is the heart of trust, speaking to the One who is a loving and accepting Heavenly Father. This makes our prayers effectual and pleasurably refreshing.
The great minister and Civil War chaplain Edward M. Bounds, known for his writings on prayer, was passionate regarding this spiritual grace. What is little known, however, is that E. M. Bounds did not compose his works on prayer until the last seventeen years of his life and ministry. For E. M. Bounds, prayer was the product of a life lived in the crucible where prayer and Scripture were the life-calming and clarifying components.
In his excellent book on prayer, our good brother and fellow IFCA pastor Paul Tautges writes, “A life of prayer is irrefutable proof of God-dependency. This is true not only of the individual believer, but also of the local church… As pastors and elders we must not only tell the members of our flocks to pray, we must also teach them how to bring their needs to God’s throne of grace. In short, our churches need a biblical theology of prayer—a God-centered way of thinking as it relates to speaking to our Creator and our Redeemer. This will only develop when we commit ourselves to the faithful teaching of all that God has revealed in His Word concerning prayer.2
Another said it this way, “I would rather train twenty men to pray, than a thousand to preach. A minister’s highest mission ought to be to teach his people to pray.” (H. MacGregor)
It was Oswald Chambers who said of prayer, “[it] is not a preparation for work, it is the work. Prayer is not a preparation for the battle, it is the battle. Prayer is two-fold: definite asking and definite waiting to receive.” We ask in accordance with the Scriptures, not for our own hearts’ desires, and our expectation for answered prayer is guided by the same.
In our prayer life, let us go “back to the Garden,” walking with the One who is the Word. In the cool of the day and in the heat, sweet communion in prayer is the spiritual pleasure which refreshes our souls. Let’s revitalize our prayer life, not with a new program, but with a renewed heart.
2 Paul Tautges, Teach Them to Pray: Cultivating God-Dependency in Your Church (Day One Publications, 2010), p.12.
Dan Fredericks is the Executive Director of UIM (United Indian Missions) of Glendale, Arizona where he now lives. He is also a member of the IFCA International Board of Directors.