Is prayer a conversation?

One of Evangelicalism’s “distinctives” is its stress on a “personal relationship” with God, which properly implies various theological ideas of particular election, individual grace, and personal commitment, combined with a belief in the active ministry of the Holy Spirit and special providence in the believer’s life. In other words, it contrasts with purely formal, intellectual or ritual concepts of membership of the Church.

In recent decades, though, I’ve noticed this “personal relationship” idea being incorporated into the understanding of prayer in a way not the case in the past. Once converts were taught how to learn to speak to God, for example in the mnemonic “A.C.T.S.”: adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. But nowadays it is said that our prayer-life ought to be a conversation with God, not a one-way process. This is exemplified by programming-in periods of silence after communal prayer “for God to speak to us,” as well as the encouragement of a similar effort to hear God speak whenever we pray privately. The idea is not that God will respond to prayer, granting one’s petitions, or even that he may change us, through prayer, in our attitudes, or grant us some stronger sense of his presence, love or displeasure. “Conversation” rather implies the exchange of propositions, a two way series of replies that prompts the next development of ideas:

conversation noun [ C or U ]…
(a) talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings, and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered, or news and information is exchanged.

I notice that usually, when this is taught, it’s as an ideal at which to aim, rather than a universal Christian experience to be shared – a bit like being able to raise the dead or do predictive prophecy. And I think it comes from the same root in the questionable Charismatic theology of the last 50 years, with which I have been familiar and of which I have been increasingly critical for the same period.

The reason for my doubt is simply this – I cannot think of a single example of such conversational prayer in Scripture, Old Testament or New. That ought to be a definitive red light if we have an Evangelical view of the Bible.

Prayer is certainly something that, whilst pretty universal even amongst ostensible non-believers, needs to be taught, as Jesus’s disciples asked Jesus to teach them. But I notice that what he taught them as a consequence – the Lord’s Prayer – has no “reply fields” at all. It is a one-way list of propositions and petitions addressed from man on earth to God in heaven, which are highly orientated towards God’s interests before our own. There is not space to unpack its richness here. But just imagine praying each clause, and then leaving a space for God to reply – what could he possibly say, other than “Check!”?

Then, we have many mentions of Jesus’s own prayer in the gospels. When he prays with others, as in the disciples in the upper room in John, he addresses the Father, but awaits no reply. The sole exception I can remember is when Jesus prays in the crowd that God will glorify his name, and a voice from heaven responds “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again!” But Jesus explains this as a special sign for the people, not simply a normal answer to prayer.

Jesus’s extensive private prayer is largely inaccessible to us, but we have at least two examples. In the wilderness sojourn we read of Satan speaking to him, and angels finally ministering to him, but not of God conversing with him. If his prayer had been such an easy ongoing conversation, how would Satan ever have got a word in? And in Gethsemane Jesus’s urgent cries are repeated three times, apparently strengthening Jesus’s resolve, but with no indication in the text that the Father had reassured him verbally, or explained matters to him more clearly.

Nothing changes in the early church. Peter’s miraculous release from prison sends him to where the saints are gathered in prayer for him, but their surprise at seeing him is complete – God has not been sharing developments with them. Likewise when Peter is praying, according to his regular custom, on Cornelius’s rooftop, he receives not an ongoing discussion, but a cryptic vision explained by a revelatory utterance. Once again, consider what need there would be for such a vision if Peter’s usual prayer life was, as modern Evangelicals advocate, a comfortable conversation with God.

Now, don’t get me wrong: prayer changes things. And there are certainly examples in Scripture of God’s changing events spectacularly in clear response to prayer. And it is also true that there are occasions in which God converses with people; but these are usually either visions, or angelic encounters, or theophanies. When Abraham “bargained” with God over the fate of the cities of the plain, it was during a visit from three heavenly visitors in human form, not during his Quiet Time. Jacob’s hip was not, other than metaphorically, dislocated by wrestling in prayer.

Daniel is celebrated as a man of prayer. But although he is the recipient of astonishing visions of the future, their relationship to prayer is indirect. In ch. 9, his specific prayer is met with a visit, and a special revelation, from the angel Gabriel. But this is because Daniel is so “highly esteemed” to receive these truths for his people – and in any case, an apocalyptic revelation is not a routine conversation with God.

If you can think of any examples of prayer-conversations in Scripture I have missed, as opposed to such unusual revelations, by all means reply in the comments: but I don’t think there are any. I think the idea is a false assumption about what prayer should be. Incidentally, there are some parallels between blogs and prayers. My blogs are definitely intended as communications with readers (and the site analytics reassure me there are readers). But unlike a forum, comments are relatively uncommon here and seldom lead to prolonged conversations, yet that does not speak against the blog achieving its purpose. If I do my job well, readers are encouraged or informed by ideas that lead to new insights and actions, and lead to some some positive changes in the world. If I were judging matters on the length of two-way threads, I would be mistakenly disappointed.

That, I think, is the danger of the teaching that prayer ought to be a conversation. If it is not intended to be that, but something else – and it seems to me that Scripture demonstrates that throughout – then believing otherwise can lead to two evils.

The first is constant disappointment at failing to achieve what is not treated as a great spiritual attainment in the Bible. We are encouraged to pray, warned of dangers in neglecting it, and assured of the effective support of the Holy Spirit. But we are not told it is something only fully achieved by the most spiritual among us, who chat away comfortably with God in heaven’s VIP lounge whilst the rest of us shout ineffectually from the hubbub of the main hall. We are supposed to be equipped to pray out of the box.

The second evil is that if God does not habitually engage in conversation with his people in their prayers, those who believe he talks to them regularly in that way are deluded. They will either be the deceiving leaders who claim to be on the VIP list, and who maybe will intercede on our behalf in the heavenly throne-room if we submit to their authority and donate to their ministry. Or they will be the more gullible and fearful who, rather than feeling themselves outsiders to authentic faith, or questioning the teaching, will become prey to hypocrisy, or to a deceiving imagination, or worse, to demonic suggestion.

That such self-deception is common is suggested by the way that what God says to such people, by their testimony, is so often as vanilla-flavoured as most contemporary prophecies. It reflects what people want to hear. The Lord is always telling people how much he loves them, but never, it seems, calls them out on habitual sins or selfish prayers. Contrast that with the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, where Jesus the shepherd does painful business with his flock.

But does not God speak to his people, modern folk will ask? Well, yes – there are certainly special revelations mentioned in the Bible beyond those that establish doctrine. But since Paul in 2 Corinthians ironically “boasts” about his own, it is clear that these are the exception rather than the rule. As far as our receiving new insights from God is concerned, Paul’s emphasis throughout his letters is the same as the often sidelined core of Jesus’s own ministry to the disciples and the people: the teaching of Scriptural truth.

Like prayer, studying the Bible either personally or under a teaching ministry has its difficulties. But as in the case of prayer, these difficulties are usually at the level of effort, not ability. Jesus disciplined the apostles with three years of scribal instruction, and the early church followed suit by educating even slaves in the teaching of the word. Nowadays, that seems less interesting to people than expecting a pleasant chat with the Father over coffee.

Blind Willie Johnson, though less educated than us folks and less physically equipped to read, knew better:

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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