A no-holds barred toe-to-toe confrontation with God won’t threaten Him and may change your situation, writes Philip Yancey, in this exclusive extract from his new book ‘Prayer- does it make any difference?’The church I attend reserves a brief time in which people in the pews can voice aloud their prayers. Over the years I have heard hundreds of these prayers, and with very few exceptions the word polite indeed applies. One, however, stands out in my memory because of its raw emotion. In a clear but wavering voice, a young woman began with the words, “God, I hated you after the rape! How could you let this happen to me?” The congregation abruptly fell silent. No more rustling of papers or shifting in the seats. “And I hated the people in this church who tried to comfort me. I didn’t want comfort. I wanted revenge. I wanted to hurt back. I thank you, God, that you didn’t give up on me, and neither did some of these people. You kept after me, and I come back to you now and ask that you heal the scars in my soul.” Of all the prayers I have heard in church, that one most resembles the style of prayers I find replete in the Bible, especially those from God’s favourites such as Abraham and Moses. In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography I came across another prayer typical of the Bible’s style: The opening prayer of one of the ministers has stayed with me over these many years and was a source of strength at a difficult time. He thanked the Lord for His bounty and goodness, for His mercy and His concern for all men. But then he took the liberty of reminding the Lord that some of His subjects were more downtrodden than others, and that it sometimes seemed as though He was not paying attention. The minister then said that if the Lord did not show a little more initiative in leading the black man to salvation, the black man would have to take matters into his own two hands. Amen. A century before Mandela, the ex-slave Sojourner Truth, a leader in both abolitionism and the woman’s suffrage movement, had no qualms about praying exactly what was on her mind. When her son fell ill she prayed, “Oh, God, you know how much I am distressed, for I have told you again and again. Now, God, help me get my son. If you were in trouble, as I am, and I could help you, as you can me, think I wouldn’t do it? Yes, God, you know I would do it.” When she fell on hard times financially, she prayed, “Oh, God, you know I have no money, but you can make the people do for me, and you must make the people do for me. I will never give you peace till you do, God.” Each of these testy prayers from successive centuries follows the track laid down in the Bible long ago. The Bargainer Abraham, a man rightly celebrated for his faith, heard from God in visions, in one-on-one conversations, and even in a personal visit to his tent. God dangled before him glowing promises, one of which stuck in his craw: the assurance that he would father a great nation. Abraham was 75 when he first heard that promise, and over the next few years God upped the ante with hints of offspring as bountiful as dust on the earth and stars in the sky. Meanwhile nature took its course, and at an age when he should be patting the heads of great-grandchildren Abraham remained childless. He knew he had few years of fertility left, if any. On one of God’s visitations, Abraham made a veiled threat to produce an heir through a liaison with one of his household servants. At the age of 86, following his barren wife Sarah’s suggestion, he did just that. The next time God visited, that offspring, a son named Ishmael, was a teenage outcast wandering the desert, a victim of Sarah’s jealousy. Abraham laughed aloud at God’s reiterated promise, and by now sarcasm was creeping into his response: ‘Will a son be born to a man 100 years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of 90?’ Sarah shared the bitter joke, muttering, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’ God responded with a message that to Abraham’s ears must have sounded like good news and bad news both. He would indeed father a child, but only after performing minor surgery on the part of his body necessary for the deed. Abraham becomes the father of circumcision as well as Isaac. That pattern of feint and thrust, of Abraham standing up to God only to get knocked down again, forms the background for a remarkable prayer, actually an extended dialogue between God and Abraham. ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?’ God begins, as if recognising that a valid partnership requires consultation before any major decision. Next, God unveils a plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, notorious for their wickedness and moral pollutants of Abraham’s extended family. By now Abraham has learned his own role in the partnership and he makes no attempt to conceal his outrage. ‘Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ Then ensues a bargaining session much like what occurs in any Middle Eastern bazaar. What if there are 50 righteous persons in the city, will you spare it? All right, if I can find 50 righteous, I’ll spare the whole place. With a jolt Abraham remembers who he’s bargaining with – Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes tals] - but proceeds to lower his request to 45 persons. 45? No problem. May the Lord not be angry . . . Now that I have been so bold - Abraham bows and scrapes, then continues to press. 40? 30? 20? 10? Each time God concedes without an argument, concluding, ‘For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.’ Although ten righteous people could not be found to save Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham got what he really wanted, deliverance for his nephew and grandnieces. And we readers are left with the tantalising fact that Abraham quit asking before God quit granting. What if Abraham had bargained even harder and asked that the cities be spared for the sake of one righteous person, his nephew Lot? Was God, so quick to concede each point, actually looking for an advocate, a human being bold enough to express God’s own deepest instinct of mercy?As Abraham learned, when we appeal to God’s grace and compassion the fearsome God soon disappears. ‘The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion.’ God is more merciful than we can imagine and welcomes appeals to that mercy.
God-WrestlersI used to worry about my deficiency of faith. In my prayers I expect little and seem satisfied with less. Faith feels like a gift that a person either has or lacks, not something that can be developed by exercise, like a muscle. My attitude is changing, though, as I begin to understand faith as a form of engagement with God. I may not be able to summon up much belief in miracles, or dream big dreams, but I can indeed exercise my faith by engaging with God in prayer.
I recall a scene from very early in my marriage. We were visiting friends out West who had arranged for us to stay at a four-bedroom guest house that had no other occupants at the time. Over dinner, some comment hit one of us the wrong way, and before long a marital spat had escalated. We sat up late trying to talk it through, but instead of bringing us together the conversation only moved us further apart. Aware that I had a business meeting the next day, I stormed off from our bedroom to another one in search of peace and sleep. A few minutes went by, the door opened, and Janet appeared with a new set of arguments supporting her side. I fled to another bedroom. The same thing happened. She would not let me alone! The scene became almost comical: a sulking, introverted husband running away from an insistent, extroverted wife.
By the next day (not before), we could both laugh. I learned an important lesson, that not communicating is worse than fighting. In a wrestling match, at least both parties stay engaged. That image of wrestling evokes a scene from the Bible, the prototype of struggle with God. Abraham’s grandson Jacob has gotten through life by trickery and deceit, and now he must face the consequences in the person of his hottempered brother, whom he cheated out of family birthrights. Ridden by fear and guilt, Jacob sends his family and all his possessions on ahead across a river, with elaborate peace offerings to mollify Esau. For 20 years he has lived in exile. Will Esau greet him with a sword or an embrace? He shivers alone in the dark, waiting.
Someone bumps him – A man? An angel? – and Jacob does what he has always done. He fights as if his life depends on it. All night the two wrestle, neither gaining the advantage, until at last the first gleam of daybreak brightens the horizon. “Let me go,” the figure says, reaching down with a touch so potent it wrenches Jacob’s hip socket. Staggering, overpowered, scared out of his wits, Jacob still manages to hang on. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” he tells the figure. Instead of wrenching his neck with another touch, the figure tenderly bestows on Jacob a new name, Israel, which means ‘God-wrestler’. At last Jacob learns the identity of his opponent.
A little later, Jacob sees his brother Esau approaching with 400 men and limps forward to meet him. Their own wrestling match began before birth, a tussle in utero. And now the moment of truth has arrived. Godwrestler holds out his arms.
A contemporary Jewish author, Arthur Waskow, came across this ancient story in the midst of a long feud with his own brother, with whom he was seeking reconciliation. Once they met in a cabin in Maryland, sealed in by falling snow, and talked in depth as adults for the first time ever. Another time they met on a crisp autumn day in Oregon and the brother stared at him coldly and said he might have to kill him someday after all. After these experiences Arthur wrote a book, ‘Godwrestling’, about the two brothers with a father named Waskow and the two with a father named Isaac. ‘Wrestling feels a lot like making love,’ he wrote, recalling how in childhood he and his brother used to scuffle in bed at night, throwing their bodies against each other only to fall back, spent. But Esau struggled to his feet from his own wrestle, And gasped across the river to his brother: It also Feels A lot Like Making War.
Jacob felt some of each, making love and making war, with the elusive figure in the night and with hairy Esau in the day. From a distance, it’s hard to distinguish a stranglehold from a hug.
God does not give in easily. Yet at the same time God seems to welcome the persistence that keeps on fighting long after the match has been decided. Perhaps Jacob learned for the first time, that long night by the riverside, how to transform struggle into love. ‘To see your face is like seeing the face of God,’ Jacob told his brother, words unimaginable had he not met God face to face the night before.
Although Jacob did many things wrong in life, he became the eponym for a tribe and a nation as well as for all of us who wrestle with God. We are all children of Israel, implied Paul, all of us Godwrestlers who cling to God in the dark, who chase God from room to room, who declare ‘I will not let you go.’ To us belong the blessing, the birthright, the Kingdom.
The Opposite of Indifference‘Prayer in its highest form and grandest success assumes the attitude of a wrestler with God,’ concluded E.M. Bounds, who wrote eight books on prayer. Our noholds- barred outbursts hardly threaten God, and sometimes they even seem to change God. As the touch on Jacob’s hip socket proved, God could have ended the match at any point during that long night in the desert. Instead the elusive figure lingered, as eager to be held as Jacob was to hold.
I am privileged to be associated with a group in England called St Colomba’s Fellowship. Its members consist of hospice staff, nurses and others who work among those who are dying. My wife and I are sometimes invited to speak at the fellowship’s conferences. At one of these conferences, we heard a hospice chaplain tell of a patient who asked to see him because he was in great emotional distress. He was in the last stages of cancer and was feeling very guilty because he had spent the previous night ranting, raving and swearing at God. The following morning he felt dreadful. He imagined that his chance of eternal life had now been lost forever, and that God would never forgive one who had so cursed and abused him.
The chaplain asked the patient, “What do you think is the opposite of love?” The man replied, “Hate. Very wisely, the chaplain replied, “No, the opposite of love is indifference. You have not been indifferent to God, or you would never have spent the night talking to him, honestly telling him what was in your heart and mind. Do you know the Christian word that describes what you have been doing? The word is ‘prayer.’ You have spent the night praying.” (Roy Lawrence).Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today magazine in the US and has written many best selling books including ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace’ and ‘The Jesus I Never Knew’ - with a total of eight million sales worldwide.Author InterviewPhilip Yancey talks to John Buckeridge about his latest book 'Prayer - does it make any difference?'
JB: There are lots of books on prayer, why write a new book on prayer? Did you feel you had something new to contribute on this subject?
PY: As I came to it, no! As I emerged from it, yes! I remember when I was writing the book The Jesus I Never Knew, a friend of mine wrote to me and said there are 1,500 books about Jesus being published this year, what makes yours different?
But this is not a dilemma for me. The first thing I did was go to libraries and spent several months reading those hundreds of books on prayer and I emerged from that experience feeling mainly guilty and inferior because they would be people who saw prayer as a completely fulfilling obligation. They would spend four hours a day at it and have all these techniques, none of which worked for me, so I was kind of discouraged. And then I started interviewing ordinary people, and I mentioned some of this in the book. I would ask them, how much time do you spend in prayer? And nobody really mentioned more than 15 or 20 minutes - none of these four-hour deals.
'Do your prayers get answered?'
'Well, not the ones that I care most about.'
'Do you experience the presence of God?'
'Occasionally... not very often.'
So that's when I really perked up because I thought there might be great books out there about prayer, but somehow they are not filtering down in a way that the average person finds practical help. A lot of the books on prayer tend to be written by authority figures, professionals, and sometimes full-time pray-ers! Great Catholics who do nothing but pray all day - that's what their order does - and I'm not ordained or a college professor, I'm not any of those things. So in all of my books I try to represent the ordinary reader and in the disjunction between what I was reading and what I was hearing from ordinary readers, I thought there is definitely room for another book. Not only my own struggles and questions, but also it seemed like I was not the only one. There are a lot of people who have the same struggles and questions.
You are a humble, self-effacing man - do you think that is part of the reason your books sell so well in the UK?
What I hear from readers is more the word 'honesty' - facing the questions honestly. As I said, I am not an authority figure and my stance is to represent a journalist. We all have questions about prayer but we can't all spend six months in libraries reading, then more months interviewing people. People have jobs to go to, kids to raise, but this is my job, my job is to be an advocate for my reader and to go where they can't go, but with the questions that they already have.
To tell you the truth, I don't think about readers much as I'm writing. I think about my own struggles and journey and I try to be honest about the failures of the Church, because I've experienced a lot of those. I hear from a lot of people who appreciate that because a lot of Christian books have the scent of propaganda about them and they tend to have easy answers. You could go to a Christian bookstore and find at least 25 books on how to save your marriage but of course the divorce rate goes up each year! So I'm pretty skeptical of 'how to' books like that. I just try to call the shots, not trying to get across the predetermined answer but rather to do an exploration. I think readers appreciate that because they have a much stronger propaganda 'sniffer' than we give them credit for.
Do you consider that many of your readers relate to you because they are at the same place in their faith journey as you?
Certainly a lot of people have had wounding church experiences. They were judged because of some failure.
I've had many letters from divorced people who have experienced 'ungrace' - which is what I call it - in the church when they make a painful decision. I have a sceptical edge and I think Europeans in particular appreciate that. You know, you don't just accept it; you take a look at it. You have a Christian heritage but a lot of people have opted out of that heritage so there are a lot of arguments floating around that we really need to come to terms with and the Church often just doesn't. It buries it over on the side somewhere. Again my job is to try and face those things. Both because I want to know the answers for myself and maybe ultimately help some readers too.
'Prayer - Does it make any difference?' by Philip Yancey is published by Hodder Stoughton £9.99 ISBN: 9780340909089.