Yancey tackles these tough questions and in the process comes up with a fresh new approach to this timeless topic. “I have learned to pray as a privilege, not a duty,” he says, and he invites you to join him on this all-important journey. To purchase a copy of the book click this LINK or the picture at the end of the notes.
Here is some information about him that may explain some of his thoughts and observations in the book.
Growing up in a strict, fundamentalist church in the southern USA, a young Philip Yancey tended to view God as “a scowling Supercop, searching for anyone who might be having a good time—in order to squash them.” Yancey jokes today about being “in recovery” from a toxic church. “Of course, there were good qualities too. If a neighbor’s house burned down, the congregation would rally around and show charity—if, that is, the house belonged to a white person. I grew up confused by the contradictions. We heard about love and grace, but I didn’t experience much. And we were taught that God answers prayers, miraculously, but my father died of polio just after my first birthday, despite many prayers for his healing.”
Ever since, Yancey has explored the most basic questions and deepest mysteries of the Christian faith, taking millions of readers with him. Early on he crafted best-selling books such as Disappointment with God and Where is God When it Hurts? He has felt the freedom to explore central issues of the Christian faith, penning award-winning titles such as The Jesus I Never Knew, What’s So Amazing About Grace? and Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? His books have garnered 13 Gold Medallion Awards from Christian publishers and booksellers. He currently has more than 15 million books in print, published in 35 languages worldwide.
Yancey worked as a journalist in Chicago for some twenty years, editing the youth magazine Campus Life while also writing for a wide variety of magazines including Reader’s Digest, Saturday Evening Post, National Wildlife, and Christianity Today. In the process he interviewed diverse people enriched by their personal faith, such as President Jimmy Carter, Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller, and Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement.
“I write books for myself,” he says. “I’m a pilgrim, recovering from a bad church upbringing, searching for a faith that makes its followers larger and not smaller. I feel overwhelming gratitude that I can make a living writing about the questions that most interest me. My books are a process of exploration and investigation of things I wonder about and worry about.” Yancey writes with an eye for detail, irony, and honest skepticism.
In the book he starts with “Keeping Company with God” Which was part of our last study Prayer Begins With Relationship. One of our last sessions was “Keeping Company with God or Pray Without Ceasing”.
Philip starts with a view of man as compared to the greatness of God. He starts by looking at man’s deepest longing which is a relationship with someone or something outside of us that gives some reason for existence. There is a story of a person after receiving their Phd. asking “What is there left in the world for original dissertation research?” The story goes that Albert Einstein replied, “Find out about prayer. Somebody must find out about prayer”
He goes on to describe a time when he was in St. Petersburg Russia to lecture, when he was out jogging early one morning. There was a lot of construction going on because the city was getting ready to celebrate its 300th birthday. To cut the story short he fell and hurt himself pretty badly. He had heard stories about how bad the medical care in Russia was so he decided to go back to his hotel and he and his wife used the vodka in the minibar to pour over his cuts and bruises, took some aspirin and went to sleep. After resting a while he went to an Internet cafe and tried figure out how to use the keyboard. It took him about 10 minutes but finally got to an AOL screen in English ( so you know this was a few years ago).. The wireless network kept cutting on and off and each time he had to find the AOL screen again and retype the message to friends back in the US. The massage gave a few background details then he wrote “We need help. Please pray.” Then he pressed “Send”.
He knew that his friends and family would, when they turned on their computers, read his message and pray on his behalf. He asks, “is this how prayer works?” We send signals from a visible world to an invisible one, in the hope that someone receives them, and how will we know? We are going to search for the answer to that question in this study.
Christians are not the only ones who pray. Every faith has some form of prayer. Remote tribes in Africa and Asia bring offerings and then pray for things like health, food, rain, children, and victory in battles. The Incas and Aztecs offered human sacrifices to attract the god’s attention. Five times a day Muslims stop what they are doing to pray. Even atheists find ways to pray.
Here is something that I didn’t know. During the early days of Communism in Russia the Communist Party leadership had a “red corner” where they put a portrait of Lenin where Christians used to keep their statues and pictures. The newspaper, Pravda, gave its readers this advice in 1950 “If you meet with difficulties in your work, or suddenly doubt your abilities, think of him -- of Stalin -- and you will find the confidence you need. If you feel tired in an hour when you should not, think of him -- of Stalin-- and your work will go well. If you are seeking a correct decision, think of him -- Stalin -- and you will find that decision
Psalm 138:1-8 (NLT)1 I give you thanks, O LORD, with all my heart; I will sing your praises before the gods.2 I bow before your holy Temple as I worship. I praise your name for your unfailing love and faithfulness; for your promises are backed by all the honor of your name.3 As soon as I pray, you answer me; you encourage me by giving me strength.4 Every king in all the earth will thank you, LORD, for all of them will hear your words.5 Yes, they will sing about the LORD’s ways, for the glory of the LORD is very great.6 Though the LORD is great, he cares for the humble, but he keeps his distance from the proud.7 Though I am surrounded by troubles, you will protect me from the anger of my enemies. You reach out your hand, and the power of your right hand saves me.8 The LORD will work out his plans for my life— for your faithful love, O LORD, endures forever. Don’t abandon me, for you made me.
We pray for forgiveness:
Psalm 51:1-19 (NLT)1 Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.2 Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin.3 For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night.4 Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just.5 For I was born a sinner— yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.6 But you desire honesty from the womb, teaching me wisdom even there.7 Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.8 Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me— now let me rejoice.9 Don’t keep looking at my sins. Remove the stain of my guilt.10 Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.11 Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.13 Then I will teach your ways to rebels, and they will return to you.14 Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves; then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.15 Unseal my lips, O Lord, that my mouth may praise you.16 You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering.17 The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.18 Look with favor on Zion and help her; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.19 Then you will be pleased with sacrifices offered in the right spirit— with burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings. Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar.
People in AA pray daily to a Higher Power asking for help in controlling and delivering them from their addictions. People pray because we can’t help it. We may not have a specific time that we pray or even think that we are praying sometimes. (Pray without ceasing)
The word prayer comes from the Latin root precarius meaning that we often pray out of desperation. Prayer is universal. Thomas Merton said “Prayer is an expression of who we are… We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment”
According to Gallup polls, more Americans will pray this week than will exercise, drive a car, have sex, or go to work. Nine in ten of us pray regularly, and three out of four claim to pray every day.
Here is what Philip found when he started to take a look at Christian prayer. In his research he found people who spent hours every day praying. Granted these people were folk who founded orphanages, or were great evangelists, or people like Martin Luther.
Then he interviewed ordinary people like you and me and here’s what he found were the typical answers to the following questions.
Question - Is prayer important to you? Oh, yes
Question - How often do you pray? Every Day
Question - Approximately how long? - Five minutes, maybe seven
Question - Do you find prayer satisfying? Not Really
Question - Do you sense the presence of God when you pray? Occasionally, not often.
Most of the people experienced prayer more as a burden not a pleasure. They said that it was important, and felt guilty about their feelings of it being more of a burden than anything else.
When he listened to public prayers in many churches, especially those which identify themselves as evangelical, or conservative. Like the ones you quite often see on Christian TV, he heard people telling God what to do, and hints on how others should act. In other churches, more liberal ones, he heard calls to action as if the prayer was something to get past so that the people could do the real work of God’s kingdom. We can get so caught us in doing the Lord’s work that we forget or don’t have the time to pray.
Philip found that there is a gap between the theory of prayer and the practice of prayer. In his words; “In theory prayer is the essential human act, a priceless point of contact with the God of the universe. In practice prayer is often confusing and frustrating”. His publisher did an unscientific poll on his website and from the 678 people who responded only 23 felt satisfied with the time that they were spending in prayer. Not necessarily the length of time but the time period.
He thinks, and I agree that science and technology contribute to our confusion about prayer. It use to be that farmers looked to heaven and prayed for rain. Today we look at the local weather or the Weather Channel, dig irrigation canals, and seed clouds. When a child or someone got sick we prayed, we now call for an ambulance or the doctor. There are other things that cause people to be skeptical about prayer and cause doubt. Like why does God let all the things go on in the world that cause pain and suffering?
We often look to the scripture in Peter;
2 Peter 3:9 (NLT)9 The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.
Romans 8:28-29 (NLT)28 And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.29 For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
Deuteronomy 31:6 (NLT)6 So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the LORD your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.”
But does that really help? What good will prayer do against terrorism, and natural disasters? What good will prayer do against terrorism, and natural disasters? These are all questions that both Christians and non-Christians ask. We sometimes say that natural disasters are God’s punishment for something, but that doesn’t make sense to me because I don’t believe that God would punish the righteous along with the unrighteous. Example the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah when God did intervene personally but spared Lot and his family.
Prosperity can dilute prayer. Philip who travels throughout the world found that Christians in developing countries spend more time actually praying than discussing, like us, the effectiveness of prayer. The wealthy, even Christians, rely on talent and resources to solve immediate problems, insurance policies and retirement plans can secure the future. We can hardly pray with sincerity, “Give us this day our daily bread” when we have plenty of food for the next several days or weeks. We have less and less time for conversation let alone time for contemplation or listening.
To the skeptic prayer is a delusion, talking to somebody that you can’t see or who can respond. To the believer prayer represents the most important use of time. That’s what I believe and I hope that you believe. So why is it so problematic? The British pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote this “Of all the activities in which the Christian engages, and which are part of the Christian life, there is surely none which causes so much perplexity, and raises so many problems, as the activity which we call prayer”.
Gerald C. May, a psychiatrist wrote, “After twenty years of listening to the yearnings of people’s hearts, I am convinced that human beings have an inborn desire for God. Whether we are consciously religious or not, this desire is our deepest longing and most precious treasure” Prayer is the way for us to fulfill that deepest longing.
Prayer is a privilege, not a duty. It requires discipline, but as we learned in our last study, it starts with a relationship between two friends. Prayer includes times of ecstasy and times of dullness, times of mindless distraction and complete concentration, times of joy and times of irritation.
Prayer is the place where the two themes of Christian life come together. Those themes are; why God doesn’t act the way we want Him to, and why I don’t act the way that God wants me to.
As we really begin to get into answering the question does prayer make a difference we have to start from the right perspective. We must realize how small we are and how big God is. How short our time of existence compared to Hodgson eternity.
Psalm 90:2 (NLT)2 Before the mountains were born, before you gave birth to the earth and the world, from beginning to end, you are God.
2 Peter 3:8 (NLT)8 But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day.
Psalm 39:4 (NLT)4 “LORD, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered— how fleeting my life is.
Here is an example of how big God is compared to us that Philip uses; “If the Milky Way galaxy were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup. That’s the size of our solar system in the Milky Way galaxy. Now consider that there are perhaps 100 billion galaxies in the universe. It would take 15 billion years to send a lightspeed message (100,000 miles per hour) to the edge of the universe.
Psalm 8:1-9 (NLT)1 O LORD, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens.2 You have taught children and infants to tell of your strength, silencing your enemies and all who oppose you.3 When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers— the moon and the stars you set in place--4 what are people that you should think about them, mere mortals that you should care for them?5 Yet you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor.6 You gave them charge of everything you made, putting all things under their authority--7 the flocks and the herds and all the wild animals,8 the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea, and everything that swims the ocean currents.9 O LORD, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!
If I look at prayer in that light I will stop thinking of ways in which God should serve me but I will look for ways to serve Him.
You remember when God finally responded to Job’s complaint?
Job 38:4 (NLT)4 “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.
Then Job's reply?
Job 42:1-3 (NLT)1 Then Job replied to the LORD:2 “I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you.3 You asked, ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’ It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about, things far too wonderful for me.
Even so we should still realize that God wants to communicate with, have a person-to-person relationship with us. That was God’s plan from the beginning. God and Adam talked as friends.
Genesis 3:8-10 (NLT)8 When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the LORD God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the LORD God among the trees.9 Then the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”10 He replied, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.”
In our last study we talked about friendship with God and we used the examples of Abraham, Moses, and the disciples
Let’s look at Abraham and Moses whose relationships with God included friendship,
2 Chronicles 20:7 (HCSB)7 Are You not our God who drove out the inhabitants of this land before Your people Israel and who gave it forever to the descendants of Abraham Your friend?
Isaiah 41:8 (HCSB)8 But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, descendant of Abraham, My friend--
James 2:23 (HCSB)23 So the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, and he was called God’s friend.
Exodus 33:11 (HCSB)11 The LORD spoke with Moses face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his assistant, the young man Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the inside of the tent.
John 15:9-17 (HCSB)9 “As the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you. Remain in My love.10 If you keep My commands you will remain in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commands and remain in His love.11 “I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.12 This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you.13 No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends.14 You are My friends if you do what I command you.15 I do not call you slaves anymore, because a slave doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from My Father.16 You did not choose Me, but I chose you. I appointed you that you should go out and produce fruit and that your fruit should remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give you.17 This is what I command you: Love one another.
John 17:20-21 (HCSB)20 I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their message.21 May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me.
For most of us, much of the time, prayer brings no certain confirmation we have been heard. We pray in faith that our words somehow cross a bridge between visible and invisible worlds, penetrating a reality of which we have no proof. We enter God’s environment, which is the realm of the spirit because God is spirit, which, if we are honest, seems much less real to us that it would have been to Adam, Abraham, or Moses.
Next week as we get into our study we are going to try to look at things from a different perspective. Rather than looking at things from our perspective we are going to try to look at things from God’s perspective.