Ours is an age of fast, easy communication. If we have a message to deliver, there are a myriad of options at our disposal: We can e-mail across the world, call on a cell phone from pretty much anywhere at anytime, text message, iChat, write on someone’s Facebook wall, broadcast a “tweet” to our hundreds of digital followers, and on and on. Technology makes it all so streamlined and convenient.
But, perhaps unexpectedly, this arsenal of efficient communication has also made us much busier and more frenetic. Rather than an intentional activity that requires “time set aside,” communication has become a near-constant way of life that fills all the in-between crevices and transition times of our days.
And in this world of easy, on-the-go communication, some have begun to question the impact it is having on prayer — that holiest of communication forms which seemingly beckons us to slow down, quiet ourselves and give all due attention to our Creator.
In our hectic, 21st century world, some wonder whether many Christians are able to pray at length anymore — or even feel the need to. In our networked, hyperactive world of technological busybodies, God is most definitely still listening. But are we still praying?
Is Prayer a Priority in a Twitter World?
Twitter — the popular microblogging platform that allows users to periodically broadcast updates of 140 characters or less to whoever is keeping tabs — is in some ways the poster child for how technology has affected our communication patterns in the Internet age. It’s all about quick, think-it-and-speak-it communication that efficiently publicizes our thoughts to the vast expanses of unseen Web audiences.
For some — particularly younger — Christians, the “bite-sized, throughout-the-day” form of Twitter is also how they pray. This is true for CJ Casciotta (’08), an avid Twitterer who likens the form of Twitter to his daily prayer habits.
“That’s really how I’ve always prayed — just sort of throughout the day, whenever I have a free moment to talk to God,” he said.
But this type of communication also has its downsides, some say.
For one, the prevalence of social-networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook, along with the ubiquity of reality TV, has made us think that the world should always be watching, said Todd Pickett, Biola’s associate dean of spiritual development. And this makes it harder for us to engage in quiet, personal, contemplative behavior such as prayer.
“It’s a kind of grandiosity: People should know and care what I’m up to. It cultivates a false self and patterns communication away from honesty,” Pickett said. “Private prayer would be unsatisfying to someone conditioned to want to be famous within a small circle. Who wants to go to one person whom you can’t see to honestly deal with your true self?”
Karin Hamilton, a senior journalism major at Biola, also thinks that these technologies hinder our prayer lives because they lead us to expect instant feedback — something that is not always a part of prayer.
“I think a lot of times God requires us to have patience and I think that’s an important part of faith and prayer — being willing to wait,” she said. It’s hard to wait for anything, though, when everything in our culture is about immediacy, multi-tasking and streamlining.
Klaus Issler, professor of Christian education and theology at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology, thinks that the media’s 30-second commercial structure and frenzied editing has gradually conditioned us to have short attention spans. In order to regain the ability to focus our hyperactive minds on things like prayer, says Issler, we must have regular practice.
Several years ago, Issler committed to pray for spiritual renewal at Biola on a weekly basis for 30 minutes, and over time he found that the discipline became easier.
“The more I did it, the easier it got,” said Issler. “It’s still a challenge since my mind wanders to other matters to think about, but overall it’s much easier to enter into this kind of sustained prayer than before.”
For Hamilton, the discipline of prayer is about being able to carve out time to “unplug” for a while to just talk to God.
“I definitely feel like I have to separate myself from my surroundings, and for me that often means going outside, sitting under a tree, without my phone, without everything,” she said. “It’s too distracting when you have a laptop in front of you or when people are calling or texting you.”
With the endless distractions of iPods and cell phones and all the other media bombarding especially young people today — it’s a miracle prayer isn’t completely crowded out of their lives.
A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that younger people (18-29) are the least likely group of American adults to pray on a daily basis (48 percent) while the older folks (65+) are the most likely to pray daily (68 percent). And though this probably has a lot to do with the facts of aging, maturity and an increasingly secular society, it likely also reflects that the younger generations are increasingly too distracted to make prayer a daily habit.
The increasingly scatterbrained thinking and inability to focus is a unique challenge for this generation, said Steve Porter, associate professor of philosophy and theology at Biola’s Institute for Spiritual Formation and Rosemead School of Psychology. Many young people have been conditioned to treat prayer as a bite-sized activity to squeeze into their lives — and have difficulties spending extended amounts of time in prayer, he said.
“There are some short prayers in the Bible,” said Porter. “The prayer of the Canaanite woman is simply ‘Lord help me,’ and that is a good prayer. On the other hand, if we are so distracted that we can’t talk to God or anyone else in a sustained way, then we need to figure out how to maintain focused attention.”
So, with everything else that is clamoring for our time and with our ever-shorter attention spans making it harder for us to focus, how do we make the case that prayer should be a priority?
Why Should We Pray?
The first and most important reason why we should pray is because the Bible tells us to. Jesus reminded his disciples repeatedly that if they had faith, they should pray for whatever they desired. “Ask and it will be given to you,” he said (Matt 7:7). “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matt 21:22).
The idea is echoed elsewhere in Scripture by Paul, who instructed the Philippians to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6), and John, who suggested that we have confidence in approaching God — “that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14).
But beyond a method of supplication and petition, prayer is also an important habit for our spiritual formation and an activity that draws us closer and deeper into a relationship with God.
“If God is a person who loves us and desires to be in relationship with us, and if he’s speaking to us through his Word and Spirit, then it would be an odd relationship if we never said anything back,” said Porter.
Pickett also thinks of prayer in terms of relationship — though he cautions that we have to be clear that our relationship with God is unlike any other of our relationships.
“The difference is that I want to be controlled by the will of God,” he said. “I’m folding my will into someone else’s. That’s not just relationship. That’s union. Prayer is a means to that sort of union and abiding.”
Pickett, who teaches a class on prayer at Biola, believes that the transformation of our heart requires us to open ourselves up to receiving God’s love on a deep level through prayer.
“The heart is this place where the Spirit is,” said Pickett, “but all sorts of habituations and attachments are there as well. It’s where the action of formation happens. Prayer is about inviting God to search our hearts. What is going on with me? What is going on with my struggles with this particular vice? It’s spiritual formation in the sense that it’s about what the Spirit is doing to form our lives.”
Prayer is also an act of faith and a living out of what we believe to be true about God and Christianity, said Porter.
“When someone prays, they assume God exists, he’s active, he cares, he’s available, he’s powerful,” he said. “When we pray, we are reinforcing the whole of Christian theology.”
Prayer, then, can be a rehearsal of sorts. It’s a rehearsal of our understanding of the world and our faith in a God who is active in our lives and available to us on an intimate level.
Prayer is also a means of training Christians for their future partnership with God in directing the affairs of the universe, Issler said.
“Growing in prayer is part of leadership training for our current and future role to reign with God,” said Issler.
How Should We Pray?
For such an important habit of the Christian life, it’s striking that there is so little in the Bible about how to actually pray. If you look around at Christianity today, you will quickly realize that prayer comes in many shapes and sizes. Prayer in an African village looks and sounds different from prayer in an Anglican cathedral in England, just as “popcorn” prayer in an evangelical small group in Fullerton looks completely different from a corporately read prayer in a Presbyterian church in Connecticut. Some Christians prefer a more liturgical, structured prayer while others resonate more with an informal style. But there isn’t one “right way” to pray, notes Porter.
In terms of what the Bible says about how one should pray, the most famous example is the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11, when Jesus responds to his disciples who ask him how they should pray.
Then there is 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which instructs us to “pray without ceasing,” a directive that might support the “Twitter prayer” idea of bite-sized prayer offered to God throughout the day.
Porter believes that praying without ceasing could also mean that we just think of prayer in a different way — that we see all of our activities and conversations as being oriented toward God in a prayerful way.
“Augustine’s notion of praying without ceasing is that when your heart is oriented toward God, you are ‘in prayer’ even as you do something else,” said Porter. “So while traditional petitionary prayer is certainly valid and important, I often encourage my students to talk to God in ways where asking for things is not the central focus.”
Every summer, Porter helps lead a group of Biola students on the Spiritual Formation Summer Program, where for a week students are led in various prayer projects, times of solitude, and group spiritual direction. Senior Caleb Roose attended the program this past summer and said it helped him broaden his concept of prayer to include a more relational dynamic.
“I was really hit with the realization that my relationship with God is like my relationships with other people,” said Roose. “If you are going to grow in your relationship with your friend, you’ve got to spend time with them or talk to them. And it’s the same thing for prayer as a way to strengthen your relationship with God. Like any relationship, it needs work.”
A crucial aspect of this more relational oriented prayer is the idea that prayer is a two-way street: It’s talking to God but also listening to him. It requires us to quiet ourselves and focus on letting the Holy Spirit lead us and direct our thoughts.
Over the past year at Biola, students have had the chance to develop this discipline through activities such as “Fives” and “Sabbathing.” “Fives,” named for its meeting time every Tuesday afternoon in the Rose of Sharon Prayer Chapel, offers a chance for students to be led in quiet prayer and meditation on Scripture. “Sabbathing,” which is held on occasional Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon, provides students an opportunity to set aside a large block of time to speak to God, listen for him and rest in him, all with the help of a trained facilitator.
These sorts of intentional, “setting aside for prayer” activities have also become popular among some evangelical churches. At Whittier Hills Baptist Church in Whittier, Calif., for example, Davette Bishop (’89) has for several years been helping to organize what she calls “soul care days,” where members of the congregation (where her husband is senior pastor) are guided through long periods of prayer and meditation at various stations that might have candles, verses to meditate on, or instructions about guided prayer.
“It helps you slow down, gets you away from your frenetic daily routine, quiets your soul and provides the opportunity for God to speak to you,” said Bishop.
The goal of this type of prayer is “a complete immediacy of relationship” with God, says Pickett, who likens the experience to being in a room with your eyes closed but being aware that there is someone else in there with you.
“It’s a mode of prayer that simply practices the presence of God, which develops faith,” said Pickett. “What you don’t want to do is only think about God,” said Pickett. “Our mind wants to look for insights like ‘God is this’ or ‘God is that,’ but why say ‘God is’ if he is right there in your presence? We should sometimes be satisfied to just ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10).”
All of this is helpful and crucial for a healthy spiritual life, but does prayer have any relevance beyond our own spiritual formation and personal relationship with God? In this “iPrayer” world of personalized spiritual journeying, what about the external impact of prayer? Does prayer actually change the world?
Does Prayer Work?
This was the question behind a recent research study funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The $2.4 million “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer” took nearly a decade and sought to evaluate the impact of prayer on more than 1,800 hospital patients who received coronary bypass surgery.
The results of the study, released in 2006, were surprising to some observers. Researchers found that the patients who were being prayed for by experienced intercessors across the country and knew they were being prayed for actually had the most post-surgery complications. The group that wasn’t being prayed for was the healthiest. The study thus seemed to conclude that intercessory prayer not only didn’t make a positive difference in the prayed-for person’s health, but that it possibly had the opposite effect.
C.S. Lewis predicted in his essay, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” that a scientific study like this would one day be performed, but he was dubious about whether the efficacy of prayer could ever be “proven.” There’s no way to rigorously prove a causal relationship between our prayers and something that happens that we might have prayed for, he argued. “The thing we pray for may happen,” wrote Lewis, “but how can you ever know it was not going to happen anyway?”
Furthermore, Lewis noted, a scientific study that reduced prayer to a laboratory activity would empty prayer of its personal, spiritual purpose.
“Simply to say prayers is not to pray,” said Lewis. “You cannot pray for the recovery of the sick unless the end you have in view is their recovery.” In other words, if you are merely praying to see what happens or to see if it works, you are not offering a “genuine” prayer. Prayer should be an activity based on an earnest desire for and faith that something miraculous will happen.
We should pray expectantly, anticipating that God will answer, notes Davette Bishop, who said she has become a more confident prayer in recent years.
“I know prayer works,” she said. “It’s almost like God is whispering in my ear, ‘I’m about to do this incredible thing and I want you to pray about it so you can be aware of it and watch it unfold.’ To pray with confidence is to understand that you’re joining him. It’s not like you’re asking him to join you.”
Indeed, the question “Does prayer work?” ultimately can only be answered in terms of “What is God’s will?” In “The Efficacy of Prayer,” Lewis points out that at the end of the day, a petitionary prayer is a request, not a compulsion, and that “success” in prayer doesn’t necessarily mean getting the answer we pray for. That our prayers are sometimes answered in the negative doesn’t mean our prayer was a waste; just that God had better things planned.
Knowing this — that prayer is first and foremost about faith that God is there, listening, and has our best interests in mind — frees us from the limiting burden of praying to make things happen rather than praying to grow in our relationship with God.
And in a world that is spinning faster and tighter around our own personalized, technology-enabled orbits, it’s nice to know that God is in control and wants to guide us through.
Our Blackberrys and Bluetooths can do quite a bit. But God can do more. And he never drops calls.
Introducing Alumni-Student Prayer Partnerships
Do you have a heart for students but are unsure how to link up with one? Want to be involved at Biola, but live far away from campus? Do you believe that prayer can connect people from all walks of life to impact our world?
Then perhaps being a prayer partner is just the opportunity for you!
If you’re willing to commit to consistent prayer for a student, the Alumni office is ready and willing to link you with someone. Simply express your interest in an e-mail to Sue Kimber, manager of alumni relations, at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’ll match you with a student and connect you by e-mail.
As your student shares prayer requests with you — and as you share requests with your student — who knows in what ways God will work. Try it and see!