This is part of a series of posts on the Poison of Pietism. Click here to see the entire series.
For all of the talk about prayer, the importance of prayer, the power of prayer, the necessity of prayer, and so on, there is very little ever actually said about the doctrine of prayer. Simply put, prayer is communication with God. It comes in two forms: public and private. We all understand the nature of public and private communication except when we get to our prayers. Pietism has caused this confusion. Public communication is very different from private communication. What you say to your boss at work is very different than what you say to your wife in the bedroom. Both the style and the content of the communication differ in public and private communication. We all know and intuitively feel this difference between the public and the private except when it comes to the act of prayer. Pietists have created this confusion in our thoughts and practice by insisting that private prayer be dragged into the public square as an act of looking good to the watching world and paving the way for evangelism. As is the case with everything pietists do, they are concerned about the public image associated with any activity and they believe innocuous prayers about mundane topics can make the church look good in front of the watching world and, thereby, cause evangelistic efforts to be successful.
Although this sounds very simplistic, public prayer must be about public topics. Public prayer is conducted in public settings. The proper content for public prayer is anything that has to do with the three covenantal institutions found in the Bible (all of which are public) and the relationship of the church to them. Pastors and teachers are required to pray publicly. The Bible is full of exhortations to pray for our leaders, our elders, and our fellow believers. Paul often asks people to make public prayers for his ministry in his letters to the churches. It is entirely appropriate, although infrequently practiced (especially the imprecatory Psalms, which are Scripture emeritus to pietists), to use the Psalms (the inspired prayers of the Bible) in a public prayer. In addition, it is entirely appropriate to use a “prayer book” in public prayers. Reformed churches for decades used to use and rely upon prayer books for their public prayers. Under the influence of pietism this practice has basically come to a stop. I believe all of us generally are able to make the distinction between what is public and what is private but we choose to ignore that distinction when it comes to prayer in church.
Most of what happens today in what are usually called “prayer meetings” has no business being there. I believe most of us realize that modern prayer meetings consist mostly of requests for physical healing and opportunities to gossip about somebody who has a “spiritual need” by making a request for prayer for him. These “prayer requests” give us opportunity to integrate with our fellow believers and also give us something spiritual to say. The fact that they serve some function, however, does not make them proper. Private physical needs are so low on the totem pole of things to be prayed about that I find it hard to justify wasting public time in prayer for them. Paul suffered from a physical malady and, despite all of his requests for prayer on his behalf as an apostle, he is never recorded as having asked for prayer for his illness. In addition, he did not spend a great deal of time praying about his chronic illness. Three times he prayed for relief from his illness and then he submitted to the will of God that he remain in his illness. Paul knew that his illness was a private matter that had no business in the public prayers of the church.
Our prayers are to be according to the will of God and His revealed will indicates that our need to worship and obey Him, along with our need to petition about our spiritual problems, are of much greater importance than our physical ones. (Note: I am not saying never pray about physical needs, especially in our private prayers where that topic is entirely appropriate. I am just trying to put our prayer topics in perspective.) The issue of illness is of particular difficulty. We know from Scripture that illness can be caused by one of three things. First, an illness can simply be a result of living in a fallen world. Second, an illness can be discipline from God for profaning the communion table. Third, an illness can be discipline from God for some sinful practice in the life of the believer. Given the fact that two of the three possible reasons for illness are related to sin, it is important to not rush to prayer for illness and assume that the sick person is innocent.
James 5:14-20 describes the process we are to follow when we want prayer for illness. Notice that no prayer is made for the sick person until after an opportunity has been given for the elders to issue a judicial opinion with respect to the illness. The sick person is to confess his sins and the elders are to determine, to the best of their ability, if this particular illness might be related to any sinful practice or behavior. A great injustice is done to the sick person when all prayers for healing automatically assume that the illness is not related to sin. We should be very careful before we bring prayers for healing from illness into the public forum. The proper procedures must be followed before any public prayer for healing should be given. The pietist, in the misguided belief that dragging the private prayers of the saints into the public arena constitutes a form of intimate fellowship, is severely in error and doing spiritual harm to the church and individual believers.
As mentioned earlier, Jesus taught us that our prayers are to be according to His will. No public prayer should ever be uttered if the person uttering that prayer is unable to biblically establish that the content of the prayer is consistent with God’s revealed will. The game that we play by saying “In Jesus Name” at the end of a prayer does not sanctify an unbiblical prayer. To pray in the name of Jesus is to say that we believe that our prayer is consistent with His revealed will. If we are not convinced that the content of our prayer is consistent with His revealed will, we had better not pray in public.
Most of our prayer should be of the private variety. The exhortation to “pray without ceasing” is a reference to our private thought and prayer life. We have not been left without instructions on how to pray. Matthew 6 contains an extensive section of teaching where Jesus told the disciples how to pray privately. Most of what He says there is routinely ignored by the pietists in the church today. In particular, Jesus rebukes the practice of dragging private prayers into the public forum. The pietists of His time, the Pharisees, were expert at taking what was meant to be private and making it public in order to receive the praise and accolades of men. Let’s examine His teaching for a moment. (As a side note, isn’t it interesting that Jesus gives the “Lord’s Prayer” as an example of a private prayer for the his disciples, warns them to not repeat it mindlessly in public; and then many churches make the recitation of this prayer a part of their weekly liturgy? )
Jesus puts almsgiving, prayer, and fasting together as three private spiritual disciplines. I continue to be amazed that pietists seem incapable of understanding that the principles that apply to almsgiving and fasting also apply to personal prayer. In all three disciplines Jesus emphasizes the importance of secrecy. With regard to alms He says, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” With regard to fasting He says, “when you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do…when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face so that you may not be seen fasting by men.” With regard to prayer He says, “Go into your inner room and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” Could He be any more clear about the importance of secrecy as we engage in these private spiritual disciplines? Why then, do pietists continually insist upon dragging the practice of prayer into the public arena? Why do pietists insist upon saying, “I am praying for you” (fully realizing that these prayers are of the private variety)? Why do pietists insist upon asking me what they can pray for about me when they know it is private? I fear that here is a whole lot of spiritual competition going on.
Even pietists realize that it is unseemly to go around proclaiming things like, “I am fasting today”, or “I am giving alms to so-and-so”, or “I am fasting for you”. They rightly recognize that those are private activities that are to be performed in secrecy. Nevertheless, when it comes to prayer we are suddenly expected to describe our private prayer lives in detail as an example of how intimate our fellowship is with each other and God. Our public fellowship is never intended to be as intimate as our private fellowship with God. Furthermore, our private fellowship with God is never intended to become a part of the public discussion. Never. To do so is to lose all of the reward associated with the private exercise of the spiritual disciplines. As Jesus repeatedly said of those who practiced private spiritual disciplines in the public eye, “They have their reward in full.”
As mentioned earlier, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That means that we need to self consciously attempt to make sure that every prayer we utter is consistent with His revealed will. How is it possible to take our private prayers that so often deal with matters of the secret will of God, drag them into public scrutiny, and remain consistent with that principle? It is a simple matter to keep our public prayers consistent with the revealed will of God by using the inspired prayers of God (and other, time tested prayers of the saints throughout Church history) in our public prayer times. Our private prayers are an entirely different matter. It is extraordinarily difficult for an individual believer to know if his subjective private prayers are consistent with the revealed will of God. Nevertheless, that is what Jesus has taught us to strive to do. On the other hand, it is impossible for public prayer about subjective private matters directly related to the secret will of God to even come close to being in consistent adherence with God’s revealed will. There are just too many private subjective variables to be discerned. That, no doubt, is one of the reasons private prayers are to remain secret.
Even here, however, we can derive great comfort from the fact that God modifies our private prayers to make them acceptable to Him and His will. Romans 8:26-27 describes this process. It says, “And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” So, let us resolve to make our public prayers about public issues according to the revealed will of God in the Bible. Let us resolve to make our private prayers about anything that is on our minds and to make them, as far as we are able, consistent with the will of God while, at the same time knowing, that God Himself is sanctifying our private prayer to make it acceptable to Him.
Pietists like to brag about the frequency and content of their private prayers. (Compare this to how unseemly it is to brag about the frequency and content of their sex lives!) Just like the Pharisees, they have received their reward in full. Unlike almsgiving and fasting, which require serious effort on the part of the participant, it is easy for the pietist to talk a blue streak about how much he is praying since nobody will ever know the truth. I suspect that most pietists are convinced in their own minds that they pray all the time simply because they have a lot of “God chatter” in their self talk. All of this allows them to feel good about themselves. All of this allows them to be seen as good chaps by the watching world. Even a world that hates the revealed truth of God tends to turn a condescending eye to those who constantly talk about how much they are praying. Just be careful to never use the name of Jesus when describing those prayers or the world will become offended. What we discover is that the pietist can use his prayer, and his doctrine of prayer, to convince himself that he is living before the watching world in such a fashion as to make way for the highly successful (which means lots of converts) proclamation of the gospel.
One of the favorite concepts in the pietist’s doctrine of prayer is the need for endless repetition. Pietists love to talk about their “prayer lists” and how they pray down the list every single day. They also love to talk about how they have prayed about a particular item or another for weeks, months, or even years. In essence, the pietist
believes it is a sanctified spiritual activity to engage in the process of nagging God through prayer. This is true despite the fact that Jesus expressly told His disciples to not engage in the practice of meaningless repetition. The pietist loves to cite the example of the woman in Luke 18 as a proof text for this practice. It is worth examining in a bit more detail.
Luke introduces this parable by saying that Jesus gave it to them so that they might learn to “pray at all times and not lose heart.” You probably all know the story. A widow in a city was asking a judge to give her legal protection. At first he refused to do so. She persisted in her demand. Eventually the judge gives in and agrees to protect her. In doing so the judge says, “Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, lest by continually coming she wear me out.” At first glance this sounds like open permission to nag God all we want. First glances can be deceptive.
Here is how Jesus interprets this parable. “Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them speedily.” The content of the prayer of the widow is what is critical in this parable. It is not the mere fact that she is persistent. It is the fact that she is persistent in the revealed will of God. She is demanding justice. She knows that it is God’s revealed will that magistrates deliver justice. She persists in her prayer for justice and it is granted. This parable does not give us permission to nag God about anything that we want. This parable does give us a command to pursue the revealed will of God in our prayers.
Revelation 6:10 records the prayers of the departed saints in the intermediate state. “..and they cried out with a loud voice saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” Now that is a powerful prayer. That is a prayer according to the will of God. That is a prayer that should be uttered publicly in every church in the land on every Sunday morning. Of course, that will never happen. Prayers like those being uttered by the departed saints are offensive to pietists. Prayers like those being offered up by the departed saints at this very moment would never be repeated by the pietist because they are offensive to the watching world. In their distorted theology, the prayers of the saints impede the progress of the gospel.
Prayer is not a game. Prayer is not a show for the world to watch. There is something very wrong with the pietist doctrine of prayer that allows for the world to look in and judge us. Public prayer declares the will of God back to Him and, thus, serves as a type of gospel proclamation. Private prayer should be never known to anyone but God.