Occultism, in all its various forms, has always been occupied with following certain rituals in order to manipulate the world in one’s own favour. This is true not only of the prophets of Baal, of witchcraft, or of various ancient paganisms. It is also profoundly true of various contemporary belief systems associated with science and technology. Belief that salvation is to be found in techniques, in methods, in or in any attempt to follow a prescribed pattern in order to manipulate the world for the benefit of ourselves is deeply – if unwittingly - occultic. And for many Christians today, prayer itself has become just such an occultic practice.
That is, for Christians, prayer can all too easily become a tool for manipulating the world in our favour. This is why to celebrate the ‘power of prayer’, to declare that ‘prayer works’ or to encourage people to be ‘prayer warriors’ are all practices that share an occultic view of the world.
Prayer is simply a gracious gift of communion with the Holy God – it is not a thing in itself. It is not a force external to God, or greater than God, nor a means by which Christians can enjoy some leverage over God. It is not a magical means of scribbling tasks onto God’s ‘to do’ list. It is not about getting our will done in heaven but rather getting God’s will done on earth.
If prayer were approached in this way, perhaps the contents of our prayers would have more chance of getting beyond the door of our homes or churches, and the demands for blessings upon us and our friends. Equally, it will be more threatening to us than prayers for the world which essentially regurgitate the news headlines before adding the dispassionate refrain, “God bless ‘em”.
If to pray is to seek God’s will on earth, then to pray by faith does not mean that we perform mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that God can make our dreams come true. Rather, to pray by faith is to make ourselves ready to be the means through which God answers our prayers. There is then no tidy distinction between our prayer life and our daily life.
To ‘pray without ceasing’ (I Thess 5:17) then, does not mean that we ‘babble endlessly like the pagans…’ (Mt 6:7). For pagans, prayers express the desires of daily life; for Christians, our daily life expresses the desires of our prayers. There is little point praying for victims of suffering in the third world, and then as relief agencies plead for more resources do little more than give the middle class equivalent of loose change. This would be an occultic attempt to manipulate the world without disrupting my daily life. To pray without ceasing is to live out the prayers we offer to God.
The prayers of the righteous man are powerful and effective (Jas 5:16), not because he has earned his way into God’s good books, but because he means what he prays – his daily life expresses the desire of his prayer life. If however, our daily life bares no resemblance to the prayers to which we say ‘amen’, we would be better off leaving our Bibles at home this Sunday and bringing a ouija board to church instead.
(Published in the Baptist Times, Feb 2, 2006)