Prayer is not White Magic
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Jesus Christ in the Gospel of St. Matthew 6:7-8, ESV)
“Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.” (Answer to Shorter Catechism # 98)
Prayer is the believer’s great privilege. When we believers come before our heavenly Father in prayer, through faith in His Son Jesus Christ our only Mediator, we literally enter by the Holy Spirit into what might be described as another dimension. In prayer we draw near to the throne of grace, we enter the inner sanctuary, the heavenly holy of holies, the very throne-room presence of God where the Creator of the universe is attended by angels, apostles, saints and martyrs, and all the company of heaven (Hebrews 4:14-16; 12:14-24, 28-29; Revelation 4-5; 7:9-12). When Jesus died on the cross for our sins, once He had completed the work of atonement and committed His spirit to the Father, the curtain in the Temple separating the holy place from the most holy place was torn in two from top to bottom, indicating that the Father had effected redemption through His Son and that now the way into the heavenly holy of holies was open at all times to all believers (and not just once a year to the high priest alone, as before under the old covenant – see Matthew 27:50-51). In prayer we actually draw near to God in holy, intimate covenant fellowship. So the ordinance of prayer is powerful. In fact, the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition has historically viewed prayer as being in some sense a means of grace (not in the sense of a means by which God objectively delivers and seals His grace to us, as He does in the Word and sacraments, but in the sense that prayer is a means by which we by faith subjectively receive the grace of God in Christ objectively offered to us in Word and sacraments). So prayer is a powerful thing. But today the practice of prayer is attended by many misconceptions, and there are many false ideas out there about prayer. One such common misconception is a view of the power of prayer which basically turns prayer into a form of white magic.
What are some examples of viewing prayer as a form of white magic? Well, dear reader, let me seek to answer that question by asking you some questions to bring this issue into focus. Do you think that your prayers are more effective if they are long and wordy? Do you think that you would be more blessed by God and be a more spiritual person if you spent lengthy times in the exercise of prayer? Do you believe that the more people you have praying for you, the more likely it is that God will hear your prayers and grant you the blessings or requests which you seek? Do you think God is more likely to hear you if you can get a particular person you regard as especiallly holy (for example, your minister, or a mature Christian you look up to) to pray for you? Do you think using a particular formula of prayer (like the popular “prayer of Jabez” or the ancient “Jesus prayer”) will get God’s attention better than using your own words in prayer? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you have been influenced by popular but unbiblical notions of prayer, pagan notions which basically turn prayer into a form of white magic.
The most extreme expressions of prayer as “white magic” can be found in certain charismatic and Pentecostal circles, especially among the so-called prosperity preachers. For example, I once heard a prosperity (“name it and claim it”) preacher boasting about how he basically orders God around. The idea out there in some supposedly “Christian” circles is that if you have enough faith you can basically “name and claim” your blessings from God – including the blessings of healing, health, weath, and prosperity. But this is about as far from the biblical teaching on prayer as one can get. (Try telling Job, or the Apostle Paul, or Stephen the Martyr – all men of deep and earnest prayer – that they just didn’t have enough faith to “name and claim” their blessings, or that their hardships and sufferings were an indication of a weak faith.) Besides being utterly blasphemous, it is also completely pagan. It is the most extreme example of prayer as white magic. It turns God into a cosmic bellhop and subjects the Creator to the will of the creature. But in Scripure prayer is not a means by which we strong-arm God into doing our will or fulfilling our desires. It is not a means of bossing God around or giving God orders. Rather, it is a way by which we express our total dependence upon the Sovereign of the universe, and humbly petition Him for things that are needful for us and agreeable to His will. It is a means by which we say to God, “Thy will be done” (not, “Lord, do my will”).
When our Lord’s disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray, He taught them a model prayer which has come to be known as “the Lord’s Prayer” (Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 6:9-13). (It would be more accurate to call it “the disciple’s prayer,” for it is meant to serve as a model prayer for followers of Jesus Christ.) While many things could be said about this model prayer, I would just make a few observations. First of all, this prayer is very brief and to the point. It can be prayed in less than 30 seconds. Second, it is very intimate (God is addressed by the believer as “Our Father“) and simple, avoiding the flowery excess and vain repetition characterized by the kind of “white magic” type of praying that goes on today. Third, it is thoroughly God-centered and kingdom-focused. Only one of the petitions (“Give us this day our daily bread”) focuses on us and our earthly needs, and even then it only asks for what we need (our daily bread), not for what we might want (health, wealth, ease, comfort, prosperity, etc.). Finally, it is a prayer which manifests an attitude of total submission to God’s will, the opposite of trying to strong arm God into serving our desires or interests or agendas. “White magic” praying seeks to use God for self-centered purposes. True prayer seeks to submit to God’s will in humility and gratitude. When we are tempted to slip into the “prayer as white magic” mode of thinking, we would do well to reflect upon the Lord’s Prayer.
Prayer is a great privilege. Prayer is powerful. Prayer is vital to the spiritual life and health of both the individual believer and the church corporate. But prayer is not white magic, and God is not our cosmic Butler. As we seek to be a people devoted to the Word and to prayer, let us strive after a biblical theology of prayer, for the glory of God and for our spiritual good.
Along these lines, I especially appreciate some of the comments that Missouri-Synod Lutheran pastor Rev. Jonathan Fisk makes on the subject of prayer toward the end of this recent “Worldview Everlasting” video clip: http://www.worldvieweverlasting.com/2014/05/02/horus-ruins-everything/
It is from Pastor Fisk’s comments that I got the idea of classifying false notions of prayer as “white magic.”