I can’t think of one specific doctrine, offhand, which is more tradition-laden, and buried under sentimentality, than that of prayer.
For that very reason, it’s a risky topic. Step in any direction, and you land on someone’s toes. Worse, diverge from the “party line,” and it’s as if you’re insulting Mom. Only a fool, or someone with nothing to lose, would knowingly poke a stick at that particular venerated bovine. (Say, why are you looking at me like that?)
Christianoid notions. Common Christian coinage describes prayer as a conversation, declares that “there is power in prayer,” makes prayer out to be the be-all and end-all of Christian living. Prayer is “the greatest power on earth,” we’re told. Is this Scriptural thinking?
Think of Frank Peretti’s Darkness books. I read one or two. I thought them imaginative and fast-moving, but neither great theology nor great literature.
In his imagination, Peretti pulls the curtain aside on the spiritual battle that Scripture describes. He shows demons and angels alike in action, makes up their dialogue, fantasizes their attempts to ruin or protect human beings.
Here’s what sticks in my mind. What do you suppose strikes terror into Peretti’s demons? When does everything start to turn around, for the demons’ defeat and the saints’ victory? It’s when the saints pray. Nothing scares fallen angels, apparently, like praying Christians.
Now, it strikes me that all of this is backwards at worst, sideways at best.
Biblical teaching. What is prayer, in the Bible? It’s one thing, and one thing only: prayer is talking to God. Period. That’s it. It might be talking in the form of praise, petition, confession, supplication, exclamation, or a host of other forms. It might be talking to God while happy (Psalm 43:4), sad (Psalm 42:9), mad (Psalm 10:15), hurried (Nehemiah 2:4), guilty (Psalm 51:1), busy and distracted (Nehemiah 4:9), or near death (Acts 7:59-60). But it all boils down to that one irreducible: prayer is what you say to God.
No arguments so far? Great. Now fasten your seatbelts, and consider this:
Prayer is not a dialogue. Prayer is not a conversation. Prayer has no intrinsic power, whatever.
Show me from the Bible. In the Bible, what I say to God is prayer, what He says to me is revelation, it is prophecy. If I am a Christian, I talk to Him. If He talks directly to me, unmediated, I am a prophet, or a seer. And I’m neither; nor are you.
Scripture constantly urges believers to pray, in both covenants (Psalm 32:6; 72:15; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; 1 Timothy 2:1f., etc.).
By contrast, Scripture never urges believers to pray and then wait for God to speak back in that prayer, expecting (demanding?) that God engage us in conversation as a regular facet of normal Christian living. (I am using “conversation” in the strict sense: I speak, then God talks back, unmediated, verbally). Scripture never directs us to an Eastern-style emptying of the mind and listening in and to the silence, for an imaginary “still, small,” never-promised “voice” of God.
Prayer, if you will, is depressing the button on the walkie-talkie, and talking. No more, no less. It has been described as a soldier in the field calling for supplies and reinforcements, and that’s not bad. Prayer is you, talking.
Now, if you want to hear God speak to you, go to His Word in faith, and He will (Proverbs 6:20-23; Hebrews 3:7ff.; 2 Peter 1:19-21, etc.).
Not only is prayer not the be-all and end-all; in fact, sometimes it is positively wrong to pray.
What? More heresy?
Not if your Bible contains Proverbs 28:9, which reads “He who turns away his ear from listening to the law, Even his prayer is an abomination” (NAS). Such prayer is appalling to God. It (so to speak) turns His stomach, when someone turns a deaf ear to His voice in Scripture, but expects God to hear him rattling off his “honey-do” (or “Deity-do”) list of requests.
Nor is it heresy if your Bible still features the devastatingly wondrous first chapter of Isaiah, where we read in verse 15, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” (Remind me sometime to tell you what I think of the National Day of Prayer. Or maybe you can guess.)
What does this mean? It means that sometimes, when someone says “I’ll pray about that,” the most Biblical response is, “Don’t bother. You’ll only make it worse.” In such cases as these, the only appropriate prayer would be a prayer of broken, heartfelt repentance and confession (Psalms 32; 51; 1 John 1:9).
Now, wonderful things can happen in response to prayer. When prayer is expressive of a relationship with God, and in accord with God’s will as revealed in the Bible alone, prayer can accomplish much (James 5:16; 1 John 5:14). But of course, in these cases, the prayer itself is of no power, whatever. It is the God who hears prayer — He is the powerful one.
Think about it. When the bully is beating you up, and all you can choke out is “Dad!”, what dooms your tormentor isn’t the power of your word, your “prayer” — it’s the big, angry man who loves you, hears your voice, and comes running.
So is it prayer per se that really strikes terror into demons’ hearts in this spiritual battle of ours? I do read some detail about the armor of God, crafted in Heaven to equip us for that battle (Ephesians 6:10ff.). I do read somewhere around there of prayer, and I do read of a weapon.
But the weapon isn’t prayer (Ephesians 6:18). That’s just us talking to God. Our words are without intrinsic power. I don’t think that us talking, per se, scares demons. In fact, I’m pretty sure that sometimes it cracks them up.
The weapon is the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). God’s Word sent Satan running from our Lord (Matthew 4). It will do the same for us.
Now, there are some words with power (Psalm 33:6, 9; Jeremiah 23:29; Hebrews 4:12)! Read, them, study them, believe them, embrace them, glory in them, live them — and use them in prayer.
That would result in some quaking, shaking, and glory.