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Varied Prayer Beliefs
by Bille Burdick

Some of us are very concerned about some of the vocabulary and practices having to do with prayer which are currently being taught in Seventh-day Adventist circles. This essay is an attempt to show some of the widely differing concepts of prayer in vogue today and how these beliefs differ from an "orthodox" Christian view. This is not a research paper, though it is based on wide study in these areas. I will not attempt to "prove" any of my statements...either from scripture or other writings. This is intended only as a generalized survey of some practices of prayer currently being taught. In order to discuss the differences between them, I am dividing the subject into four aspects:

1) The power of prayer.
2) The systematizing of prayer.
3) The communication of prayer.
4) The effects of prayer.

Under each heading, I will be looking briefly at: A) a simple orthodox Christian view, which I will be attempting to "put in a box" by statements of what it is *not*. These "not" statements are all actual teachings from some school of thought regarding prayer. B) a "Word/Faith (Pentecostal) view, C) a "metaphysical" (occult) view, and D) some vocabulary and views that have been heard in Seventh-day Adventist circles which seem to be heavily influenced by B and C.

A word about these terms may be helpful. I use "orthodox" not in its historical theological sense, but as a term for what I understand as simple basic biblical Christian views. I use "Word/Faith" as a general term which includes not only the self-named Word-Faith Movement, but the basic beliefs held more or less in common by a wide range of groups, calling themselves variously, Positive Confession, Positive Mental Attitude, Pentecostals, Faith Healers, etc. This basic body of beliefs can also be called "Spiritual Warfare Theology", which has certain elements in common with the Seventh-day Adventist "Great Controversy Theme", but also has significant differences of belief. I use "Meta-Physical", not in the classic philosophical sense of anything beyond our physical world, thus taking in any questions of God and his activities, but in the sense it is being used currently in various secular and neo-gnostic (new age) belief mean something similar to historical transcendentalism and New Thought, i.e. actual physical powers that can be tapped into and used by man...or that he possesses in himself and need only develop. Lying somewhere between the occult (in the spiritist sense) and the natural human psychological makeup, its boundaries are very fuzzy, but with its increased popularity in our post-modern world, we need to make the effort to understand these thought systems. These are the "powers of mind" upon which Christian Science relies. They are described and systematized in "New Thought", Theosophy, and any number of current groups, both "secular" and "religious", which are influenced by Eastern religious thought and/or channeled "wisdom" past and present, and may be called "New Age" or "New Paradigm" thought.


1) The power of prayer.

A) We all use the phrase "the power of prayer". We all say prayer is powerful. I think we should question is what is meant by those phrases. In the orthodox position, prayer is communication with the personal God who is all-powerful who has promised to act in response to our prayers. But God is free to act according to his own decision. He is not bound to act if we pray. He is not restrained from acting if we don't pray. The method, posture, place, or wording of prayer have no bearing on whether he hears. We do not have to be precise in what we ask for. In fact, God seems to require that we consciously leave the details of His answer up to Him.

We show faith by the act of asking. The answer is not dependent upon our belief that the thing will be done, nor upon our witness to others that we already have it before it actually appears. In short, the ABC's of prayer, Ask, Believe, and Claim the promise, apply only to spiritual blessings, and these only become evident in our lives as we work them out by willing to be in harmony with Him. They are descriptive rather than being prescriptive as a formula for achieving results with prayer. They have no validity when applied to prayer for material things or for claiming promises for some other person who is not desirous of praying for himself.

Since the "power" referred to is God's power, there is no intrinsic, measurable "power" in the human act of prayer, and it follows then that power is not multiplied when numbers of Christians get together to pray, nor is the prayer of any certain person more efficacious than any other person. There is advantage in gathering to pray. There are advantages in having someone pray with you and for you. But this advantage comes in the human community that is thus created and strengthened and brought into harmony with each other and with God's will...thus helping to answer Jesus' prayer for us, that we would become "one". We do not multiply prayers because in some mysterious way the multitude of prayers are more "powerful" and thus better "enables" God to act, as is taught in pentecostal Spiritual Warfare theology...from which comes the label "Prayer Warriors".

In orthodoxy then, prayer is linked to faith in that it involves belief and trust and at least a minimum of a faith commitment to God, so that the individual directs his prayers to God as one directs his conversations to a friend, confident that God will hear, and will answer according to His divine wisdom and power...which may or may not be in accordance with our desire or request.

B) In the "Word-Faith" Ministries, however, prayer is but the mouthpiece or expression of faith, and the two words, "prayer" and "faith", are used almost interchangeably. "Prayer" is the audible expression of "faith", and the "power of prayer" as well as the "power of faith" are metaphysical realities that are utilized by the person and are under his control...though this is usually described as being God's power that He has given us to use. Common phrases used include "having enough faith" and even "having faith in your faith". Visualization and precision in what one asks for thus become important, and the responsibility for the outcome of one's prayers is placed upon the shoulders of the suppliant.

Since there is "power" in one's own words and attitude, it becomes extremely important to "talk your walk", that is, to "witness to your faith"...which means to affirm the reality of what you have prayed for even in the face of observable evidence that it does not exist. This important metaphysical link between the request and the answer is the reason for their emphasis on "positive confession" and for avoiding "negative confession" (speaking of one's fears). The formal idea that prayer is communication with an objective, personal God is retained, but in practice this is so overshadowed by the person's own part in "using" the power God has "given" them, that God is really reduced to a servant (or a power source) which is available to the believer under certain specified conditions.

C) In metaphysical systems, prayer and faith are mere labels adopted for the purpose of claiming a similarity to Christian beliefs. They refer to the accessible and humanly controllable power source which is located either universally in the cosmos or in the mind or supra-mind of the individual. In either case it is available on command and is a skill that can be learned. Visualization, precision, persistence, belief, and witness (or positive confession) are some of the key factors in all forms, whether Christian, metaphysical or occultic. These all share the philosophy, as developed by New Thought, of the creative power of the human mind, with words being vehicles which tap into this power. The example given in section 2-D, below, though drawn from a "Christian" source, is very typical of channeled instructions in occultic circles.

D) In Seventh-day Adventist circles, speaking of "the power of prayer" is and always has been, very commonplace. However, until about 15 to 20 years ago, I heard this as only a "short-hand" way of saying that prayer is answered by a powerful God. Unfortunately, what is "shorthand" or metaphoric language to one generation sometimes becomes "literal" language to new generations...especially to new generations of converts that come from a pentecostal or metaphysical background. With increased understanding of the metaphysical and Word/Faith thought systems and closer examination of our church history I discovered that unfortunately even our "orthodox" views of prayer have often included some metaphysical contaminants.

Ellen White herself opens the door a bit to these metaphysical concepts by her metaphorical use of language. I don't think she meant to be understood in a literal or metaphysical way, nevertheless, through the years, various systems of prayer have been published, based upon gleanings from her writings which seem to support them.

This is further complicated by the Waggoner and Jones phenomena. These two men who have been "resurrected" for their reputation as champions of righteousness by faith in 1888 and a few years following, were, within about 10 years, weaving both pantheistic and New Thought concepts into their publications. Yet, for some reason, this has never become common knowledge, and their works have been reprinted and circulated with no warnings against their later heretical views. Modern ministers and writers have utilized some of these views...even some of Jones' emphases that are so close to New Thought concepts as to appear almost "borrowed", such as his statements on the "intrinsic power" in the words of God so that the words retain that "intrinsic power" even when we speak them! These statements were explicitly used as a basis in the Spiritual Warfare and Deliverance Ministry Seminars of 15-18 years ago, and are at least implied in many current settings.


2) The systematizing of prayer.

A) Since the orthodox view of prayer is that of talking as with a friend, the very idea of systematizing prayer is a foreign concept. While formal prayers may be recited these are not usually thought of as "formulas of prayer". Prayer is commanded to enhance one's relationship with God. It is recommended that a routine of specific prayer times be set up to offset the human tendency to neglect God and prayer. But the ideal is given as "pray without ceasing". . . that is, to have the heart constantly open towards God through all our waking hours.

B) In Word-Faith, however, faith and prayer are highly systematized. Since Faith is thought of as a power, and prayer is the means of tapping into that power, then both faith and prayer are reduced to formulas for effective prayer in a highly "scientific" way. Thus there is much emphasis on precision in prayer. Since the power is "in the mind", or accessible by the mind, one must be very precise in describing exactly what is wanted. Since the power is "in the words", one must be sure to speak in harmony with one's desires. This is sometimes called the "intrinsic power of words" (or the "intrinsic power of the word of God", if the prayer consists of "claiming a promise"). This is often expressed as the law of "like attracts like". Therefore positive thoughts attract positive things or actions, while negative thoughts attract negative results. Thus to say "I am afraid I might fall" will be to guarantee that you will fall", while to affirm, "I can walk across the log safely", will guarantee your safe passage. While in its most Christianized forms it is claimed that it is God giving you what you "say that you want" by your negative or positive "confession", the practice and theory can be traced to New Thought metaphysical systems.

C) The metaphysical "principle" is that it is the "power of the mind" that actually creates the object of your desire--which is created first on the "spiritual plane", and then is "materialized" on the "physical plane" by the processes of precise definition, visualization, and positive confession. With or without its Christian facade, this forms the basis for both Christian and non-Christian groups...from Schuller's Crystal Cathedral to Denis Waitley's "The Psychology of Winning" to Paul Yonggi Cho's Korean congregation to more overtly new age meta-physical groups. It is the basis for practically all of the self-improvement courses being offered today. It is presented as if it were a scientific fact. It is the same thing that forms the basis of Christian Science. It is the same as that presented by any number of spirits through their "channels". The example given in the next section is typical of those specified by the channeled materials.

D) In Adventist circles, there has been an increasing use of these concepts. In the ABC's of prayer they were certainly latent, and many recognized something amiss, though few had enough knowledge of what was "out there" to realize the metaphysical connections. Recently, it has become more commonplace and overt. I will give only one example.

Paul Yonggi Cho is recognized by a goodly portion of the Christian world as teaching a brand of Christianity that is legitimately called "New Age", since it is a frank and open blending of Asian religious thought with Christianity. However, at the conference on prayer, held, not by some "fringe" seminarist, but by "mainstream" Adventist personnel in preparation for the NET95 evangelistic crusade, Cho was recommended as a model for prayer, giving the following "prayer story" as illustrative. While I have seen the story in print elsewhere, my retelling of it below is from notes that I personally took at the seminar, not on any other source.


Cho's church is currently considered to be the largest single congregation in the world. However when he began his ministry he started with few people and 24 hour prayer. One day, God told him that he should be praying for something specific. So he decided to pray for a bicycle to help him in his work. Then later he began praying for a desk. But much time passed and God did not give these to him. As he continued praying, God told him that the reason he had not received what he was asking for was that he had not believed enough, evidenced by the fact that he had not "witnessed" about it. So the next day Cho told his congregation about the beautiful bicycle and desk that the Lord had blessed him with-- as though he had already received them, even though he had not.

Soon, some of the members of the congregation made an excuse to come to see him at his house, but of course they saw no bicycle and no desk. When they asked him about it, he replied, "Oh, they are still in here", pointing to his heart, "I am pregnant with them." Still, God did not give them to him.

When he persisted in prayer, God said, "The reason is that you haven't told me what kind you want. Be specific. What kind of bicycle and desk do you want?" Cho then asked for an American bike and a Philippine Mahogany desk, and he got them within that same month.


From this the presenter drew the point that we must be specific in our requests to God. While she did make the point that we should be prepared to accept whatever God gives, be it yes, no, or wait, still, the emphasis was on this specificity that is exactly like the principles laid down in metaphysics and adapted by Word/Faith and Pentecostal leaders. I have seen this described in both Christian writings and metaphysical channeled material.


3) The communication of prayer.

A) Orthodox Christianity recognizes more than one level of communication with God. For the ordinary person, God is always accessible through prayer, but God does not "converse" in any ordinary meaning of the word. God "answers", yet is silent. He speaks to the mind, yet his words are not distinguishable from the normal thought processes. He brings things to our memory, he gives impressions, he causes us to notice a particular word or phrase of scripture that we had not noticed before, but these are not generally discernable as being specifically from God. For the problems and decisions of the day, God expects us to use the knowledge and reasoning power that he has given us to figure out what courses of action will be most nearly in harmony with the principles of his kingdom. While occasionally, even to the ordinary humble Christian, he may break in with a word of warning or direction, this is the rare occurrence, not the norm, and it is at His discretion, not at our commanding.

When God wishes to speak more plainly to a community of faith he chooses a spokesman, commonly called a prophet, to whom he gives specific instructions, but again, at times and manners of his own choosing. Even the prophet had to wait upon the Lord. While the Lord might answer his prayer for communication with a vision, a dream, a voice, or in some other overtly discernable manner, there was no guarantee of this. There is a vast difference in the relationship of a biblical prophet to Jehovah God and the relationship of a psychic to his/her spiritistic contact.

B) While orthodox Christianity does not claim to be able to precisely understand the two way communication between God and man "works" either in prophetic inspiration or in daily prayer and guidance, the two have traditionally been kept separate. In Word/Faith and Pentecostal circles, however, this distinction is blurred or well nigh obliterated by some of the teachings of "Divine Guidance", receiving "a word from the Lord", etc. as well as such things as talking with angels and "prophesying". Church leaders gain a tremendous power over their people by bringing direct messages from God.

C) In metaphysical circles, the current term for receiving information from other than the normal five senses is "channeling". According to those who are friendly to the practice this is the same as "prophesying" in the biblical sense. But this is not true. Besides there being a different source, there are definite differences in the way it "works". Channeling involves making contact with either "pure knowledge" or a "higher being" by any of a variety of means, and may be either at the discretion of the spirit or of the person--but usually at the choice of the person as to time and frequency of contact.

These include "inaudible voices" in the mind, automatic writing or typing, information given by some device such as pendulum, dowsing stick or ouija board, as well as audible voices not originating from the mind of the speaker but using his vocal cords. This latter is called trance channeling and may occur as a light trance in which the person is cognizant of what they are saying or as a deeper trance in which the person is unaware of what has been said through their faculties unless they are told after coming out of trance. It is very common, if the person has any connection to religion at all, for them to pray and/or meditate in preparation for receiving these messages. In most cases, the messages come from some entity who identifies himself as a spirit or discarnate entity, usually giving him/herself a name, identity, and history. In many cases this spirit may give the name of Jesus or some other Biblical or Christian person. Recently the popular thing is "talking with angels".

D) Spiritual Warfare as practiced by SDA's included some aspects of "Divine Guidance" as taught by independent Pentecostals. In commanding the devils to speak through the vocal cords of the afflicted person (to whatever extent that they were successful) they were engaging in a kind of trance channeling. Probably most of what went on was mere psychological abuse and suggestibility, but there is some indication that in at least a few instances there was something happening beyond that. Besides that, some in these groups claimed to hear "inaudible voices" which claimed to be giving messages from God, so they practiced "listening" for God to give the "to do" list for the day or scripture texts for individual counseling and many other overt words of "guidance"--all things that could be mere fakery or hysteria, yet much too similar for my comfort, at least, to activities used by others for spirit contacts. Recent emphases on prayer as "two-way communication", giving the boy Samuel hearing God's voice as example of what is meant; prayer journaling for the purpose of writing down "what Jesus says to me" during prayer, all seem to me to be rather questionable teachings on prayer as communication.


4) The effects of prayer.

In the preceding sections, we have spoken of things that could rightly be addressed under this heading. However, in addition to what has already been said, I want to focus on two specific "effects of prayer": first, that which involves praying for others, commonly called "intercessory prayer" even thought the same term is used with additional specific meanings among the Word/Faith and Spiritual Warfare theologies, and secondly, a brief look at attempts to "prove" in a "scientific way" the effects of prayer.

A) The orthodox view of praying for others has to do with such things as bonding with them, encouraging them, opening oneself to being used by God in helping the other. But I also know that historically, we as well as other Christians, have told stories that have encouraged ourselves to believe that prayer for someone with whom we have no contact and who does not know they are being prayed for has some almost mystical way of getting God to do something for them that he would not do if we had not prayed. This concept is often supported by an Ellen White statement, however, I believe that the statement actually refers to the blessings God gives to us who pray rather than to others who are not praying for themselves. John Ash addresses this question in his article included in this issue of The SDAnet Cyberzine, so I will refer you to his excellent study rather than going into more detail here.

B) In Word/Faith and other groups holding to a "Spiritual Warfare" theology, praying for others (in what is called "intercessory prayer") is carried to the point where one can actually "stand in the place of" the person being prayed for, "binding Satan" i.e. restricting the power of Satan in their lives, confessing their sins, and covering them with the blood of Jesus. While this is not taken to the point of actually believing that one can bring about the salvation of another, it does involve putting inappropriate "power", even over God's activity, into the hands of men.

This concept is built upon the doctrine of the legal ownership of the earth, and all that lives thereon, being passed to Satan at the time of Adam's sin. This also affects other basic salvation doctrines, not just the doctrine of prayer. In this view it is reasoned that since Satan is the "legal owner" he and God have entered into "legal arrangements" in which God has agreed to not interfere in the lives of those on earth unless He is invited to do so by someone who is a member of the human race, therefore a "legal resident". This becomes the basis for why God "had" to come as a man (so he would have a "legal right" to request God's intervention) and is the basis for the "responsibility" of the believer to pray for the unbeliever (because God is then given "permission" to work in the other individual's life). The key words are power and control--overtly stated that we not only can use, but have the obligation to use the "power" God has given us for the purpose of restricting the power of Satan in another's life. And it implies by such terms as "enables" and "frees" that we in some way have power over God himself! For, according to this theory, God cannot act unless we give him express permission.

C) One would expect no comparable philosophy from the occult world, since there is no salvation from sin doctrine comparable to the Christian view. However the basic premise of taking power over others through the use of available metaphysical powers is very much in evidence. There are prevalent theories of a growing minority who, by their own perfection of their human and metaphysical capabilities will "save" the planet by elevating it to a "higher sphere"...even physical law will transform into metaphysical law. This "salvation" by a form of perfection is often spoken of in semi-Christian terms as becoming "Christed", or even by following the example of Jesus of Nazareth, who as the "Way Shower", achieved the title of "the Christ" by living a completely perfect life. Others use such concepts as taking control over our own evolution so that we advance to a "new" kind of creature--and as enough humans reach this advanced stage, they will pull the rest of planet with them so that all will be able to exercise the powers now exemplified by some psychics.

Psychics point to their ability to affect others as evidence of this "power" which is available to all. Some of this is achieved by the use of various spells and incantations, some of which (I am told by scholars familiar with both Biblical and pagan religions) bear an uncanny resemblance in wording to some of the favorite biblical texts quoted by some Christians who practice the Spiritual Warfare and Word/Faith type of prayer.

D) In Seventh-day Adventist circles, the phrases "intercessory prayer", "prayer warriors", and others taken directly from Word-Faith and Pentecostal sources have become very common in recent years. While some who use these terms attach very orthodox meanings to them, and are quite horrified and even disbelieving when they hear of the meanings being used by others, an increasing number of people are being trained in these activities as taught in popular books by Word-Faith and Pentecostal authors. In 1983, the Biblical Research Committee which studied Spiritual Warfare and Deliverance Ministry published a paper in which they spoke against these practices, and according to some, Adventist pulpits were "closed" to sermons on Spiritual Warfare. However, under other guises, including books and seminars on prayer and evangelism, Spiritual Warfare doctrines have been taught with increasing openness since that time. These are not usually presented as "new doctrines", but as the presuppositions which undergird some of the thought and practice taught.


Moving now to the attempts to "prove" in a scientific way the effects of prayer, I will also move from the four sectioned format, and merely comment in general, giving only one example. There has been recently, a number of "experiments" made in hospital environments on the efficacy of prayer in patient healing. I am not speaking hear of the studies which have observed and tabulated differences in recovery rates of those who are praying Christians as compared with those who hold to no religion. These, so far as I have observed, are reporting more on the efficacy of personal faith and trust in God than in any "scientific" "power of prayer".

Besides this type of scientific analysis of observable data, some have moved into "double-blind" studies in which the researchers assign groups of Christians pray for some patients, but not for others. These and other studies were used as one focal point in the "prayer conference" held in Collegedale in December, 1994 as part of the preparations for NET95. As reported by Mark Finley (who was not personally present, but who had prepared a tape segment for inclusion), these "double-blind" studies now show from "scientific experiments" that prayer "really works"! He described several, including certain "double-blind" experiments which "proved" that prayer "worked" even over such things as cultures in petri dishes! Of course he "gave glory to God", for he applied this by exclaiming, "What a wonderful God we serve, who is so desirous of us understanding the power of prayer that He will even make the molds in little petri dishes grow better if they are prayed over!

My personal reaction is one of astonishment that we would condone, much less flaunt such "experiments"! This is the God of the Universe that we are talking about...the same One who, incarnate as Jesus, refused to do miracles to "prove" who He was...even though the requested miracle involved suffering people with real needs! And now are we really ready to believe that He has changed so much that he takes part in "scientific experiments" just to "prove" that there is "power in prayer"?!? I'm sorry, but I don't think so!

In connection with these thoughts on scientific experiments I think it is important for us to keep in mind that the only thing that keeps occult phenomena from being classified as "scientific" is that their working and results are not consistent enough for men to develop "scientific rationale" for their cause/effect relationship. But according to scripture, Satan is going to be allowed to work miracles in the last days. Have we considered the implications of this in relationship to "science"? For if God allows Satan the freedom to be consistent in working "miracles", they will be considered scientific! This, I believe, puts us on terribly "thin ice" if we start relying on science to verify the way God "works"!

In conclusion: I am extremely concerned with many aspects of our teaching on prayer and related topics. And that concern is on many different levels. Theologically speaking, what we think about the subject of prayer is reflective of the whole of our concept of God and our relationships, not only to Him but to our "neighbor" as well. Practically speaking, our prayer habits affect our daily activities, our human relationships, our emotional stability, our health, and certainly our time management. Spiritually, prayer puts us in contact with Someone beyond ourselves. For biblically based Christians, this Someone we seek is the Lord God of scripture, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

But if we are biblically based, then we also recognize the existence other intelligent beings, themselves created but rebellious, and that it is possible to contact these entities. Indeed, we believe that some spiritists and occultists actually do make contact with them. Which then brings up a concern at another level of seriousness--for if people contact "god" in the way that occultists and spiritists do, and if whoever they contact responds in the same way that the entities do that are contacted by occultists and spiritists rather than in the way the God of the Bible is described as responding---then, no matter if it does identify itself as God, Jesus, or an angel from heaven, I think their identity is up for question. And it is this chance of leading some into a form of spiritism that is my deepest concern.

In the final analysis, it may not make much difference what we believe about prayer so far as the amount of time we spend in the "closet", in the burden of responsibility that we carry for others, in the lists that we make and laboriously check and recheck. But if it makes a difference in who we are communicating with....that may be a serious matter. I hope, as you read these articles that you will seriously examine your own beliefs and practices in prayer, as well as becoming alert to notice any deviancies from scripture.

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