21 September 2006

What prayer is and isn't

by Dan Phillips

Preface: with all of yesterday's hilarity, I feel like some dour, prunefaced prig coming in with this serious-subject post. But Frank has decided Thursday's my day, so if I sit on it, he'll mock me. But then again, if I post it, he'll mock me, so... oh well, once more into the breach.

The minefield that is prayer. 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.

"What?! Heresy!"

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.

Dan Phillips's signature


FX Turk said...

Apply directly to your spirtual life.

Apply directly to your spirtual life.

Apply directly to your spirtual life.

Pastor Steve said...

This area of prayer is one that makes my head spin almost as much as predestination. Feel free to keep writing on this topic and thanks for your ministry.

P.S. - Is this mind blowing topic a way to secretly endorse "Head On" for migraines? Are you getting kickbacks?

DJP said...

It's quiet.

Too quiet.

James Scott Bell said...

Dan, another thought provoking (sending them reeling, actually) post. Query: might not precedent for Peretti's idea be found in Mark 9:27?

Also, doesn't James 1:5 promise a response from God short of prophecy, i.e. wisdom? Yes, I believe that comes from the Word, but in asking God for wisdom as James says, we are "illuminated." This is not the sort of conversation you're talking about, but perhaps a mediate position?

BTW, I was listening to John MacArthur a couple of mornings ago and he said, "God laid it on my heart to..." What form, in your opinion, does that sort of "laying on the heart" take?

Kay said...

So, Dan, what would you make of something like this?

Jim Crigler said...

Last summer when I was asked to consider teaching a Sunday School class, one of the doctrinal questions was was something like, "Do you believe in the power of prayer to change things?" I checked the box yes, but then I attached a disclaimer that ran something like this: "Actually, no. Prayer has no intrinsic power. Speech that has that kind of power is an incantation or magic spell. Prayer is making your requests known to God — He has all the power to do things. Which is what I think you mean." In spite of that answer, they let me teach.

I know it's twice in one month, but you also have given me an excuse to ping Phil about the personal revelation thing (sp. w.r.t. Gothard and Blackaby), but I'm not going to do that. Or maybe I just did.

philness said...


Thanks for that. 1 Peter 3:7 came to mind. Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.

Mark B. Hanson said...

How about this: "Prayer is a one-sided dialogue with God." When He answers, it is not in words, but actions. We do get a response.

Of course, if we are not careful, prayer devolves into something like Richard Foster's prayer as experiment - keep trying to figure out what to say to provoke a response (often called "get your prayer answered"). The call is to pray, whether we see the response or not. To try to figure out how it works (engineer it) is magical thinking.

4given said...

I have no doubt that the Lord does bring people to mind, lay them on our hearts to pray for them. I am not someone who believes, however, in an open theistic God thinking that my prayers will change God's mind. I do believe that prayer changes people, encourages people to press on, etc... within the parameters of God's will. God does use our prayers for His glory and to accomplish His Divine will.
It is kind of like sharing the Gospel. Does God NEED me to share the Gospel? God does not NEED anything! But He has chosen the sharing of His Gospel by His feeble children so that His glory and power can be displayed in our weakness.
Does God NEED me to pray? ha. no. I need to pray because, as you wrote..."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."

Jason said...

Heresy! Heresy! You mean to tell me that simply saying a prayer may not get me anywhere?!?

Great post...thought provoking. I agree with Cent--"Apply directly to your spiritual life."

Lindon said...

Deep stuff and I can hear the gasps now as I forward it to some old friends.

Tom Chantry said...

Excellent distinction about dialogue. It is true that God does speak, but He has promised to do so in His Word. We could properly call worship a "conversation" or a "dialogue." God speaks to us in the reading and preaching of His word, and we respond with our prayers and sung praises. But to expect God to answer in prayer is to misread Scripture on the subject of God speaking.

Chris Ross said...

"DJP is my homeboy" ...

donsands said...

excellent study. I'm humbled and encouraged.

Carla Rolfe said...

Dan, I would very much appreciate it if you would remove the hidden spy-cam from my schoolroom. Just this morning we were going over Matthew 4 when Jesus responded to Satan and said:

"It is written" - then we had a bit of a conversation about that (in regards to temptation and what the Bible says about it). I was so tempted to go further than their little brains could probably comprehend, and get deep into the power of the written word. But I stopped myself (teaching is hard!).

Anyway, this was yet another excellent post on a very important topic to any believer, and I'm glad to have read it today. I love it when posts like this go up and just cut straight through the flowery, philosophical, mystical mishmash.

I'm not big on mystical mishmash, as I'm sure you know.


JackW said...

... so that's why my borders haven't been expanding!

candy said...

Dan...did Pec's post inspire you to write about prayer?

Tom said...

Spurgeon on prayer:

"It is part and parcel of the established order of the universe that the shadow of a coming event should fall in advance upon some believing soul in the shape of prayer for its realization. The prayer of faith is a Divine decree commencing its operation."


Jam 5:16 Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
Jam 5:17 Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.
Jam 5:18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.

Kim said...

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.

I really like that thought.

Chris Anderson said...

Good stuff, Dan. It's sad that the notion that prayer is talking to God is met with "Is that all?" Call me silly, but the privilege of talking to God strikes me as a pretty amazing thing all by itself.

I think James 1:5 is often understood as "pray for wisdom then wait for it arrive." However, God's promise to give wisdom in Proverbs 2:6-9, follows several commands to diligently seek wisdom in Proverbs 2:1-5. So the promised wisdom comes, but it comes as I study the Bible; God doesn't put it under my pillow while I sleep.

DJP said...

What an excellent and concise addition, Chris. Thanks very much, I really appreciate it.

IlonaGarden said...

Again you manage to foofah everything away with pseudo-provocative sweeping statements.

sigh. I think it arises from your basis of battling the "experiential" part of Christian experience. For all the trappings of traditionalism and the misconceptions that are out there about prayer- this is not it.

-True Grit

Michael Herrmann said...


Thank you for the quote from Spurgeon. It says, and in a much better way, what I've tried to describe to family and friends about my beliefs concerning prayer.


Matthew Self said...

I do believe in the present-day power of God, but I find people who see power in the mere act of prayer -- like we've been given some immutable license to God's authority by mere incantation (wouldn't that be considered witchcraft?) without regard for His will or sovereignty -- tend to be the people who also believe in a personal guardian angel for everyone.

I call it the Lonely Grandma Syndrome. Like these people

~Mark said...


Thank you for putting this into print!

Mike D. said...


Thank you for an excellent post. I agree with it very much, but I'm confused by some scripture that came to mind. Specifically, the conversation that Abraham has with the LORD in Genesis 18 (as he pleads with God not to destroy Sodom if there are x number of righteous men living there), Psalm 3:4 (To the LORD I cry aloud, and he answers me from his holy hill), and Psalm 120:1 (I call on the LORD in my distress, and he answers me). Aren't these examples of the LORD answering people while in prayer? Again, I think you are right on target with your post, I'm just looking for some clarification.


Mike D.

Anonymous said...

Dan, I have to say this is the most edifying, encouraging, and profound piece I have read on prayer in a long time. Thank youfor challenging my thinking and calling me to re-evaluate my views on prayer.

This was really top notch, and spot on. Thank you brother.

Chris Ross said...

Hey! Nobody told me Dad was going to be here too. I didn't know my Dad was a Pyro fan.

BTW, Dad: I finally got the oil checked in the Civic. See you around Thanksgiving. Please tell Mom to make some chicken gumbo when we visit, and some of those chocolate chip cookies made with brownie mix.


Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on the "See You At the Pole" prayer coming up next week? I do not know much about it and would like to know your thoughts if you support it or not.


Mike Ratliff said...


Thank you for this post. This is the very thing I have come to understand about prayer. God does answer our prayers, but I have never heard Him speak to me audibly or whatever. I have heard Him speak to me from His word. I have heard Him speak to me through circumstances and other people doing or saying things that somehow line up with what I have been praying about. Many may question why we should pray if all we are doing is talking to God. I find that the Holy Spirit does work in my heart as I pray fervently about something to line me up with God's will. As I pray for something that is heavy on my heart, as we are told to do in scripture, I find that the more I pray about it the more I find my "burden" change. What is going on? Is this part of our sanctification?

Deep subject.

In Christ

Mike Ratliff

James Scott Bell said...

This got me into J.I. Packer's new book, Praying (IVP). He has a section on "listening" (p. 288 ff.) and quotes Luther who counsels, when praying the Lord's prayer, "If the Holy Spirit should come and begin to preach to your heart, giving you rich and enlightened thoughts...be quiet and listen to him who can talk better than you; and note what he proclaims and write it down; so will you experience many miracles as David says: 'Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of they law.' (Ps. 119:18).

Packer says, "Writing down what you hear from God as you read and pray remains wisdom: it takes you beyond the monotonous ruts of generalized piety to a variety of insights, realism about both God and yourself, and deepening discovery of God's holy ways, leaving you with more than enough to pray about every day."

This encompasses wisdom, illumniation and perhaps what MacArthur meant about God laying a thing on his heart. But it must be true tht none of this happens absent deep contemplation of the Word as a daily matter.

Malchymist said...

John R. Rice wrote a book entitled Prayer: Asking and Receiving.

The definition of pray is to ask. (see the lawyer's papers which "pray the court" for some redress)

You have rightly pointed out some of the many distortions of "prayer."

In today's usage it is virtually indistinguishable from spell casting (witchcraft).

striving... said...

Now in my blog it is so funny that I just wrote about this, form a personal perspective, not theoligically. 2 things kept popping into my head, My pastor always says to be careful what you pray for. If you pray for patience you may find yourself in the midst of many trials that will surely teach you patience, but when you pray those prayers for patience that is not exactly what you had in mind as an answer. 2- I have been praying constantly for what feels like forever, not only for myself but for my husband, and I see small changes in him, that I believe God has brought on, and major changes in myself, also from God. Why pray if you do not think that God is the one who will work it out in your heart? You can pray until you are blue in the face about something, doesn't mean it is going to happen unless it is Gods' will anyway. Don't you have to give him every ounce of your heart and soul in your prayers? Then it is like that light-bulb, at least that is how it was for me. Like Duh, should have seen that. All things for Gods glory, even our ignorance.

striving... said...

hey gloria, Just a thought. Dan even says in his post that in order to actually hear God that would make you a profit right? Dan, Doesn't the bible also say that, I don't know the exact verbage but, those who Hear God shall surely die? Would that go along with what gloria is saying about hearing God speak, or am I misunderstanding something?

Tom Chantry said...

Quotes abound from heroes of the past who talk about prayer and listening to God. Likewise, many authors wrote on the power of prayer. Spurgeon, Luther, and others have been mentioed. But I would suggest that these men lived in a day when the cessasion of prophecy was generally accepted, and when the sovereignty of God as the divine Actor behind all events had been well established in their own teaching.

Consequently, they knew that their hearers and readers would understand that it is God who acts, and our prayers are effecive only as one of His means of bringing about His will. Likewise, they knew that everyone would realize that God has promised to speak in His Word, even to the hearts of men through illumination, so that the connection of prayer to God's speaking is that the unprayerful man cannot expect God to illuminate his understanding of Scripture.

But we live in a different day, when an unbiblical charismatic movement has dominated the Christian scene, particularly with regard to some doctrines. We live in a day when people revere prayer as a powerful force rather than revering the God behind prayer. We live in a day when people say "God talked to me," and, because this is a personal experience, and because personal experience is seen as the ultimate standard of truth, they add, "You can't question it!"

In other words, we live in a day when Dan's biblical clarifications are not just helpful, they are essential.

C. T. Lillies said...

I remember struggling with this about ten years or so ago. I was living in a town with a decidedly charasmatic bent and hearing all the time about prayer this and prayer that. But all they were really saying is that the things we say are more important that what God has to say in the Word.

The incantation thing is a little creepy though. I never though of that but it makes sense.

Surprisingly, I felt that old indignation rise up as I was reading this that says, "What do you mean by 'isn't'?" Anyway, thanks for yet another timely post. Can't wait for your brain to fill up again if this is what it's like on E.

So Dan, when are you going to do one on laying on of the hands?

Much Grace

UK67 said...

>Again you manage to foofah everything away with pseudo-provocative sweeping statements.
sigh. I think it arises from your basis of battling the "experiential" part of Christian experience. For all the trappings of traditionalism and the misconceptions that are out there about prayer- this is not it.

Dead on.

donsands said...

"trappings of traditionalism"?

Could either of you give an example of what this would look like?

UK67 said...

donsands, you've zeroed in on the weakest - or at least most unclear - portion of ilona's comment. This is common practice when confronted by a response that hits the mark. The strength of the comment is very apparent despite that part though.

C. T. Lillies said...


I realize I've used up my goofy-post of the day mulligan but I wanted to ask you something.

I was thinking about this just now and wondered how this applies to the realm of a pastor's call to ministry. Most talk like it was some sort of epiphany type experience, even the ones who go with the Word and prayer thing. I there are now no direct consultations, no more direct, "go thou therefore's" then how do people continue to get called to preach, etc.?


striving... said...

In my blog, I wrote the power of prayer, and I now believe those were the wrong words. It is the power of God, working on a faithful heart. It only takes one man praying in true faith. It is not the # of people prayin.

donsands said...


I don't know about common practice.

I was simply trying to find out what it means.
I'm still not sure what the whole statement is saying, to be honest.

Terry Rayburn said...

Because God's speaking to us within ourselves is mysterious, and not authoritative in the same way the written Word is, does not mean that it is non-existent.

Often we speak instinctively as regenerate believers, in a way contrary to our personal theology.

For example, Arminians deny that God saves whom He will, yet pray, "Lord, save him...open His heart Lord," instinctively denying free will and affirming the sovereignty of God they deny.

In prayer, those who might have the personal theology that Dan expressed, nevertheless instinctively know that they are led by God, mysterious as it may be.

Prayer can indeed be part of a two-way conversation. We just can't articulate this mystery to the satisfaction of those who think God's voice is tied only to manuscripts.

But those who are Christ's know instinctively. His sheep still hear His voice (John 10:27), and those who are led by the Spirit are still the sons [and daughters] of God (Rom. 8:14).

UK67 said...

donsands, I'm satisfied to allow Terry Rayburn's comment to speak for me on this subject. It is very well stated.

donsands said...

Okay sk.

Andreas said...

Thanks for a very interessting article. It was refreshing.

God bless you.


Mickey Sheu said...

Spot on! Basically says what I wish I could have said, except far better.


I've linked you here.

IlonaGarden said...

I have written a response to this post, Dan.

Yankeerev said...

Great timing as we hosted a Prayer Emphasis Sunday this weekend. Thankfully no mysticism or chanting took place...Basically we just talked to God on behalf of those in need: Physical, spiritual, and the lost...by name even...It's progres!!

Bethany Hamilton O'Donnell said...

wow, The fact that the power is not in the prayer but in the God to whom we are praying to, has so been lost on alot of Bible college students. We recently had a Day of Prayer at Baptist Bible College and this was article was brought to my attention. It truely is amazing how our presonceptions of prayer are formed at such a young age. We really don't usually stop very long to think about what it reallt is.