Problem Prayers

This year I was invited to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. Praying with the president of the United States sounded like a unique opportunity, so I went.

It wasn’t exactly an intimate time of intercession. 4000 people were squeezed into a banquet room in tables of eight to ten. Some sipped coffee and nibbled croissants and cold fruit. Small bowls enabled each person to take a little bit of cereal. Navy blue and white programs listed the names of each speaker. Everything had been pre-set because the room was too tightly configured—the tables far too close to each other—for wait staff to move in and out to serve an actual breakfast. One speaker jokingly observed that the National Prayer Breakfast was not known so much for the breakfast as it was for the prayer. For reasons of security and the dignity of his office, President and Mrs. Bush and the select few with them were a bit removed at a dais that permitted people to serve them. I doubt that their fare was any different from the rest of us.

It was clear that this crowd represented people coming from a variety of belief and/or unbelief systems. While many came to make a statement with their presence, I’m not sure how many came to bow before the presence of God. The morning passed with a series of speeches, selected readings from the Scriptures, quotations from philosophers, Native American sayings, a few poems and yes, some prayers. Not all who offered prayers were believers in Jesus. Those who did believe and who prayed in the name of Jesus warmed my heart.

The part I most enjoyed was hearing Michael W. Smith sing two songs that spoke of the Lord Jesus. The songs were truly prayers, humble and grateful reflections on the gospel that brought me before the throne of grace. That was not the case with most of the spoken prayers. It seemed most of the believers toned down their prayers to fit in and not offend the others. It is an interesting dynamic when people are invited to come together, ostensibly for the purpose of talking to God, yet knowing that what they say to God is seen as a reflection of how they regard others in the room.

It reminded me of another current prayer controversy. Recently the Pope allowed for the reinstatement of the Tridentine or Latin Mass. That Mass included a Good Friday prayer asking that the blindness be lifted from the hearts of Jewish people, that they might come to believe in Jesus. When Jewish community leaders expressed outrage at the wording, the Pope offered to rewrite the prayer. The new wording follows:

Let us pray for the Jews. May the Lord enlighten their hearts to accept Jesus Christ … Eternal and omnipotent God, You who desire all Your creatures to be saved and know the truth, let Israel be redeemed by passing through the gates of Your church.”

Apparently that hasn’t exactly satisfied some Jewish leaders who were hoping that Catholics would simply conclude that Jews do not need to believe in Jesus, and therefore would stop praying for them to do so. Abraham Foxman, U.S. director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the wording of the prayer “insulting anti-Jewish language” and Conservative Rabbi Joel Meyers, vice-president of his denomination, called it “a step backwards.” It is apparent that these leaders recognize the importance of prayer, though I doubt they genuinely are trying to prevent the Almighty from acting upon the entreaty on their behalf.

Whether prayers are private or public might have a bearing on how much of a person’s heart they choose to disclose; but private or public, prayer ought to join our hearts to God and His will for humankind. Whoever else might be hearing or benefiting by listening, when it comes to prayer the primary audience is God. People therefore ought to pray according to their convictions.

Some Jewish leaders are offended by the conviction that Jews need Jesus. They see that conviction as a reflection on who they are, rather than the outworking of convictions about who God is. One of those convictions is that God’s saving grace is only available when we receive it by faith in Jesus. Jewish people are not the only ones to take offense at this.

You ought to know that some Jewish spokespersons remain unoffended by prayers that reflect the conviction that Jewish people need Jesus. For example, Hillel Halkin, a contributing editor of the New York Sun, was not at all upset by the recent flap over the Good Friday prayer. He said, “If anyone cares enough about my soul to pray for it, I might as well take it as a compliment.” While this may be a bit tongue-in-cheek, Halkin made some serious statements about why Jewish people should not object to the prayer: “. . . if a Christian believes that Jesus was born on earth to save all mankind, Jews included, he would be slighting Christianity by refusing to say so” and “What kind of Christian would it be who, convinced that his Jewish friend was bound for everlasting torment, did not do everything to save him from it? What kind of friend?” I wish all professing Christians understood the wisdom of this perspective, articulated so clearly by one who has not himself embraced Christ.

I believe in the power of prayer. And I am glad the Pope has stood firm on this point. I truly hope that all believers in Jesus will affirm in prayer and in every other way what Jesus taught when he said, “. . . no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

It is a mystery to me how the sovereign King of the Universe bends His ear to consider the thoughts and pleadings of mortal humans, but He does. So we pray.

In Jews for Jesus we have four special times a year we set aside to pray as a ministry: three half days and one whole day. On April 15 our branches around the world will take eight-hour shifts, that we might set aside one 24-hour period to pray especially for Behold Your God Israel. If you would like to join us we will be glad to include you. We can send you a list of requests and an outline for our own day of prayer. Just let us know by clicking.