One of the greatest mysteries in the Christian faith is the idea that God communicates with us and, amazingly, wants us to communicate with Him. So with great anticipation I began bestselling author Philip Yancey's PRAYER: Does It Make Any Difference?
Yancey's skills as a journalist shine through in this book. He mines the wisdom of ancient and contemporary writers on prayer, conducts interviews and consults statistics. Nine out of ten of us pray regularly, he notes. We pray when our child is ill and we pray for trivial things, such as lost car keys. Why then, as Yancey found when interviewing people, do so many find prayer a burden and not a pleasure? After all, it came so easily to Adam in the garden --- walking with God and conversing with Him.
Yancey writes that prayer doesn't come easily for him and confesses he appreciates prayer mostly in retrospect. "I look for ways to avoid it and keep glancing at the clock as I'm praying." But even these prayers are meaningful. "During the day, however, thoughts and impressions come to mind that stem directly from my prayers…. Like a lingering scent, prayer carries over into the rest of the day."
Yancey finds that most of his struggles in the Christian life circle around the same two themes: why God doesn't act the way we want God to, and why we don't act the way God wants us to. He writes, "Prayer is the precise point where those themes converge."
If prayer is about a relationship with God, perhaps it's no surprise that it is a rollercoaster of ups and downs. "Prayer includes moments of ecstasy and also dullness, mindless distraction and acute concentration, flashes of joy and bouts of irritation. In other words, prayer has features in common with all relationships that matter," he writes.
In this relationship with God, we don't have to be afraid to show our emotions: fear, anger, grief. God wants us to come to Him with honesty. After all, if He knows everything about us, down to the number of hairs on our heads, He already knows our feelings. Our willingness to approach Him honestly, however, may be tempered with our image of God. Do we see Him as an angry, vengeful God? A helpless wimp? A loving father? Good food for thought.
I appreciated Yancey's rejection of a "one-size-fits-all" sort of approach to prayer. Most of all, he calls us to relax. There's no right way to pray. The only wrong way is not to try. "Prayer is a way of relating to God, not a skill set like double-entry bookkeeping…. It should hardly surprise God that we respond in a way that reflects our true self."
If you like an author who doesn't have all the answers but is willing to explore the questions with you, then this book will be a good fit. Yancey offers no pat answers. "Why does God so rarely step in and bring miraculous intervention to our prayer requests? Why is suffering distributed so randomly and unfairly? No one knows the complete answer to these questions."
As Yancey explores various facets of prayer --- listening, petitioning, postures, prayer in the midst of suffering --- he draws several important conclusions. The main purpose of prayer is not to make life easier nor to gain magical powers, but to know God. Prayer gives us corrective vision and helps us align our petitions with what God wants for us. Prayer is a habit of attention. Asking for help, acknowledging our dependence, is at the root of prayer. Without prayer, he writes, we cannot effect social justice.
Why pray? Yancey offers several thoughts on the matter. "I pray to restore the truth of the universe, to gain a glimpse of the world, and of me, through the eyes of God," he writes in one chapter. In another, he notes simply, "Evidently, God likes to be asked."
Yancey's PRAYER contains a smorgasbord of references to other writers, inviting readers to further explore many rich writings on prayer from both Protestant and Catholic traditions. Just a few that are included: C.S. Lewis, Walter Wangerin Jr., Meister Eckhart, Ole Hallesby, E.M. Bounds, Thomas Merton, Frederick Buechner, Desmond Tutu, Eugene Peterson, Carlo Caretto, Mother Teresa, Anthony Bloom, Thomas Kelly, Henri Nouwen and Brennan Manning. Scattered throughout the book are boxed essays by writers noted simply as "John" or "Anthony" or "Sara." I particularly liked these simple, personal stories from people who are taking baby steps toward the discipline of prayer.
Yancey engagingly uses nature as a touchstone throughout the book, from an anecdote about watching a herd of elk in a meadow and contemplating a quiet mind and absorbed attention, to the grandeur of God and our own smallness as seen hiking in the mountains. However, the extensive footnotes on many pages are one distracting part of the book. One may find themselves wishing for endnotes or, if you're forty-something like me, at least bigger type.
In the end, does prayer matter? Yancey writes, "When doubts creep in and I wonder whether prayer is a sanctified form of talking to myself, I remind myself that the Son of God, who had spoken worlds into being and sustains all that exists, felt a compelling need to pray."
Can we do no less?
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on September 12, 2006