Christian-craft: Godly Prayer or Satanic Art?

984541_oil_lampYou wouldn’t think Satan would be able to use something as godly as prayer for his demonic purposes.  When he can’t stop us from praying altogether, he shifts his attention to making sure our prayers aren’t godly.  He would have us see prayer as a way of manipulating God, a sort of Aladdin’s lamp of Christianity.  But Christian prayer isn’t about using the right words to get supernatural benefits.  That’s magic, or Christian-craft, closer to the Satanic arts than it is to godly prayer!

This magical view of prayer is commonly seen in chain-emails.  These emails often come with instructions to “forward this message to at least 10 people and God will bless you.”  The promised benefit can range from the vague blessing to experiencing good fortune, or even that God will “make your dreams come true.”  Problem is, we could never do enough to earn an audience with God.  The privilege of calling upon God’s name in prayer is a gift that God gives to His baptized children, something no amount of forwarded emails could ever earn.

Satan would have us think that prayer is about getting enough people, or even the “right” people, to pray for you.  But human beings are not capable of doing anything to impress God (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:12).  Nor is prayer about wearing God down, as if He would eventually give you what you want if you (and 10 others!) just bother Him long enough.  Parents often acquiesce to the repeated demands of their children to get some peace and quiet (cf. Luke 11:8), but this is not how it is with our heavenly Father (Luke 11:13).  He wants us to pray to Him in all boldness and confidence, “as dear children ask their dear father.”[1]  We persist in prayer not to wear God down, but because it is a privilege to call upon His name in every trouble, to pray, praise, and give thanks.[2]       

729635_praise_worthyThe devil encourages a magical view of prayer, thinking that if we just say the right words or do the right things, God will give us everything we want.  This is an especially dangerous corruption because disappointment is bound to result.  God has never promised to give us everything we pray for.  But where this is believed, Satan can convince us God is unfaithful, unloving, and/or unable to help.  In this way, he can use prayer to drive us away from Christ and destroy our faith.

Christian-craft is about trying to manipulate God; godly prayer is not.  Where there is no promise in God’s Word that He will give us what we ask for, we pray as Jesus did in Gethsemane: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will,” (Matthew 26:39).  God will always answer that prayer with a resounding YES!  And when God does not give us what we want, we still trust that God is gracious and will give us what is best (Romans 8:28).[3]

The Bible instructs us to pray for everyone  (1 Timothy 2:1—3).  Satan would have us pray out of selfish desire.  Godly prayer helps us to bear one another’s burdens.  The devil would have us use prayer to become fixated on our own needs.  God would have us pray for those around us: our families, our brothers and sisters in Christ, our communities, those in authority, and even our enemies (Matthew 5:44).

Where prayer becomes self-serving, it ceases to be Christian prayer.  Christian prayer isn’t about self-glorification; it’s about the glory of God.[5]  Luther makes this point in the Large Catechism: “When we pray “Hallowed be Thy Name,” we pray that His name not be taken in vain to swear, curse, lie, deceive, and so on, but be used well for God’s praise and honor.”[6]  To use prayer as a means of self-promotion is a devilish confusion of prayer and brings dishonor to God’s name.  As Luther says, “Therefore God’s holy name, which alone should be honored, is abused and dishonored by our cursed name, by our self-pleasing and seeking of honor.”[7]

Satan would have us use prayer to exalt ourselves.  By contrast, our Lord bids us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him (Matthew 16:24).  John the Baptist’s words are a model for every Christian: “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease,” (John 3:29).  Luther describes godly prayer as that which totally destroys one’s own name and honor, “so that God alone might be praised who alone is and works all things.”[8]  The hallowing of God’s name corresponds to the profaning of our own name.[9]  Christian prayer seeks the glory of God’s name, not our own glory.

When we call upon God’s name in prayer, we do so in all humility, knowing this is a privilege of which we are unworthy.  The devil would have us approach God with a sense of entitlement.  When the Canaanite woman asked Jesus to have mercy on her and heal her demon-possessed daughter, she knew she had no right to be in her Lord’s presence.  She gladly accepted her Lord’s judgment that she was a dog, not worthy of anything more than crumbs (Matthew 15:22—28).  Likewise, when approach God in prayer, we do so humbly, knowing that we deserve only temporal and eternal punishment.

bill-hybels1Another devilish corruption of prayer is to see it as two-way communication.  We speak to God in prayer; God speaks to us through His written, spoken, and sacramental Word.  In his book, “Too Busy NOT to Pray”, Bill Hybels encourages prayer because he says it helps us to become more aware of God’s presence, which “is a great feeling that brings many benefits,” (which lends itself to a self-centered view of prayer).[10]  Hybels goes on to say that when we pray to God, God will answer your prayer through “leadings” (more often than not) that will change your life for the better.[11]

Where we seek guidance from God apart from His Word, Satan can actually use prayer to lead us away from God.  Christian prayer is not about trying to get God to speak apart from His Word.  Everything God wants you to know about Him is already revealed in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15—16; Luke 16:27—31).  If you’re not sure about something the Bible doesn’t address, don’t sweat it.  Pray for God to grant you wisdom to make the decision that will help you love and serve those around you.  That’s a prayer that’s firmly anchored in His Word.  Talk to your family and friends and see what they think.  How will your decision affect them?  God has given us our reason that we might use it to make decisions in our daily lives.[12]  If God’s Word hasn’t spoken on the matter, remember: the Son has set you free.  Choose freely.

To look for God to answer prayer through “leadings” (e.g., feelings or “signs”) is to listen for His voice where it isn’t found.  The only place God speaks to us today is through His Word.[13]  The devil, on the other hand, continues to speak his lies today, though he does everything he can to sound godly.  Satan looks like a lamb but speaks as a dragon (Rev 13:11).  He dresses his lies up in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15).  When he convinces us to look for God’s will apart from Scripture, he can easily mislead us, just as he misled Adam and Eve.

The best way to ensure your prayer is godly is to pray on the basis of God’s Word.  Pray God’s Word right back to Him.  Pray the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, the catechism, the hymns, creed, and the liturgy.  These things teach us how to pray in a godly manner and serve as a model for our ex corde (“from the heart”) prayers.  The devil cannot corrupt prayer that is firmly anchored in Scripture.  Such prayer always rises before God as a fragrant incense and brings glory to His holy name.

[1] Luther, Small Catechism, Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer.

[2] Luther, Small Catechism, Explanation of the Second Commandment.

[3] As we sing in the hymn: “Now I may know both joy and woe; someday I shall see clearly that He has loved me dearly,” (“What God Ordains is Always Good,” LSB 760, verse 4).

[5] cf. the Second Commandment (“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God”) and the First Petition (“Hallowed be Thy Name”).

[6] Luther, Large Catechism, Explanation of the First Petition (45), emphasis added.

[7] Luther, as cited by Albrecht Peters, Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Ten Commandments (translated by Holger K. Sonntag. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009), 157.

[8] Peters, 156.

[9] As Luther put it, “Hallowed by Your name, but profaned be my name and everything,” (Peters, 156).

[10] Hybels, Too Busy Not to Pray (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 1998), 175.

[11] Ibid., 147, 150, 155-158.

[12] In explaining the First Article of the Creed (Small Catechism), Luther says God has “given me my reason and all my senses.”  We are to use this reason in deciding “things below” (matters of public righteousness): whether or not to take a job, what major to declare in college, deciding what color socks to wear, etc. (cf. AC XVIII, 1; Apology XVIII, 70).  On the other hand, human reason has no role in deciding “things above” (e.g., salvation).  In explaining the Third Article of the Creed (also in the Small Catechism), Luther warns against this ungodly view of reason: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.”

[13] The Smalcald Articles III:VIII (10—11) insist that God deals with us only through His Word and Sacraments, and that everything else is from the devil.  The Creed affirms that the Holy Spirit spoke (not continues to speak!) by the prophets on the basis of texts such as Hebrews 1:1—2 and 2 Peter 1:18—19.  Jesus repeatedly encourages us to keep His Word (John 8:31—32; 14:23).  Pastors are to “hold firm” to God’s Word (Titus 1:9) and Moses encouraged the people not to deviate from it “to the right or to the left” (Deuteronomy 5:32, 28:14).  Where we listen for the voice of God apart from the Word, we can easily drown in a sea of false doctrine (Eph 4:14) and are left with only the word of man (2 Timothy 4:3).  


Christian-craft: Godly Prayer or Satanic Art? — 9 Comments

  1. Those chain letters urging you with bribes of “good luck”, “blessings” (or vague threats: dissing your religion or patriotism) to “send this to at least 10 people” or “send to everyone in your address book” usually have a cookie attached for the purpose of harvesting “live” addresses, to sell to spammers or scammers. [Read it in a computer journal that crossed my desk]

    If you think the thing is good enough to share, ‘cut and paste’ may clean it up.
    If it loses the pretty graphics when you ‘cut and paste’ you have an additional reason not to visit it upon your friends.

    If you really read these things, “God” is generic in them and Christ is nowhere.

  2. Over on the thread re: President Obama’s “God bless Planned Parenthood” statement, there is a discussion regarding cursing. In your post, you refer to Luther’s LC: “When we pray ‘Hallowed be Thy Name,’ we pray that His name not be taken in vain to swear, curse, lie, deceive, and so on, but be used well for God’s praise and honor.”

    Thank you for calling our attention to this. A prayer that calls down God’s eternal judgment on anyone can hardly be hallowing His name, as it places the pray-er on the side of Satan, who would have nobody saved, and nobody turned from their evil ways, but that all of humanity would be in hell.

  3. Great article! Perhaps it should be mentioned though that in all of this we do not pray to God merely out of a fatalistic attitude. We do see in Scripture where God hears the cries/prayers of His people and relents or changes His mind. (Jeremiah 26:19 and Jonah 3:6-10 for example) It doesn’t make God a magic genie but rather a loving God who wants His people to pray, who hears them, and who answers them by sometimes even relenting or changing His mind.

  4. Thank you for that helpful clarification, Rev. McCall- you’re 100% correct. Lessing has a very helpful discussion on this in his CPH commentary on Jonah (“When Yahweh Changes a Prior Verdict”).

  5. @Pastor Eric Andersen #5
    “When Yahweh Changes a Prior Verdict”)

    As I’ve understood it, God never “changes” His Prior verdict, which is that He would have all men to be saved. He may issue a later warning (e.g., Ninevah) about what He will do if the people resist Him. Then, if they repent, as Ninevah did on the occasion recorded, He will relent and change that promised action.

    Am I wrong?

  6. @helen #6
    Helen, there are certain promises Yahweh will never revoke. For example, He will never change His mind regarding His promises in Christ Jesus. Numbers 23:19 indicates His unwillingness to revoke His promise to bless Abraham’s descendants (Gen 12:2-3), and 1 Sam 15:29 indicates His unchanging commitment to His choice of a Davidic King. Both promises indicate that He will never revoke His promises to us in Christ Jesus.

    On the other hand, there are times when God does change His mind, especially in response to His people’s actions/prayers. In Lutheran terms, we might put it this way: God changes from Law to Gospel when His people repent, and from Gospel to Law when the apostatize. An example of Gospel to Law can be seen in Genesis 6:6 when Yahweh regrets having made humanity. On the other hand, an example of Law to Gospel can be seen when He extends king Hezekiah’s life (Isa 48:1-5). That God changed His mind regarding Nineveh in response to their repentance is clear from Jonah 3:10, which says, “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way, and God changed His verdict concerning the evil that He said He would do to them, and He did not do it.”

    God is not capricious, but neither is He static. The notion that God is totally unchanging is drawn more from Greek philosophy (the notion that if something that is perfect changes, it must be to become less than perfect) than it is from Scripture. God is a relational God. He hears our prayers and sometimes changes His mind on the basis of them.

    Again, I’d recommend that anybody who’s interested in this topic check out Lessing’s CPH commentary on Jonah. He devotes a 17-page excursus to this topic, and it’s very helpful.

  7. “Another devilish corruption of prayer is to see it as two-way communication. We speak to God in prayer; God speaks to us through His written, spoken, and sacramental Word.” I’ve taught that your second sentence IS two way communication because both prayer and it’s answer is based solely and clearly on the Word of God while Hybel’s schwarmareism, both prayer and God’s speaking is based upon feelings/heart, and thus leads one inward where the devil can do great mischief. So just to make sure, given your example of Hybels, the second sentence is NOT an example of a “devilish corruption of prayer” as a “two-way communication”?

  8. @Pr. Mark Schroeder #8
    That’s right- God doesn’t speak to us in prayer, He speaks to us through His Word. As Luther put it, we communicate with God through oratio; God responds to us in meditatio and even in tentatio. Of course God’s activity in tentatio is hidden (but it remains His), which is what drives us back to oratio and meditatio.

    It’s worth noting that while prayer is an important part of our relationship with God, the direction in prayer is always from us to God. God’s response is always found apart from prayer: either hidden in the world (e.g, He cured my illness through medicine), or revealed in His Word.

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