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Spectrum Book Club on Prayer–All Welcome to Join the Discussion

I’ve always appreciated Philip Yancey’s books because he writes as a pilgrim, not a pastor. Not that I don’t appreciate pastoral perspectives, but often they seem to skip over the doubts, questions, and laments that I have. Yancey dives into thorny and complicated problems, seemingly without fear that truly mining their depths could leave him or his readers with less faith than they started with. It’s his honesty and rawness that allows me to listen to his eventual conclusions (or even just continuing questions).

In Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?, Yancey addresses the big questions—why pray if God already knows the future? Why are so many prayers seemingly unanswered? What about all of those seemingly clear promises in the Gospels about asking and then receiving? If we agree to pray, how do we go about it?

As someone who has always struggled with prayer, I appreciated exploring these questions with a fellow pilgrim, even if at the end I still have doubts. I especially enjoyed the stories Yancey shared. Somehow when faced with big theological issues like how prayer works, I find the most meaning in the shared humanity I find in the stories of others facing struggles. A few nuggets that leaped out at me in my reading:

  • Prayer in the Bible frequently “lacks serenity, to put it mildly. In prayer, God seems to encourage ritual lament,” (p. 67). Just read the psalms to see how prayer can be filled alternately with hope and joy and the next minute despair and sorrow. The range of human emotion and experience is appropriate—even necessary—prayer material.
  • The problem of prayer is profound and great minds have explored its depths. C.S. Lewis found that the same argument against prayer (why do it if God knows best) can be made for any human activity—isn’t it all meaningless if God’s going to make it work out one way or another? “God could have arranged things so that our bodies nourished themselves miraculously without food, knowledge entered our brains without studying, umbrellas magically appeared to protect us from rainstorms. God chose a different style of governing the world, a partnership which relies on human agency and choice.”
  • This partnership with God means that prayer must be accompanied by action. Yancey returns to this point again and again. God works through human agency. The Good Samaritan didn’t just pray for the man lying half dead on the side of the road, he also acted. Yancey repeatedly emphasizes that we are God’s hands in the world. He quotes the Catholic priest and author Ronald Rolheiser on this point:

    A theist believes in a God in heaven whereas a Christian believes in a God in heaven who is also physically present on this earth inside human beings…God is still present, as physical and as real today as God was in the historical Jesus. God still has skin, human skin, and physically walk on this earth just as Jesus did…To pray ‘God, please help my neighbor cope with her financial problems,’ or ‘God, do something about the homeless downtown’ is the approach of a theist, not a Christian. God has chosen to express love and greace in the world through those of us who embody Christ.” (p. 244)

    I found this point to be the single most profound take-away from the entire book. He also comes back to this when looking at Jesus’ life and miracles. Why didn’t Jesus miraculously cure world poverty instead of feeding 5,000? Why didn’t he eradicate the polio virus instead of healing the paraplegic? Jesus touched the lives of the people in his life just as I have a responsibility to those whose lives I’m a part of—this means some of us will have wide circles, some of us small, but we are all the living embodiment of what God’s love in the world looks like.

  • There’s something to be said for fixed prayers, especially during times of “spiritual dryness, when spontaneous prayer seems an impossible chore,” (p. 179). As someone who grew up Adventist without ever seeing something like The Book of Common Prayer, this especially caught my eye. Also as someone who seems to go through a lot of dry spells in the praying department, I think I’m going to experiment with this.
  • In addition to fixed prayers, there’s something to be said for silent, meditative prayers. Martin Luther was said to counsel that, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer,” (p. 190). I’m reminded of the portions of Eat, Pray, Love where Liz Gilbert finally quiets her mind in meditation through the use of short prayers or mantras. For a verbivore like myself, being quiet doesn’t come naturally, so finding something to pray about isn’t my problem–rather, I need to learn the discipline of silence. Yancey reminded me that this is probably deeper prayer than my extemporaneous babblings.
  • Like me, Yancey finds the miraculous stories of God saving Christians from the twin towers or from plane wrecks to be problematic. Were not the other people praying? Were they not also good people? When we throw around miracles like this, we lesson the impact of miracles, which Yancey does believe in but finds them to be truly miracles—rare events. This is an especially sensitive topic when dealing with medical healings, and Yancey recounts stories of letters he has received from readers talking about their personal horrors—stories that made me weep—and the seemingly empty, unanswered prayers for healing.
  • The great problem lies in what Yancey terms the “Sweeping Promises” of the Bible. “In a nutshell, the main difficulty with unanswered prayers in that Jesus seemed to promise there need not be any,” (p. 234). This was the section I personally had the most trouble with. It’s one thing to read theologians address the thorny issues of prayer, but the challenge is that the Bible is pretty explicit in some places, such as: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (and many other examples). Yancey valiantly looks at many reasons why prayers go unanswered—some are trivial, some are contradictory or inconsistent (look at football games or wars), some are made without good intentions on the part of the pray-er, some are answered in bigger picture terms, etc. However, I wished that Yancey would have delved into how we got Jesus’ words (I’m sure he’s aware of translation history)—maybe those verses reflect a bias of the writer? But that brings up such a complex topic that I can imagine he realized this book would turn into a series. Although Yancey does provide some conclusions, I’m still left thinking this is a big problem (and one commonly exploited by pastors who make their parishioners feel they just don’t have enough faith, that’s why their prayers are unanswered).
  • In the end, one of the best reasons we have for praying is Jesus. Surely if anyone was privy to God’s will it was him, but he still prayed—even angrily and tearfully at times. That’s probably a good example for us all.

These are just a few ideas that struck me–this is actually quite a lengthy book, so I’m barely doing it justice to pick out a few nuggets, but I would love your thoughts too. Anything really stand out for you? Did anything challenge you? Did anything leave you frustrated and wanting more? If you haven’t read the book, you’re still welcome to join in on questions/thoughts you’ve had on this topic.

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