Keeping Company With God
A Conversation With Philip Yancey
January 1, 2008 - Philip Yancey has long been known for his insightful writing on the Christian life. Decision recently spoke with Yancey about his latest book, “Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?” which explores the mysteries, questions and rewards of “a never-ending conversation with God.”
Interviewed by Jim Dailey
Q: What is at the heart of prayer?
A: The Bible gives a lot of examples and models of prayer, but there isn’t a formula. There isn’t one way. Some prayers are two words and some are pages. Some people have their eyes open, some closed; some people lie down, some kneel and some stand up. The message I get is that what God is primarily interested in is our engagement with Him, our attention. If we give Him that, a lot of the details are not nearly so important. I would encourage people to be relaxed and to think of prayer as a conversation. One reason it’s hard is that you don’t get feedback. It’s different talking to an invisible being. We think that God should be on our terms, but, really, prayer is on God’s terms. Because God is a Spirit, He wants us to exercise our faith in coming to Him and demonstrating that we believe He is listening and caring about us.
Q: You describe prayer as “keeping company with God.” Can you expand on that?
A: Like many people, I always had that 15-minute block of time in prayer. For me it was in the morning. But then I generally wouldn’t think about prayer the rest of the day. I’ve changed in that regard. I’m now far more likely to turn to God at various points in the day. Just saying, “God, I know You’re at work and I know You love me, and I know You are concerned about what concerns me, so how can I represent You in this situation right now?” The more I do that in the process of the day, rather than just in one little block of time, the more I have a glimpse of what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, “Pray without ceasing.” I am nowhere near there, but at least there are times when I pray without ceasing.
Q: Why do we tend to take something that is designed for such intimacy and turn it into mere duty and routine?
A: If you go to a Christian college or seminary and you want to study prayer, you will find it under the category of “Spiritual Disciplines.” I don’t know about you, but to me that word discipline conveys work. Although I’m a disciplined person, I think it’s a mistake to view prayer only in that light. If we could make the mental shift to realize that we are the ones who benefit from prayer, that we are the ones who are better off, calmer, more energized, more in tune with God, it would help. Yes, it takes some work, and it takes attention, but like anything worthwhile—like playing a musical instrument—you practice not because you love to practice, but because you love the joy of being able to create music. I think prayer is the same way. We focus so much on the steps and the “how to” that we forget what the goal is—to connect with the Creator of the universe in the process of the day.
Q: What are some of the things you pray about?
A: I use the image in my book of a mountain stream. It starts up high as a little trickle and then gets wider and wider. Eventually it becomes a river, and it keeps going until it becomes a reservoir or lake. When I pray for specific things, I start with that trickle of water, those people who are very close to me, such as loved ones and neighbors. Then I think of that stream widening—more distant relatives, missionaries that I see only every four or five years, all the way down to national and global concerns. So some days I’ll spend most of my time with the trickle. Other days, I’ll spend my time with more global issues.
Q: The psalmist often portrays prayer as just crying out to God in our time of need?
A: I take great encouragement from the fact that the Bible includes those prayers of lament. They are the psalms where the poet says, “I don’t like the way You are running the world and I don’t like the way You are running my life.” Job is a book of prayers like that, almost 35 chapters of Job complaining to God, saying, “You’re just not doing a very good job of running this world.” That’s something we need to feel free to express to God. Many of those psalms start off with a huge lament, but then gradually the psalmist recalls God’s past help, and the mood changes to one of confidence in God. I think prayer can become kind of a “correcting-my-vision” experience in those cases.
Q: Isn’t prayer a place where we should be transparent with God?
A: Jesus told the story of two men. One was theologically trained, had all the right words and prayed an eloquent prayer. Then there was a man who didn’t even feel like he belonged in the temple. He said, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). Jesus asked, “Which one do you think God listens to?” The answer was pretty obvious. He listens to the one who is honest and open. If we try to hide, it’s a little bit like children who play the game of peek-a-boo. They put their hands in front of their eyes and think that you can’t see them. Of course you can see them, but they don’t understand that, being kids, because they can’t see you. If we try to hide things from God, we are like those little children putting our fingers in front of our eyes. We’re not really fooling anyone.
Q: C.S. Lewis said of prayer, “May it be the real I who speaks and may it be the real Thou that I speak to.”
A: Prayer boils down to being honest about who I am before God and then honestly learning who God is. A lot of us need to straighten out our image of God. I grew up with this image of a harsh, judgmental God who was out to punish me. If you want to know what God is really like, look at Jesus. When you look at Jesus, you see that He is merciful, that nothing throws Him.
It’s the worst failures, the worst sinners who are most attracted to Jesus. Self-righteous people are the ones who have a hard time with Jesus.
Q: The Bible encourages us to persist and persevere in prayer. If the Lord hears us the first time, why do we need to continually ask?
A: I don’t think we’ll ever solve that mystery. There are a lot of things going on in prayer that we don’t know about—that are invisible to us. I don’t know what role persistence plays, but Jesus encourages it. I read somewhere that you can boil down Jesus’ comments about prayer into three things. Keep it short, keep it honest and keep it up. Jesus valued prayer before every major event in His life. He spent hours, sometimes a whole night, in prayer.
Q: I wonder what transpired there?
A: We have some clues. We certainly do in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus starts out saying, “This is really what I want to happen; this is what I don’t want to happen.” And yet He said, “Let Your will, not Mine be done.” I find it comforting to know that Jesus didn’t automatically say, “OK, God, time for the crucifixion, I’m ready.” He said, “Please, if there is any other way, let this cup pass.” Again, that underscores the fact that God wants us to be honest, even with our emotions, even when they are not the kind of pious emotions that we want to have.
Q: Do you find that persistence ends up clarifying what the real need is?
A: Yes. The way I often experience that is when I begin praying, wanting God to intervene and fix something. And the more I pray, the more I realize that, very often, my questions of God are really God’s questions of me. I’ll say, “God, what about my neighbor? She is in such need. Her husband left her and her kids.” As I’m praying, I realize that God is asking me, “So, what are you doing about that? You are her neighbor!” God works through people like us, and often the persistent prayer turns back on me. I use the illustration of when Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse, came back from a trip overseas very upset about what he had seen in Korea—the orphans, the devastation, the poverty—and was praying about it and got the message, “Do something about it!” Then he said, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” God doesn’t solve a problem like poverty in Korea by raining down manna. He knows how to do that; He did it for the Israelites. But He doesn’t tend to do that now. He tends to speak to people like Bob Pierce and Franklin Graham and others who respond.
Q: How should we respond when we don’t seem to see an answer to our prayer?
A: If we approach prayer as God being a genie up in the sky, some errand person who is going to straighten out the corners of our lives that need smoothing, we’re probably going to be disappointed. There are certainly indications and Scripture verses about God doing extraordinary things in response to prayer, but I think many people have a gross misunderstanding of what prayer is all about. Prayer is primarily about being in the stream of God’s will—of what He wants done in this world. Certainly, if I am a parent whose child has a birth defect or a man whose wife has cancer, what I understand from the Bible is that I should go to God and tell Him what I want. “God, I want my wife healed! God, I want my child healed!” There’s nothing wrong with that, and we should do that. But Christians aren’t immune from suffering, from disease, from bad things, from getting fired from their jobs. Just look around you.
Q: Yet we know that prayer does make a difference.
A: Yes, but probably not the difference I thought it would make when I began writing my book on prayer. Certainly there is a difference in me. Certainly there is a difference in my relationships. But I would go further and say that it makes a difference to God. There are the things that happen on earth that would not happen apart from our prayer. That is very clear all the way through the Bible. Theologians can debate on foreknowledge and omniscience and all that, but even John Calvin agreed that it is very clear: Prayer makes a difference.
Q: That difference often comes, doesn’t it, as the Lord works through His people?
A: God’s will is being done through the Body of Christ. For whatever reason, God seems to delight in ordinary people like us who are accomplishing God’s work in the world. He seems to delight in watching fumbling, error-prone, flawed human beings like us, doing His work. So if we truly understand that that is how prayer gets answered, then it helps us make the shift from trying to get God to come down and help us out, to saying instead, “God, You are already at work in the world. How can I be a part of it?”