Wasting my breath

When my sister walked away from the faith a few years ago, I resented her. Every conversation we had, filled with confrontations and questions, left me angry and bitter. When she hooked up with a non-believing boyfriend, I flipped out. I stopped talking to her. I looked down on her. And I started praying for her…asking God to save her, to “show her the way.” With white knuckles and deep spiritual conviction, I prayed and prayed.

Around that same time, I was talking with my close friend and mentor, Dr. Tom Hauff, who was writing a book about prayer. (Tom is a professor of Bible and theology at Multnomah University.) In one chapter of that book, he probes the idea of repetitive prayer for the salvation of the lost, and in our ongoing conversation, he has challenged me with a few mind benders.

On the surface, we probably make this request because we care deeply about people, and we want them to taste freedom and live the life Jesus offers. It is good to tell God what we care about. But below the surface, the repetitive request for the salvation of others might be born out of ill-conceived assumptions that conflict with our own beliefs about how salvation occurs, and it may show us that we do not know who we are, who God is or how he operates.

I started wondering if my repetitive prayer for the salvation of my sister was actually a waste of time and breath.

Consider the two prominent perspectives that have characterized Christian discourse about salvation for some time, say 2,000 years. We either understand salvation as a freely given way of eternal life that God long ago “predestined” some to receive, even before he built this world. He chose us and called us to himself according to his own decision making process; it is God’s choice. Or we understand our salvation as freely offered eternal life that we either accept or reject. God reveals himself and his Gospel to us, but, ultimately, it is our “free-will” decision to either accept or deny Jesus that determines our salvation. It is our choice.

Now, consider again the request for God to save my sister. If I hold the first view, I am asking him to change his sovereign choice. And if I hold the second view, I am asking God to overpower freedom and control her choice, which trumps “free” will altogether. From either perspective, then, the ongoing request for God to give her salvation conflicts with my own fundamental beliefs about God.

And here’s the real kicker. It seems like the New Testament writers were onto this same truth because you do not see them directly asking God to save other people. They express deep love and compassion for others. They ask that their lives could help people see the truth, that they might be part of the harvest, that doors might be opened for them to preach the Gospel, that there could be a witness of unity, love and wisdom among believers to the world around them. But their prayer is not, “God, please save so and so.” It is always, “God, please help us become the most accurate witnesses of Jesus that we can possibly be.”

The more I think about it, the more I understand that useful prayers for the lost are really prayers for Christians and the Church. I need to ask God to help me grow up. I need to stop repeatedly asking him to do something I believe would actually contradict his character and plan for saving people.

While I “faithfully” prayed for my sister’s salvation, I treated her like crap. ( I think I also prayed imprecatory prayers on her poor boyfriend: “Wreck that dirtbag, God! Make him hurt!”) When she and her boyfriend wanted to visit me, I said no. She ought to feel my disapproval, I thought. When she drifted even further from Jesus, I prayed even harder. “Please, please save her.” And then all of this dawned on me….

Maybe God answered my request to “show her the way” by putting me in her life.

“You’re supposed to show her who I am, to be my accurate witness, Ben,” he said. “What exactly are you telling her? That you would prefer to sit alone and keep hurling ignorant requests at me rather than love her as a friend and sister?” Whether I intended to or not, I had been telling her and her boyfriend that Jesus was a far-removed jerk who was annoyed by their questions and needed them to clean up before approaching him. If we need to get cleaned up before approaching Jesus, though, then we’re all in big trouble.

It felt so good, so empowering, to believe I could alter the very character and plan of God. And to vomit nonsense at God over and over was simply effortless. Learning to love, however, to shed pride and to seriously trust God was much more difficult – that was tough.

I finally quit the white-knuckled pleading for her salvation, and when I finally said, “My doors are open; welcome to my home and my life,” my sister and her boyfriend saw a more accurate witness of Jesus. They started to see that Jesus intended to know and love them, imperfections and all. They tasted in some small but real way the life Jesus offers. Now, they are both loving Jesus and seriously committed to learning about his Word.

The Apostles and Disciples seem to accept the fact that God’s plan for salvation is his own. They do not ask him to alter his sovereign decisions regarding the salvation of lost, nor do they suggest he ought to trample free will. It looks like they try to avoid such ill-conceived and contradictory assumptions. But as they write about loving and ministering to those who have not encountered the Gospel, they do seem to be praying for the growth and maturity of Christians in Jesus’ Church.

I needed to exchange wasted-breath pleas, however earnest, for useful requests. Carefully self-reflecting, now, I’m wondering if my life accurately depicts a Savior who loves Christians, who loves the Church, who cares deeply about all human life, who respects authority and who craves justice. As those inaccuracies surface, I spend time purposefully asking God to help me become a disciplined, effective, mature Christian who loves Jesus so that friends, family and everyone else around me might encounter an accurate witness of the Gospel. Unless I’m totally crazy, this seems like a wiser use of the limited breaths I’ve been given.

Categories: Featured Posts, Theology

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14 Comments

  • Scott Williams says:

    I think the problem begins when we decide that for theological reasons we need to walk away from people. I did a funeral this week for a “wayward” friend and cannot get over the people who told me they could not condone his lifestyle, decided to constantly call him into account, then wondered why they had drifted apart. As you expressed, how much of our condemnation is actually self serving?
    I think many of us can relate to your struggle.

  • Eddie Gilchrist says:

    But their prayer is not, “God, please save so and so.” It is always, “God, please help us become the most accurate witnesses of Jesus that we can possibly be.”

    Actually neither of these are found in the prayers of the NT. Precious few prayers are found at all, in fact. If you cull out the prayers of Jesus, the prayers in Revelation (which are all in heaven, and mostly asking God to damn the wicked in everlasting judgment), and the “written” prayers of the epistles, you are left with a total of 9 prayers “recorded” for us in Acts. Some of these are limited to “Lord don’t hold this sin against them” (which, btw, is the most intense prayer for the conversion of sinners you can imagine), and one of the 9 is a repitition (Peter’s prayer on the rooftop re: Cornelius. I don’t think you can make much of a case of not praying for individuals to be converted from that paucity of data.

    Overall, I thought the article was spot on. I just thought some of the implications he drew were hypercalvinistic. God is sovereign over ALL things and we are still commanded to pray over them. I can figure out the relationship between the two later.

  • Christy N says:

    What a wise collection of thoughts. I can relate in so many ways.

  • Stephen says:

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks for your post. The insights you shared are based on experience, not just reflection, which makes them all the more valuable. Thank you also for being humble and transparent in relating your story. I was struck by your call to tangibly love those in our lives who don’t yet know Jesus, not just to pray for them. Because you’re right — too often our desire for their salvation is not matched by our actions towards them.

    However, I disagree that we should not pray for a person’s salvation. It is true that none of us knows the precise interplay between predestination and free will as it relates to salvation. As you mentioned, there are two dominant models (Calvinism and Arminianism) which lean one way or the other. However, neither model rules out praying for the salvation of souls.

    If we assume Calvinism to be true, then we affirm that God’s sovereignty pertains to every aspect of existence, not just salvation. Does that mean, then, that we shouldn’t pray at all, for anything? Of course not.

    If we assume Arminianism to be true, then we affirm that — while the person ultimately makes the final choice — the Holy Spirit is involved in drawing them to God, in which case it is perfectly legitimate to ask God to work in that person’s heart.

    When you say that the New Testament does not record prayers for individuals’ salvation, I assume you mean an explicit prayer containing a request that a particular individual be saved. But this by itself is no argument against such prayers, for then we would have to forego any prayers which are not modeled for us in the New Testament.

    Besides, it does not seem unreasonable that the apostles would omit such prayers from their writings, most of which were letters. (How many of my private prayers do I include in my letters?)

    As Christians we should strive as far as possible to have God’s heart and mind toward everything. Following the pattern of Jesus, and being led by the Spirit, in prayer we speak the heart of God, who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).

    Having said all this, I want to emphasize that I wholeheartedly endorse the overall message of your post. Yet I must confess that I fall woefully short. When you described your old attitude toward your sister, I cringed because I recognized myself in that portrait. God has given me opportunities to grow in this area, for which I’m grateful.

    I want to reach the point where, like yourself, “I spend time purposefully asking God to help me become a disciplined, effective, mature Christian who loves Jesus so that friends, family and everyone else around me might encounter an accurate witness of the Gospel.”

    Thanks again for starting this thought-provoking discussion.

    -Stephen

  • Ryan B. says:

    Let me first of all say that I have been through a very similar struggle for the salvation of my lost brother (i.e. sibling): Five years ago he started using drugs, and beginning five years ago I prayed and prayed that God would save him. I too cast my faith onto a Calvinistic framework one day, and then on an Arminian the next. Through it all, though, I persisted in prayer (no, I was not always faithful in this); I thought it better to error on the side of praying when I didn’t need to, than on not praying when I did need to. And then, about 6 months ago, I all of a sudden felt peace with no longer praying for my brother how I had been. Instead, the prayer was more or less: Thank you God that you have heard my prayer; and I thank you for the peace and certainty that you have given me that you’re in control. And then, a month later, my brother went to Teen Challenge where he entirely gave his life to the Lord and is gloriously born-again of the Holy Spirit. Looking back, am I to conclude that my stopping prayer was what moved God? No; for many times during those 5 years I wanted to stop praying, but always God would say to persevere. Am I to conclude that it was the culmination of my prayers that moved God? No; for if it was God’s sovereignty that decided when, then He could have decided to move in my brother’s life whenever He wanted. Rather, God had His own reasons for waiting as long as He did; I can attest that at least one of those reasons was to, by His grace, not only increase my faith but also set the stage, so to speak, to truly rejoice when I finally got to stand side-by-side with my brother as he raised his hands in worship of the Savior who set him free.

    The post, “Wasting my Breath”, although sincere, is not theologically sound; and this, it seems, is an inevitable consequence of the trend (if you can call it that) started by Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. First of all, I liked Blue Like Jazz – I thought it was an honest and thoughtful look at one man’s struggle for a deeper, more real Christian experience. In other words, it was a peek into a good writer’s diary as he wrestled with his faith. This in and of itself is fine; the problem is when readers take such wrestling as the end in itself – as if any conclusion is fine so long as it is sincerely made. The blog, I believe, follows this trend, whether or not the blogger was consciously aware of this or not.

    This is not meant to be a critique or quibbling over words; rather, I want to point out a few things that may have inadvertently been glossed over. The blogger states that ‘the real kicker’ is that “you do not see [the New Testament writers] directly asking God to save other people.” But this is simply not true. One example immediately comes to mind; namely, Paul before Agrippa: “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that both you and everyone here in this audience might become the same as I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:29). Now, either Paul was merely using Christianese rhetoric when he said this (as when someone says, for ex., “Oh I pray to God that I don’t look like an idiot on our first date.”), or else he really did pray that they would become as he (Paul) was; i.e. a believer in Jesus Christ as Lord.

    I don’t want to write some gargantuan response (I already may have), and so I’ll stop here. My main reason for writing this is to share in the blogger’s heart that Christians should not be negligent in praying that we would love more like Jesus; but, at the same time, nor should we place our faith in a Calvinistic conception of God’s Sovereignty, and, therefore, stop praying for the lost to be saved. Our faith is to be in the Living God, not in theories about Him – even if these theories are closer to the truth than others.

  • Karen Heins says:

    I loved this article I think it goes along with some of the writing of N.T.Wright.
    N.T.Wright talks a lot about Christian Character. So many of us need to work on our own character before we can be a very good witness for Christ. We personally need Gods help to learn to love Him and love ourselves before we can show true Christian love to others. You did show true love to your sister and acceptance of her as a person along with loving prayers, apparently this worked well if she is walking with Christ now! The other way you were praying seemed to just make you miserable.

  • Karla Benson says:

    Ben,

    This is so eloquent. Your words have touched me. Thank you for being “human” and honest with what may have been hard to share. I must say that it is this kind of human awareness and honesty that brought me and eventually my kids to Imago Dei.

    Christians, myself included, can be some of the most judgemental people around. I had pulled away from the church for a few years because of the judgement I saw around me… the “in the box” type of thinking. I work on set of films and commercials and it was BECAUSE they were going to make a film out of “Blue Like Jazz” that I eventually came to Imago Dei. I wanted to work on the film so I bought the book to familiarize myself with the topic. As I read, my heart started to soften. The words and the ideas spoke to me as if he were reading my mind. I needed to know if Christians like this really did exist. I have been continually impressed with the realness of the members of this church.

    Thank you!
    Karla

  • Ben,
    When I read that you resented your sister for walking away from the “faith” it immediately occurred to me that her moving away from a shared belief system was more about your loss of her acceptance than about her finding God along her own path.

    Maybe that wasn’t the case back then, but that is how it read to me. What ever the case for you may be, I believe that others are more concerned about their loss of community than another’s relationship to God.

  • Ben Tertin says:

    Responding to commenter No. 5, Ryan B.:

    Thank your for your thoughts and for your help. Your comments, and those of a few others, point out the fact that I did not emphasize a crucial aspect of my overall point. In the blog, it sounds like I am rejecting the idea of praying for the lost altogether, which I did not intend to communicate. I apologize.

    In paragraphs No. 1 and 5, I too briefly mention that I am specifically addressing the “repetitive” and “ongoing” prayers for the salvation of the lost. I should have more clearly communicated that that praying for the lost is, as you suggest, important and ought to be a frequent practice when we interact with God. But your biblical example and the others we see in Scripture do not lead us in the direction of repetitive, ongoing prayer for others’ salvation. (I might even point you to several OT examples that seem to suggest the exact opposite: Jeremiah 7:13-17, 11:14, and 14:11-12; 2 Chronicles 6:32-33. I know that those situations are specific, but they are at least thought-provoking and relevant to this broader subject.)

    Looking at Acts 26:29, I think that you unnecessarily jump to conclusions not supported by either that passage or Paul’s writing in general. Reading the opening of his letter to the Ephesians (to note just one example), we see how Paul understands the “saved” or “unsaved” status of a human being as something determined “before the creation of the world” and independent of human action. In that light, it would make no sense if he were here (before Agrippa) asking that that their salvation status be either confirmed or changed. He is more likely asking that the chosen in his midst would be awakened to the truth of their salvation and their redemption in Christ. And in either case, he is clearly neither suggesting nor modeling a repetitive, ongoing request for the salvation of others.

    One more note about the latter point: He is certainly expressing his deep hopes and desires to God in prayer, which is something we ought to practice. But we might do well to avoid behaving like children who ask over and over, “Are we there yet?” or make ongoing requests for things their parents have consistently said “No” to. It seems more useful for us to express our hopes and desires, to bare our raw emotion and soul before God, and then to pay attention – to listen closely – to His responses. We communicate with others the same way. We ask. We listen. We change our inquiry. If we do not, we start to look a bit crazy and at least have an extremely strange relationship with the people we talk to. Can you imagine somebody always asking you to do the same thing? You might start to wonder if they were listening to your responses at all. Anyhow, the point is that that we listen and then shape our prayers and behaviors accordingly. That is what I finally realized was lacking in the situation with my sister.

    Finally, your closing statement – “Our faith is to be in the Living God, not in theories about Him…” – illustrates the exact ambiguity that I think sparked this whole exploration of prayer in my mind to begin with long before you wrote those words. Have my thoughts somehow revealed a waning faith in the living God or a misdirected faith toward human theories? Is asking questions about prayer and suggesting answers to the best of our intellectual ability evidence of lacking faith? If we understand faith as a blind act of will to believe something that is either independent of reason or simply a choice to believe in spite of a paltry lack of evidence, then you might be onto something. But I do not think that is an accurate understanding of faith. As J.P. Moreland suggests, that is a “modern misunderstanding.”

    “[B]iblically, faith is a power or skill to act in accordance with the nature of the kingdom of God,” he writes, “a trust in what we have reason to believe is true” (See Moreland, J.P. “Love Your God with All Your Mind” (NavPress: 1997), p. 25)

    So, while I completely agree with you that our faith must be in the living God, I get frustrated when brothers and sisters in the face of a challenges so ripe with growth potential simply throw their hands up and cry out, “Just have faith!” only to return to the comfort of not having to think about things carefully. We need to employ our God-gifted skill to act – and think – in accordance with the nature of the kingdom of God and to consider carefully the things we pray for and why. Please know that, while I highlight your closing comments to point out my frustration, that frustration is with a larger, more general tendency that I encounter often. Your comments are much appreciated and are the exact opposite of frustrating, and I am thankful that you are carefully and critically thinking about these things, too. Keep it up! Thank you again for your help and for sharing your thoughts. (The thing I hate about this kind of blog-commenting communication is my inability to find out if you’re in my neighborhood so that we could have some coffee and work through this massive topic through a good, face-to-face conversation. Still, I appreciate your time and your openness.)

    Thanks, too, to everyone else who has been participating in this discussion. Good times!

  • Dollie Robin says:

    This is such a beautiful place to process the need to be like Christ in a world where there is so much immorality, even in the church…This is not new. Reading the Bible keeps the focus clear that we are a people who need a savior. We are NEVER to judge, just encourage. Encourage the saints toward righteousness. The three greatest things are Faith, Hope and Love. These three do not leave room for hopelessness. We are never to give up on one another. We are to warn, and share and admonish and above all pray!! Pray with faith, hope, and love. Prayer is so very powerful, and our need to pray is effective at keeping our perspective true and good. May we all be patient and kind when the ones we love choose evil. May we live a life of hope and love: not fear and hate. It is difficult when everything in us tells us that our loved ones will be so so sorry someday with huge, huge consequences. And yet, even then when consequences make their life so difficult, we with Christ as our strength, rise to the occasion and share love, acceptance and forgiveness, just as we hope would be offered to us in our time of rebellion, questioning or it may be a time of confusion and searching out of our pain. The fruit of the Spirit is Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness, Faithfulness and Self Control. Fruit of the Spirit, Hmmm. Not a fruit of the flesh? Spirit. I MUST Love the Lord my God with All of my Heart….Seek First the Kingdom…Repent…Take the log out of my own eye….Let the Spirit of God render the fruit, so I can love my brother who I CAN SEE….I would LOVE it if any of you reading this would be so good as to pray for me that I too would be like Christ: Loving my Neighbor as Myself. Thank you.

  • Stephen says:

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks for your response to Ryan, as it cleared up a misunderstanding of mine. I too thought you were saying it was unnecessary for Christians to pray for the salvation of people who don’t know Jesus.

    You made two points which I’d like to address.

    The first point was in regard to the story of Paul before Agrippa. If I understand you correctly, what you’re saying is this: Instead of asking that unbelievers be saved, we should ask that they be awakened to their salvation. Because if they truly are saved, then their salvation was determined before the foundation of the world, in which case prayer won’t change anything (since God’s eternal decrees are fixed).

    But isn’t that just semantics? I can believe salvation is predetermined yet still ask God to “save” people, because (1) I don’t know who is predestined to salvation and who isn’t; and (2) even though salvation is foreknown from eternity, it still has to happen in our time-space experience, and God uses prayer to accomplish his purposes.

    I do not believe it imposes on God to ask him to do something he has already chosen to do (or not do). As finite creatures we possess limited understanding, and God knows this. He is more concerned with our hearts and with conforming our desires and wills to his own.

    God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). It doesn’t matter that we don’t know who will be saved and who won’t. We should ask, and trust that God will “work out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11). God’s sovereignty is not an argument against prayer, just as it is not an argument against missions.

    The second point you made is that it is fruitless to ask over and over for something to which God has said “no.” First I want to say that I appreciate your relational approach to prayer. Too often we speak without listening and our prayers become monologues. Sometimes we need to quiet our hearts, silence our tongues, and wait on the Lord. As you mentioned, this was key in your relationship with your sister. When you allowed God to guide your behavior toward her, she became receptive to the gospel. Your example is a model for those of us in a similar situation.

    But Scripture exhorts us to be persistent in prayer — even asking the same thing repeatedly (see the parable of the widow and the judge in Luke 18:1-8), even after God has made up his mind (see the account of King Hezekiah’s healing in 2 Kings 20:1-7), and even after God has said “no” (see the parable of the needy friend in Luke 11:5-10)!

    Certainly God doesn’t want our prayers to consist of “vain repetition.” Jesus instructed his disciples not to babble “like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7). We should not chant mantras or recite the same prayer over and over again as if it were some sort of magical spell.

    Yet in 1 Thess. 5:17 we are commanded to pray “without ceasing.” Naturally we will pray most fervently for those things which burden our hearts. For many Christians, the salvation of a friend or loved one falls into that category. Repetitive, ongoing prayer on behalf of that individual is an expression of love, not wasting one’s breath.

    It is instructive to note what Abraham did on behalf of the city of Sodom (Gen. 18:20-32). First he asked God to spare the city if there were 50 righteous people in it. God granted his request, so Abraham did the same thing five more times, until God agreed to spare Sodom if there were only 10 righteous people found within its walls. If Abraham cared that much for Sodom, how much more should we flood heaven with prayers for those near and dear to us?

    I’ll give a personal example: I love my brother. I want him to be safe, healthy, and happy, so I ask God for these things. But the best life this world can provide is ultimately meaningless without a personal relationship with Jesus. To put it bluntly: unless my brother trusts in Christ for salvation, he is doomed to spend eternity in hell. If I truly love my brother, why would I continue to pray for his safety, health, and happiness, yet at some point stop praying for what he needs the most?

    And what is intercession except repetitive, ongoing prayer? (It is distinguished from “regular” prayer in 1 Tim. 2:1, indicating two separate activities.) Yet Scripture tells us that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit continually intercede for believers even now.

    Finally, in Romans 10:1 Paul says it is his “heart’s desire and prayer” (present tense) that the Jewish people might be saved. This is not a one-time prayer — on the contrary, it is the ongoing (perhaps daily, perhaps hourly, perhaps minute-by-minute) cry of his heart. I doubt Paul believes that every single Jew of his generation will turn to Christ. Nevertheless he prays to this end, and he does so — not knowing if it will happen or not — because it is his “heart’s desire and prayer.” I would add: a godly desire and an appropriate response, one we would do well to emulate.

    -Stephen

  • Jackson says:

    Oh wow, this is a thought-provoking article. I read this article right before going to bed tonight and haven’t been able to fall asleep cause I’ve been thinking about it.

    Here are a few thoughts from my end on it, first on salvation, then on prayer.

    I tend to disagree with the Arminian viewpoint. My understanding is that the human will has become incredibly sinful and has literally turned in on itself. It can’t choose good without outside intervention. Augustine particularly championed this view and wrote at length about how his desires became totally out of whack through the Fall. The Fall has far reaching consequences on our whole being, including our intellect and our will. With that said, our will needs an intervention – it needs grace, as Martin Luther reminded us. So the act of salvation really is God’s work in us – we’ve got no choice in the matter; we need God to work in us to make it happen. Now the next step is where the Arminian emphasis on choice comes into partial play, because once the sinner is saved, this newly justified individual has the chance to now cooperate with God’s grace. Catholics are particularly big on the “empowering” grace of God, grace that essentially helps us to act in accord with God’s will, be more obedient to Him. We are gifted with this empowering grace, but Catholics will still affirm that we cooperate with God’s grace; the cool end result: we also play a role in our sanctification (but not in our justification).

    An aside here: This connects in with C.S. Lewis’s emphasis that God wants us to be certain types of people. Essentially, I believe God wants all people to be saved. God wants all people to become sons and daughters of God. But we do also have free will, and we do also cooperate with God’s grace, so sadly that is not always going to be the end effect (perhaps this is why Catholics have put emphasis on purgatory). This thought ties in somewhat with the thought that even some who say “Lord, Lord” in this world will not be recognized by Christ in the end times. We still need to cooperate with God and choose to pick up our crosses on this road of sanctification (again, thanks be to God that we have grace’s help on the way too). I think now as well on the verse: work out your salvation with fear and trembling. With this verse in mind, it seems that we can’t forget the salvation and sanctification go hand-in-hand. We shouldn’t separate them into two compartments. They belong together.

    Now a few thoughts on prayer. I agree with the article that God is indeed sovereign, and the sovereignty of God implies that He knows who will be saved and not saved. Yet what can be dangerous about this statement is that it can be taken overboard and start to head into deism. For instance, because God is sovereign, we therefore shouldn’t pray for the souls of others. Because God is sovereign, we really shouldn’t pray at all then, because if it is already lined up by God, then what’s the point? God is just watching time pass by on the outside of things.
    But such thinking is not correct thinking about who God is. If anything, Scripture proclaims that God is sovereign, but it also proclaims that God is intimately active in the day-to-day happenings of this world. God is sovereign, but He is also present, here, right now, and He wants to hear from us.
    The article calls into question whether it is good for us to pray for the salvation of others. I don’t think it is wrong to pray that others might be saved. I think what is off here in the article is its understanding of prayer. The article presents prayer in a sense as convincing God to do something we ask of Him. God, save so and so a person. The author brings in God’s sovereignty to show why such a prayer is “wasted.” He’s headed down the wrong alley though. If we look in Scripture, a lot of people prayed to God about their situations. Abraham talked with God about sparing a city in the Old Testament, even bargained with God, saying if he could find a certain number of people who were righteous, then God should spare the city from destruction. Jesus even prays to God to take the cup of his crucifixion away from him. In no way were these prayers pointless or wasted breath, because they weren’t trying to convince God to do a certain thing. Indeed, God is sovereign, He’s already got a plan. So what’s the point of prayer then? Prayer is really about lining our own wills up to God’s. It’s about getting into tune with God’s sovereign plan and being obedient to it. So when I pray about something, I am really talking with God so that I can line myself up to His will and follow obediently His plan. When I pray about the salvation of my own father, it really is about getting into tune with God’s plan and perhaps discovering what role God might have in store for me in my father’s salvation (kinda ties in with his end point, but I think he really leaves a gapping hole without this point).

    I have respect for what Imago Dei is doing, and I think the article ultimately has a good conclusion, but I disagree with some of the logic building into it and I also think the understanding of prayer is a bit off. Because he prayed for his sister’s salvation but was himself not showing Christ to her, he immediately comes to the conclusion that praying for salvation of others = bad. The logic there is definitely off.

  • Ben Tertin says:

    It is important to throw a reminder in here (which I mentioned above but has possibly now been lost in the many comments). I have not said that “praying for the salvation of others = bad.” Here is an excerpt from my comment No. 10:

    “…it sounds like I am rejecting the idea of praying for the lost altogether, which I did not intend to communicate….

    In paragraphs No. 1 and 5 [of the original post], I too briefly mention that I am specifically addressing the “repetitive” and “ongoing” prayers for the salvation of the lost. I should have more clearly communicated that that praying for the lost is, as you suggest, important and ought to be a frequent practice when we interact with God. ” What I am talking about is the times when we make the request to God, and he says “no.” What do we do then? We have only two options: one, keep asking the same thing over and over; two, change our request. (I suppose there is a third option, which is unfortunately common: we can simply ignore the idea of praying altogether, deeming it a confusing, ambiguous, weird practice that never gets results anyway.)

    Regarding Stephen’s comment No. 12, specifically the interpretations of the parables and 2 Kings passage, I want to take this opportunity to help us re-think some common misconceptions. I was hoping these passages would come up because they are so frequently referred to but, perhaps, less frequently examined with care:

    The parable of the persistent widow and the judge (Luke 18:1-8) does not instruct people to ask God over and over for things until he finally gives in, as though this is righteous or smart behavior. Notice that the “unjust judge” is not being compared to God, as though the two were similar; he is being contrasted against God to show how dissimilar they are. The point of the parable is to show that, if this unjust, arrogant judge can be persuaded by repetitive requests to do what is right even though he has no fear of God or concern for people, how much more “quickly” will our just, faithful, loving God respond to our pleas? This parable is ultimately providing listeners with an example of how NOT to interact with God. Again, the unjust, slow-to-respond judge is shown to be very different from God, the God who listens carefully and responds quickly. This passage supports my view that God never needs to be badgered over and over with the same request by people who “cry out to him day and night.” We must not miss the closing rhetorical question (vs. 7), where Jesus interprets the parable for us:

    “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off [as the unjust judge did]?” The answer he wants us to see is, ‘No. He will not keep putting you off until you finally ask enough.’

    Regarding the passage about King Hezekiah’s healing in 2 Kings 20:1-7, this passage shows that God not only answered the King’s prayer; he did so quickly and after a single prayer. This supports my point precisely. God listens. God answers our prayers. Repetitive, ongoing, over-and-over requesting of the same thing is not a practice that fits with 1) the way human beings communicate in general and 2) the way we see communication with God in Scripture. Worse, it seems to suggest that our concept of praying is primarily self-centered. Is the prayer of request primarily about us saying things at God, telling him the same needs over and over? Or is it’s primary purpose to communicate with God? By nature, the “request” is a question, and it therefore expects an answer. If we listen to his responses, we quickly grow in our understanding of when he says “Yes” and when he says “No”? If we don’t, we go the way of the broken-record.

    Finally, the parable of the needy friend in Luke 11:5-10) must be interpreted in much the same way as the persistent widow. A man seriously needs some bread but has none of his own. So he goes to his “friend’s” house and knocks on the door, asking for what he needs. This “friend” says to the needy man, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything” (Luke 11:7). As a student of Scripture, you have to ask yourself here, is Jesus’ point in this parable to suggest that God is similar to or different from the “friend” who refuses to get up. Can you imagine God saying, “Don’t bother me; I can’t get up and give you anything”? Of course not. From Jesus’ own words in vss. 11-13, we see how he is showing us that this stubborn “friend,” who will only respond after the man knocks and pounds at the door relentlessly, is completely different from our attentive God. God does not sit, annoyed at our prayers, waiting until we cry loud enough for him to give in and say, “OK! OK! Fine, I’ll give it to you now that you’ve asked me over and over for a long enough time.” Instead, we cry out. Then he answers. Then we reshape our prayer according to the way he has answered.

    To close this entry, I will make one final appeal to common life experience. Which scenario is better? You ask your boss for a raise and on the spot he clearly says, “No.” Or, you ask your boss for a raise and he says, “…..” So you ask again, and he just looks at you. And then you keep asking, again and again, and again…but to no avail. We would rather have the clarity of the “No” answer than the ambiguity of the endless blank stare, wouldn’t we? (A clear “Yes” answer would be even better, obviously :) At least we’d have something to work with.

    I ask this question because I think that many of my own requests, especially as I began to walk with Jesus and started learning the faith, were self-focused requests that come from my personal preferences and opinions rather than a clear understanding of who God is and how he operates in this world. As such, requests like these have everything to do with me and nothing to do with God because I care more about convincing him to do what I want than knowing who he is. Thus, requests like these often fall outside of God’s plan and are unwise, according to the kind intention of his will. He has to answer “No” (or he wouldn’t be God). The problem is that, unlike the human boss’, God’s answer is not physically spoken to us or typed in an email. So we can, if we want to, throw our hands up when God says “No” and declare, “Well, I guess he’s just giving me a blank stare…not answering for some reason.” While at first glance that seems like a better answer than the flat “No,” in the end, it drives us into a hopeless, anxious ambiguity. We have nothing to work with.

    Let’s be honest. We hate being told “No,” especially when our request seems legit, such as asking for healing of a loved one or a healthy pregnancy or the salvation of a friend. For example, we might ask God to provide more money for our family (which seems like a good request, especially considering the brakes that need fixing, the medical bills piling up, the rent payments due, and the school supplies the kids need), and we wholeheartedly expect him to say: “Yes! Of course. You’ve told me you need this, so I will give it to you.” But then the money doesn’t come in. Nobody gives it to us. We don’t win a sweepstakes. The boss doesn’t provide the raise. And, worse yet, the power bill arrives and your hours get cut at work. Either God is not listening to you (like the unjust judge), or he is simply stubborn and refusing to answer you (like the bull-headed friend), or he has said, “No. Not now.”

    You might say to yourself: “Surely God would not have said ‘No.’ According to my best judgment, I ‘need’ this money. He must be giving me a blank stare ‘….’ I’ll ask again. Nothing. I’ll ask again. Nothing. I’ll get a bunch of other people to ask with me. Nothing. Still no money. Is he listening? Does God even care about me? Surely he would not have said, ‘No.’”

    Pause here. What if, all along, God actually has been saying: “No. Even though I have the ability to provide more money, I know that would be unloving to you right now, even though you cannot see how. Your sense of what is ‘good’ and what you ‘need’ is shallow and underdeveloped, and as your loving Father, my goal is to grow you up, to sanctify you. I will never lead you into a shallow, underdeveloped faith. I need to say ‘No’ right now because I cannot be unloving.”

    Wouldn’t you rather make the request and then listen? If the God who can certainly provide everything you need is also the God who listens to everything you ask for, then it makes good sense to desire to want know his response, whether or not is the response you were hoping for. It gives you something to work with, something real. It clues you into God’s own mind – how he prioritizes, values, and loves. In the end, a “No” answer from God leads us to change our subsequent prayers in an effort to know why he denied the request, what he wants us to request, who he is and who we are. “No” answers from God are awesome, not annoying.

    After realizing that your request for better finances has been denied, you might pray something like this: “OK, God. It doesn’t seem like you are going to provide more money right now. I’m going to stop asking over and over for it, but I feel angry about your decision. It doesn’t make sense to me. Please provide someone from my church who I can talk to about this. Please help me find financial peace with less money. I don’t understand why you are not providing more money, which makes me confused. Please help me gain clarity. Help me reorient my thinking. If you’re not going to ‘fix’ this immediate problem, then I really need you to help me get through it. I desperately want to understand you more.”

    Do you see? Now, by listening to God’s response and changing your requests, you are really communicating with God: not just talking at him and wondering if he even listens. By communicating with him, you will actually start to avoid asking for things that you know he will say “no” to, and you will begin to align your heart and soul with the will of God, the kind of alignment that we started out with before Adam and Even fell. Prayer is crazy important. It ought not be a ritualistic, ambiguous, weird, what-in-the-world-am-I-even-doing? sort of activity. It requires saying, listening, changing, and growing – not saying, saying, saying, and saying.

    Author’s Note: This blog-comment-conversation has been going strong since last June! Isn’t that interesting? I think that I’ll keep stopping back every month or so to see the holes people find in my arguments (which surely exist) and engage with/respond to the important questions that you, the readers, express here. Thank you to everyone for such a helpful, constructive conversation. It has been a great blessing to me, in sharpening ways I could not have anticipated. I hope the same is true on your end.

    - Ben Tertin

  • Ben Tertin says:

    In the second paragraph of the original blog post, I mention my close friend and mentor Dr. Thomas R. Hauff and the book he was working on at the time. That book has been recently published, and it is titled “When God Says, “NO”: Reshaping Prayer and Learning to Listen.”

    Without hesitation, I recommend this book to all who feel like God has stopped listening to your prayers, who are confused by prayer, or who have given up organized prayer entirely, resorting to monotonous, habitual, shallow repetitions – day after day after day. It’s on Amazon now (ISBN: 978-1-61097-063-1/ http://www.amazon.com/When-God-Says-No-Reshaping/dp/1610970632/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1300996624&sr=8-1), and we’ll have copies available here at church. Great, helpful read!

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