The Two Faces of Prayer

A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine about Joel Osteen and the Prosperity Gospel movement, and for those of you who have a problem with calling this movement a ‘gospel’ movement, the word gospel comes from the Old English word ‘godspel’ which is a translation of the Latin ‘bona adnuntiatio’ which is also a translation of the Greek ‘euangelion’. Euangelion, Bona Adnuntiatio, Godspel, and Gospel all have one simple meaning: ‘good message’. Christians use this term to refer to the message of Christ, but having someone tell you that God is going to make you rich, healthy, and happy certainly counts as a good message. Not a true message, but a good message. That being said, my friend asked me the question: can’t Christians lean a little bit more on the prosperity gospel? Why is it so offensive to believe that God might want to give his children good things?

I was thinking about writing this post last night, which would have made it timely, but incomplete. In church this morning I was reminded of the second half of the issue: Prayer has the power to change God’s mind. If you don’t believe that then read Exodus 32, or Amos 7. This is not to say that God is variable or wishy-washy, but that prayer is effectual from time to time. Honestly, the entire concept that God changes his mind is theologically… challenging to say the least. We are told in scripture that God knows everything, that he is unchanging and constant, and that (at least on specific occasions) he changes his mind. I’m not going to try to break this down into a theologically understandable construction… to be honest I’m not sure that I can at the moment. Much like the hypostatic union, this is something that I don’t understand, and that I’m not entirely convinced I am even capable of understanding to any reasonable degree. However, I am confident that it is. God is constant, he is all-knowing, and yet he does change his mind. Not easily, and certainly not capriciously, and unlike ourselves when God changes his mind it is not a sign of changing or imperfect character.

So, all to often, attitudes concerning prayer in Christian America fall into one of two camps: either prayer is magic, or prayer is ineffectual, or at least only effectual for the internal being of the believer and not effectual for actual issues in life. Let me treat the prayer is magic attitude first: many Christians treat prayer as though it is a formula to make God do what they want. I’ve had people tell me that I was ‘praying wrong’ and explain that if I phrased my prayer in ‘this’ way that nothing would happen, but if I phrased it ‘that’ way then God must answer my prayer. This is both in part a cause of and in part a result of both the prosperity gospel and the word/faith movements in modern theology. The problem, as I explained to my friend, with the prosperity gospel movement is that it takes a part of the Christian gospel (that part that promises good things and answered prayer) and ignores the rest (all that stuff about suffering isn’t really important after all). The prosperity gospel movement promises and focuses on satisfaction through worldly treasures, which is exactly what Christ tells us not to do (the Beatitudes anyone? Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all that). The word/faith movement combines with this focus a belief in the inherent power of human language. This movement teaches that our words can change our physical reality, and that the right combinations of words can force things to happen. This then places God in the power of man. God must do what want as long as I phrase my desire correctly, and thus it is my will and not God’s will that truly matters. Clearly, again, this contravenes the teaching of scripture (James: you have not because you ask not, and when you do ask, you ask with the wrong motives, to satisfy your own lusts… I might have paraphrased a little). As I’ve said before, a good working definition of magic is the magician’s attempt to alter his physical reality through the manipulation of spiritual forces. Thus, these movements treat prayer as though it is magic, and prayer is not magic.

However, often in reaction to these movements, but sometimes through a reliance on logical reasoning, or simple bitterness that God has not done our will, but his instead, many of us respond by rejecting the effectual nature of prayer entirely. We argue that prayer ‘changes the believer’ instead of that prayer ‘changes the world’. Again, this isn’t entirely untrue. Just as God does promise his people good things, he also promises them suffering. Just as God does explain the effectual nature of prayer in the physical world, he explains the important effect of prayer in the mind and heart of the believer. In part, the purpose of prayer is to draw us into communion with the father and to mold us in the image of Christ… in part.

At it’s core, prayer is our means of communicating with God. Just like your cell-phone *luddite grumbling* is your means of communicating with your biological father, prayer is your means of communicating with God. Just like you wouldn’t only call your actual father when you need something (… if you do, and I’ve been that person, you are a horrible, horrible child. Go call your parents and tell them that you love them), you shouldn’t make your prayers into a list of needs and wants. Hopefully, prayer should mostly be a chance to talk to God, to relate, repent, worship, and yes, request. However, it is also a time to listen to God. If you are a Christian, God speaks to you. If you don’t hear him, then you need to learn how to listen (… logically the other possibility is that you’re not really saved… but we generally don’t like to talk about that).

Just like you’re biological father, God does actually want what’s best for you. Unlike your biological father, you have no recourse to say that God is being arrogant when he acts like he does know what’s best for you… he knows everything, remember? However, this does not mean that when I ask God for something he simply ignores me. He might not give me exactly what I want, but he does take my requests into account. So, prayer is effectual in the world, it is not magic, and it is important for me to understand the difference.

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