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Title: Prayer. Does It Make Any Difference?
Author: Philip Yancey
Publishing Information: Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 20016
Reviewer: Seth Haakenson
Review Date: August 2015
Perhaps the best way to describe Prayer by Philip Yancey is by using the adjectives “devotional” and “slow.” Prayer cannot be rushed. It requires the slowing down of activity and a contemplative mind. “Contemplative” is another useful adjective to describe Yancey’s examination of Christian prayer. Through careful attention to the realities of daily life, as well as to God’s promises as they are applied to daily life, Yancey dissects Christian prayer with a raw honesty that resonates with the reader.
Yancey writes from a skeptic’s viewpoint. He, himself, is not a skeptic, but he realizes that many people are—and understandably so. What does a young mother of three say whose husband has just abandoned her for another woman? Does God hear her prayers? If so, why does he not answer?
It is important that the reader understand Yancey’s approach to such questions. He does so from the viewpoint of one who is bewildered at what often seems like the silence of God. Yancey is not questioning God’s presence or power in a believer’s life, and yet the fact remains that many people do—both believers and unbelievers alike. Yancey’s book offers a refreshing honesty that is present in so many biblical prayers, yet absent in so many present-day prayers.
The subtitle of Yancey’s book is “Does it make any difference?” This is a good question. Why pray at all if it does not make any difference? Throughout the subsequent 336 pages, Yancey points out again and again that it does. We pray not because we always understand, but because God understands, and he invites us to pray so that we might partner with him in carrying out his Great Commission.
Yancey divides his book into twenty-two chapters (not including the epilogue.) Samples of chapter titles include Why Pray?, Our Deepest Longing, Partnership, Does Prayer Change God?, Yearning for Fluency, Unanswered Prayer: Living with the Mystery, and What to Pray For. His chapter on Partnership is insightful as he develops the thought that we often are the answers to our own prayers. We are “God’s fellow workers,” the apostle Paul said. Yancey then states, “We collaborate with God’s actions in the world.” (p. 101)
Take, for example, a Christian alcoholic who prays, “Lord, keep me from drink today.” Says Yancey, “The answer to that prayer will likely come from…a stiffening resolve or a cry of help to a loyal friend, rather than from some marvel like the magical disappearance of liquor bottles from the cabinet. In the normal course of providence, God works through and in creation, not despite it.” (p. 104)
Yancey does not believe in a look-inside-of-you-approach for healing and answers to life. He does recognize that we are not to sit around and wait for the miraculous to happen when there is much that we can presently do. This is akin to Luther’s statement that men should go work for their food rather than wait around for a turkey to fly into their mouths.
From a confessional Lutheran standpoint, Yancey has ecumenical leanings. Although he has imbibed much of Luther’s theology and is well grounded in Scripture, he nevertheless includes stories that are not always orthodox. One of the characteristics of this book is the way it is formatted. Yancey includes numerous vignettes interspersed throughout each chapter that provide personal anecdotes of various people’s experience with prayer. Yancey does not write these vignettes but rather includes them as a way of showing how other believers have also wrestled with the topic of prayer.
One such vignette speaks about the stuffiness of Anglican prayer as opposed to the energy of charismatic prayer. As “Ron” (the author of this vignette) expresses, “The most phenomenal prayer experience I’ve ever had took place among 20,000 Catholic charismatics in Italy.” (p. 188) To be fair, Yancey includes this excerpt not to explain charismatic Catholicism, but to show how different personalities respond differently to different prayer styles, whether they are more formal in their style or more relaxed. Yancey nowhere explains the Biblical teaching on the Means of Grace, and yet he clearly believes that God speaks to us through his Word. Whether or not he believes that God also speaks to us through prayer is unclear.
Perhaps one of the greatest contributions Yancey gives to the Christian’s prayer life is the importance of being honest with our prayers. The prayers of the Psalms are full of raw emotions even as are the prayers of many others in the Bible. Jesus likewise prayed with honesty and emotion (think the Garden of Gethsemane or his prayers from the cross.) Yancey encouragingly points out that genuine relationships require honesty, the type of intimacy that God craves to share with us. Says Yancey, “I am convinced the main requirement in prayer is honesty, approaching God ‘just as we are.’” (p. 185)
The reader should not rush when reading this book. It simply is not meant to be read that way. Our most fulfilling relationships in life are the ones we take time to develop. Leisure with God is a good thing. Throughout his book Yancey brings to bear the truth that prayer is a privilege not a duty. As such spending time with God is something to be savored. Like Jacob’s wrestling match with God at Peniel we too can become worn out by praying. And yet, the nature of prayer is this: the more we wear ourselves out in prayer, the more God gives us his blessing. This book is a good, comprehensive treatment of prayer that can benefit all Christians.