I recently read an interview of a Christian leader that included this interchange:
Interviewer: “When you pray, what do you say to God?”
Christian leader: “I don’t say anything. I listen.”
Interviewer: “Okay…When God speaks to you, then, what does he say?”
Christian leader: “He doesn’t say anything. He listens.”
The account of the interview recorded that, at this point, the interviewer seemed “baffled.”
Then, the Christian leader added: “And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.”
What do you think of that? Do you agree with and/or like the Christian leader’s answers to the interviewer’s questions? Do you think the Christian leader accurately portrayed what prayer is all about? Do you hold this view of prayer, that if you don’t experience prayer first hand, you can’t really understand it?
This interchange was quoted in two Christian books,* and I think, in both cases, the authors were lifting up the Christian leader’s understanding of prayer as a positive example. But I think the Bible has something different to say.
When Jesus was asked by his disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray,” he did not say, “Well, for one thing, don’t use words. Just listen.” Instead, he told them (and us) to use words and, in one instance, he even gave us the exact words to say (Luke 11:2).
As we read the Bible, we find many prayers that include lots of words. Consider that we have the equivalents of transcripts of intercessions by Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Hezekiah, and many others. Note that all 150 psalms, in a sense, are written out prayers. Reflect on the fact that Paul tells his readers the very content of his supplications on their behalf. That such prayers have been recorded for us, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, suggests a high value on the use of words in prayer. It is simply not an accurate portrayal of Biblical prayer to say, “I don’t say anything. I listen.”
To be sure, listening is an important part of prayer. Our entire prayer times should not be filled with our words. Stillness and quietness should be a part as well. (Although, to be honest, I can’t seem to remember too many places in the Bible that say things like, “When you pray be sure to include some times of silence” or “When the disciples prayed, they sat still and listened to the voice of the Lord.”)
And to say that God doesn’t speak to us when we pray…well, I fear that may imply that God doesn’t speak words to us at all, which undermines the important Christian doctrine of inspiration – that indeed God has spoken and his word, the Bible, should be read as the very words of a communicative, verbal God.
There is something very appealing about a kind of mystical, non-verbal prayer. It serves as a foil against a totally rationalistic spirituality that we find in too many places today. Simplistic cognitive approaches leave us dry, uninspired, and unmoved. If all there is to our faith is a logical set of propositions, we feel we’ve missed something crucial because we are not merely rational beings. We also have emotions and spiritual drives that long for something other than arguments, credal statements, and formulaic how-tos.
Granted. But to swing the pendulum to the other extreme is to replace one unbiblical mode for another. A totally rational prayer life may be shaped more by the enlightenment than the Bible. On the other hand, non-verbal mystical prayer may look more like Buddhism than Gospel faith.
Now suppose I told you the interview quoted above was of Mother Teresa and the interviewer was Dan Rather. Does that change your opinion of the exchange? Or of my critique? Did you like the fact that Dan Rather got baffled?
When I told my wife I was going to write a blog about the interview she asked, “You’re not going to pick on Mother Teresa, are you? People don’t like it when you attack their favorite nun.”
Well, I hope I’m not attacking her. But other than Jesus, no person’s life is 100% exemplary. We should be able to learn from flawed people’s successes as well as their failures and their good teaching as well as their mistakes. No one should be above a respectful critique. I think, in this case, Mother Teresa expressed a kind of mysticism that is different from what Scripture teaches, records, and models.
A study of the Bible’s teaching about and examples of prayer should shape our prayer lives far more than any other influence.** Our prayers should involve words and silence, speaking and listening, singing and confessing, gratitude and petition. And when curious outsiders ask, we can describe prayer in ways that explain as well as invite them to find out what they’re missing.
Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.
* Quoted in Chuck Swindoll, So You Want to Be Like Christ? Eight Essentials to Get You There (Thomas Nelson, 2005), 61-62; and Skye Jethani, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God (Thomas Nelson, 2011), 114.
** A great study of Paul’s prayers that deserves close reading is D.A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Baker, 1992).