There is a growing consensus that prayer (or lack of it) is a real problem for modern western Christians. The questions is “Why?” Why does prayer seem to be so lacking in emphasis amongst Australian evangelicals? There are great things happening in ministries all over the country, but why is concerted prayer generally not one of them?
Forgive me for making such broad generalizations, but what has put out the fire in our prayer lives? This fire was certainly a feature of our evangelical heritage; why is it now burning so low?
Dudley Foord and Graham Cole suggest some answers to these questions in their articles (later in this issue). Listed below is my own list of prayer extinguishers. These are personal observations, and are as much a confession as anything else. You may not feel they apply to you—and blessed are you if they do not. (You might like to pray for the rest of us!)
1. The fight against Liberalism
In the last generation or so, evangelicals have fought hard to stem the tide of Liberalism in our churches and theological colleges. We have defended and expounded a vigorously scriptural faith, deflecting the barbs of the ‘de-mythologizers’ who sought to strip our gospel of its content and power. It has been a noble fight. However, there have been some casualties.
In seeking to defend the credibility of the apostolic gospel against the liberals, we may have absorbed rather too much of their world view. The anti-septic rationalism; the anti-supernaturalism; the application of human (Aristotelian) logic to everything—all these may have seeped more deeply into our consciousness than we realize.
The result is that we have steadily lost our belief in the ability of God to act decisively in response to our prayers. The very rational, very mundane, very ‘un-supernatural’ world of the liberals has become our world, at least to some extent. Have we lost a sense of God’s imminence?
2. The fight against Pentecostalism
In reaction to the excesses of the charismatic movement, many Australian evangelicals have become rather suspicious of heart-on-sleeve, ‘hallelujah-praise-the-Lord’ Christianity. Like all good Aussies, we are rather cynical about displays of naked emotion and enthusiasm. We’ve seen plenty of examples of super-spiritual ‘brothers’ who turn out to be phoneys.
However, we have not come up with a successful alternative. We don’t like saccharine-sweet, gushy expressions of our faith; yet at the same time, we have forgotten how to talk about God and prayer in our everyday conversation. When was the last time someone pulled you up in mid-sentence and said something like, “Let’s stop and commit that to God”? In reaction to the over-the-top emotional expression of our pentecostal friends, we have become so spiritually laid-back, we’re almost horizontal.
3. The fight against bad methodology
The last few years has also seen the rise of the ‘church growth’ movement. Many evangelicals realized that some of our traditional methods and structures were outmoded, tired or just downright silly. There has been a mini-revolution in methodology. The new broom is stirring dust everywhere, and a new breed of gospel ministers has been born—sensible, pragmatic, adaptable. All this is great, and the author of 1 Corinthians 8-10 would have been proud of it.
However, as Dudley Foord points out in his article, it is easy to be hijacked by this new pragmatism. There is an insidious assumption behind it all that if only we pull the right levers and run the right programs for our situation, then success is assured. The apostolic pattern of gospel proclamation and prayer (as in Acts 6) has fallen into disuse. Is it outmoded too?
Note that these three fights (against Liberalism, Pentecostalism and Bad Methodology) were good fights, and worth the struggle. I am not suggesting that we relax in any of these areas. But all three have militated in their own way against prayer.
4. Living in a technological society
Added to all this is the relentless pressure of living in the world of microwave ovens, instant soup and video recorders. What place does God have in a technological society, let alone prayer? We are insulated from all those things that might have driven our forebears to trust in God for deliverance. We know little of hunger, widespread disease, early death, or the effect of bad seasons.
It is hard for us to imagine a time when prayer was the only effective treatment for illness. When we get sick, we go to the doctor, take some drugs, and get better. We live in a cause-and-effect world, where technology and effort can be relied on to solve most problems. The over-reliance on methodology in ministry is an interesting manifestation of this.
Our dependence on God for everything, even our daily food and wellbeing, is largely theoretical for most of us. This, too, extinguishes prayer.
5. The collapse of duty
Our society is heavily reliant on feelings as an indicator of authenticity. If my heart is not in something—if I don’t really feel like doing it—then it is almost seen as hypocrisy to continue. Better not to pray at all than out of a sense of ‘duty’. But is duty really so bad?
In his interesting and sometimes perplexing set of Letters to Malcolm, CS Lewis points out that duty exists because of imperfection. If we were perfect (as we will be in heaven), then goodness and righteous deeds would flow out from us as naturally as scent wafts from a flower. We would pray naturally and spontaneously out of our perfect, righteous hearts.
In the meantime, duty fills the gap—the gap between what we know we must do and what we naturally and spontaneously do. Duty is nothing to be ashamed of. It is necessary in our fallen world. Duty is just another name for that very spiritual quality, self-control.
6. An unbiblical view of God’s sovereignty
Another prayer extinguisher, at least for me, has been a warped understanding of God’s sovereignty. I’m a believer in the complete and comprehensive rule of God over this world. Predestination, eternal providence, every hair numbered, sparrows falling—you name it.
However, for a time, the subtle (and unintended) effect of this doctrine was to dampen my belief in the effectiveness of prayer. I knew about James 5:16 (“The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective”) but I wasn’t at all sure how it fitted in with sparrows falling. Surely God achieves his purposes whether I pray or not. Dare I think that God would change his plans because I pray? This seemed almost blasphemous, and it did little to encourage my dwindling prayers. Deep down, I had a sneaking feeling that my prayers made no real difference to a sovereign God—so why bother?
I realized one day that my dilemma could be solved if I simply substituted the word ‘evangelism’ for ‘prayer’. How does my ‘evangelism’ relate to God’s sovereignty? Well, I’m not precisely sure of the details, but I know that somehow God uses my feeble human speech to bring people to repentance. As I share the gospel with someone, God’s Spirit works in and through my words to achieve his purposes. In one sense, he doesn’t need me; he is quite capable of saving whomsoever he will, but human evangelism is his chosen method. We don’t understand precisely how it all works, but we do know that the gospel is “God’s power for salvation”, and so we keep spreading the message in the expectation that God will use it to save people.
It’s the same with prayer. Prayer is another of God’s chosen methods. As with evangelism, he doesn’t need me to pray in order to fulfil his plans. But he graciously invites me to participate in his plans by prayer (as with evangelism). My prayers are woven into his plans; he uses them in his work in the world.
I would never dream of using God’s sovereignty as an excuse to soft-pedal on evangelism, yet I think this is precisely what I did with prayer. It’s as if I said, “Well, God can bring this person to salvation whether I evangelize them or not. I’m rather busy at the moment; I’ll just quickly slip them a copy of Two Ways to Live and move on.” I’ve never used God’s sovereignty as an excuse for perfunctory evangelism; why should I use it thus for perfunctory prayer?
My doctrine of sovereignty was unbiblical in two ways. Firstly, I did not take God’s word seriously when it assured me that the sovereign God hears my prayers and acts, precisely because he is in control of the world. Secondly, my doctrine was rather more ‘theoretical’ than the Bible’s. I acknowledged God’s rule and even defended it intellectually, but I did not make any practical claim on it. I did not call on my sovereign Lord to act in the world. (I think the biblical word for all this is ‘unbelief’.)
I suspect that a deep and deceptive pride (i.e. sin) has been at the root of much of our prayerlessness. We love the satisfaction that comes from doing something well—from using our abilities and accumulated experience to achieve a good result. And in one sense, this is fair enough (see Eccl 3:13).
All the same, this self-satisfaction is another prayer extinguisher. It breeds a reliance on our own efforts and personal power at the expense of dependence on God.
Furthermore, pride of this kind is completely at odds with the gospel of the crucified Christ. In the cross, we see the full extent of human weakness and sin answered by God’s power and grace. A deep understanding of the cross should drive us to our knees, for it teaches us of God’s love and power, and teaches us of our own sin and incapacity.
With all these fire extinguishers trained on us, it is perhaps little wonder that our prayer lives are spluttering. We need to pray that God will fan them once more into flame.
I’m not suggesting that we lessen our emphasis on the word or on evangelism or holiness; far from it. If anything, we need to go deeper into the word, for it will teach us to pray and, indeed, demands that we pray. We need to examine ourselves, repent where necessary and get back on knees.