Prayer Is Not Always a Good Thing

Yankee Stadium Trade Center Prayer Service September 23, 2001

One of the most frequently abused gifts of God among Christians today is prayer. For some reason we’ve gotten this notion that prayer is always a good thing. It is not. Prayer can easily become an attempt to approach God on our own terms, to manipulate Him, or put Him to the test by expecting Him to give us some “sign” apart from what He’s already revealed in His Word. Such prayer is extremely dangerous and not even remotely Christian. It is important to recognize that not all prayer is God-pleasing. The only thing that’s worse than repeatedly walking into the traps of Satan is mistaking them for the blessings of Christ. In this article we will consider two common abuses of prayer. The first pertains to whom our prayers are addressed, and the second to the content of our prayers.

Getting the Address Right

Christian prayer is essentially Trinitarian. The Holy Spirit creates faith in Jesus, through whom have access to the Father. Apart from the work of Father, Son, & Holy Spirit there is no God-pleasing prayer. It does not make God happy when people pray to Allah, Amida Buddha, Baal, Zeus, Isis, Mother Nature, etc.

Several months ago I began exploring Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) programs at various local hospitals. The hospital is truly an ecumenical setting, as chaplains interact with patients of every religious stripe. As a prospective student, I was very concerned with how I was expected to handle requests for prayer, particularly when they come from non-Christians. The response I received varied from supervisor to supervisor, but one thing every response had in common was that you never deny a request for prayer. Even the LCMS supervisor I spoke with (who has decades of CPE experience) said he told every patient who requested prayer that “it would be an honor” to pray with them.

What makes prayer with non-Christians problematic is that we don’t believe in the same god. To whom are we praying? At the one extreme, one (Christian) supervisor with whom I spoke said she would actually conduct non-Christian religious rituals. She described how when she once “ministered” to a dying Buddhist, she set up a little shrine to the Buddha and began to conduct some sort of Buddhist ritual. Every CPE center I visited provides resources for their chaplains and students so they can offer the non-Christian patient rituals from their own tradition.

Aside from being crass idolatry, for a Christian to go through the motions of offering services and prayers in the name of false gods is incredibly disrespectful to that tradition. We of course have biblical precedent for mocking false gods (1 Kings 18), but doing that openly in the spirit of Elijah would be the quickest way to flunk CPE (and possibly get criminal charges of hate-speech filed against you). None of the supervisors with whom I spoke saw any problem with offering such disingenuous prayer, nor was there much concern to protect the student/chaplain’s own theological integrity (sympathy was expressed, but there still remains the expectation to engage in idolatry). The patient’s religious views are to be protected at all costs.[1] NO praying in the Name of Jesus around non-Christians, that’s for sure.

This mentality is widespread outside of CPE, particularly within the Missouri Synod. How many interfaith prayer vigils must our pastors participate in before we (as a Synod) state unequivocally that it makes God angry when we pray with unbelievers? Prayer with atheists and idolaters is not just an exercise in silence for them. Demons are real, and they lurk behind every idol (1 Corinthians 10:19-20). Christians are to confess, and not deny, but confess that there is no access to God apart from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To withhold our confession around those who deny the Trinity for the sake of not offending them and then going ahead and praying with them “to an unknown god” anyway is idolatry.

“But I know who God is in MY heart!”, you might object. Okay, that’s great, but the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, etc. neighbors with whom you’re praying don’t. And for whose benefit was this prayer supposed to be, anyway? How does your failure to witness to the Trinity help them? If anything, it gives the impression that everyone’s prayers (and religions) “all lead to the same place anyway.”

Christian prayer is fundamentally Trinitarian. This is why Christian prayer often begins “in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit”, and why our prayers often conclude “though Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with [the Father] and the Holy Spirit.” It is extraordinarily dangerous and sinful to take a view of prayer which is divorced from faith in the One True God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Such prayer is demonic. It would be far better to not pray at all than to join with others in their idolatry.

Right Place, Wrong Prayer

Godly prayer is more than getting the address right. Even when we call upon the right God, it’s easy to forget that we are speaking to God Almighty. The worst thing you could do is “pour out your heart” to Him. Remember what Scripture teaches about the heart? (See Genesis 6:5, 8:21; Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 15:19) Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. If your heart is telling you to get revenge or have an affair, it is wrong to ask God to aid your efforts in doing so. The only appropriate thing to do with such thoughts is to confess them. In private prayer, yes, but even better is to confess those sins to a pastor (lest those sins remain locked up in the safe confines of the heart). What’s more, there are appropriate ways for children to speak to their parents and their are inappropriate ways. How much more true is this, then, of us and our heavenly Father?

Ren prayerGodly prayer is always a response to His Word. The Word must precede and inform our prayers if they are to be God-pleasing. Many Christians wouldn’t be able to tell you why it’s  wrong to pray for lots of money and huge pectoral muscles. Some would even tell you to go for it, (wrongly) invoking passages such as Matthew 7:7–11 and Luke 11:9–10.

Godly prayer is always mindful of God’s will. Prayer that seeks to manipulate God for personal gain is nothing short of ChristianCraft. God was pleased with Solomon when he asked for wisdom rather than fame and fortune (1 Kings 3:5–14). His prayer, along with the Psalms and everything else in God’s Word, should be a model for (or even the content of) our own prayers. It is very easy to separate prayer from God’s Word, but when this happens, it ceases to be Christian and becomes the devil’s playground.

Not everything that is called “prayer” pleases God. Christian prayer begins with listening to God’s Word. Pray it back to Him. Take your cue from those formal, boring liturgical prayers we use in church and have in the hymnal. They’re there for a reason. Learn Matins and Vespers. Use Luther’s Daily Prayers in the Small Catechism. Around the Word is producing some wonderful weekly devotions that take their cue from Luther’s suggestion. When you offer prayers from your heart, make sure they are grounded in God’s Word. A (genuine) confession of sins can hardly be ungodly, along with prayers for the benefit of your neighbor. Like the prayers offered to false or nameless gods, we would be better off to not pray at all than to offer prayers that are entirely disconnected from God’s Word.

[1] An exception is made for Roman Catholics. I was told that CPE students/chaplains are forbidden from administering the Sacrament to Roman Catholics; a priest is required for that. For some reason, CPE centers are willing to risk offense when it comes to Roman Catholic doctrine, but they aren’t willing to extend that same courtesy to others. Unless the patient is Roman Catholic, the expectation is that a student/chaplain (ordained or lay) will provide the Sacrament to anyone who asks for it. Baptizing dead babies is also a common practice among those trained in CPE (since one of the only doctrines in CPE is that you can’t say “no”). One Greek Orthodox woman I met said she’d become a chaplain since her behind-the-times denomination doesn’t ordain women yet. CPE was her way around that.

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