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Prayer Requests

Monday, March 17th, 2008

Earlier this month, the issue of prayer requests was brought to my attention by friends of mine on two different occasions. Specifically, the question was, “Why do some Christians keep their health problems private?” Both of my companions strongly believe that brothers and sisters in Christ ought to share their struggles with their church family so that prayers can be offered on their behalf. The example of infertility was raised–why don’t our modern-day Rachels want their brethren to pray for God to open their wombs?

One of my friends argued that withholding prayer requests constitutes robbery: When we don’t tell the church about our problems we rob our brethren of an opportunity for prayer, he said, and we rob God of an opportunity to answer those prayers.

This is a question that is close to my heart, having dealt with infertility first-hand. At first, I didn’t want to comment on it because I knew my position would disagree with the arguments stated above. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is a question that deserves a proper discussion. I’m writing my thoughts in hopes that my readers will respond with their own ideas. Maybe the discussion will prompt us all to be more prayerful and thoughtful towards those who are experiencing personal struggles.

One of the reasons that some Christians keep their health-related struggles private is because some matters are extremely personal and need to stay out of the public arena. Infertility is a good example. The problem is more widespread than many people realize and most couples who suffer from it choose to keep their pain to themselves. It’s different from having a gall bladder removed or having an apendectomy. People who haven’t suffered from infertility simply do not understand how complicated the problem is. The treatments are rather embarrassing. Tough, ethical decisions have to be made throughout the process of pursuing pregnancy. When it is known that you are dealing with infertility, people tend to pity you when others are expecting, which makes it difficult to give the proper encouragement to those who are experiencing the joy of childbirth. In addition to all these things are the insulting statements that come from well-meaning brethren, things like, “Just relax,” and, “Just watch. Now that you’ve adopted, you’ll have one of your own.”

I can only speak from one perspective. I’m sure that others who have dealt with things like prostate cancer, breast cancer, marital problems, homosexual family members, financial problems, and mental illness could list a number of other reasons to keep their struggles private.

Don’t get me wrong. My wife and I asked others to pray for us. The barren womb never says, “Enough” (Prov. 30:15-16). This is one problem that we did not want to face without God’s help.

However, at the time we did not want to publish a very private matter on page two of the bulletin. The matter was handled among our closest Christian friends and family members, and we believe that, as a result, God has answered our prayers.

Speaking of prayer, where in the Bible does it say that prayers have a compounding effect? Since the advent of the Internet, a phenomenon has developed whereby prayer requests are forwarded over and over again by email. The thinking behind this practice is the more prayers, the better. I want to know where it stops. Are ten prayers better than five? Are 100 better than ten? Are 1,000 better than 100? On and on it could go.

Who are these people that are praying for us? And do they know who they are praying for? The Bible does teach that there are some things and some people that we should not pray for (1 Jn. 5:16-17). The effective prayers that I read about in the Bible are personal in nature, uttered by petitioners with a strong connection to the beneficiaries of their prayers.

James encourages prayer on an individual basis. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (Jas. 5:16). While they do imply the concept of a prayer list in the church bulletin, the immediate force of these verses is the power of one man praying for someone in need.

I believe in the power of prayer, and I think that it is good for churches to pray together on behalf of someone who is struggling. However, I think prayer requests ought to be left up to those in need. If our objective is to show them how much we care, then we will respect their privacy.

Abba! Father!

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

Because we are adopted children of God, Paul says we are able to cry out to God, saying, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). This interesting manner of addressing God is a construction from two languages, the first one Aramaic, the second Greek, each meaning “Father.” It is hard to translate the expression into English, although Phillips comes close with “Father, dear Father.”

Now that we have received the spirit of adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, we can approach God in prayer with the same confident, childlike manner in which a small child speaks to his father.

This intimate style of addressing God in prayer does not appear until Christ.

  • King Hezekiah, who was healed of a fatal disease and given fifteen more years of life, prayed, “Now, O Lord, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart…” (2 Kgs. 20:3).
  • Ezra the scribe, a man who set his heart to study the Law, to do it, and to teach it, prayed, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God…” (Ezra 9:6).
  • Daniel, who would rather go to the lions’ den than live without his daily prayer routine, petitioned God saying, “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act” (Dan. 9:19).
  • David, a man after God’s own heart, did not address the Lord as Father: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” (2 Sam. 7:18)
  • Elijah defeated 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel with prayer, but he did not call God his Father: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant…” (2 Kgs. 18:36).

Abraham was the friend of God, but he did not pray to him as a father. Moses spoke with the Lord face to face, but he did not call him Father.

Jesus brought us closer to God. And so he instructed us, “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name'” (Mt. 6:9). Later, in that same sermon, he said,

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Mt. 7:7-11)

It has been my experience that Christians prefer the titles “God” and “Lord” to “Father” in their public prayers. Perhaps more of us need to cultivate a deeper relationship with our Master–not just a reverence for the one who created us, but a love for the one who saved us by sending his only begotten Son and our brother, Jesus Christ.

Using "Thou" in Prayer

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

Since I was a child I have listened to the reverent and solemn speech of men who lead prayer using pronouns like “Thee,” “Thine,” “Thou,” and “Thy.” The masters of this shibboleth argue that these words lend prayer the majestic and eloquent language that God deserves. Some even insist that they are the only pronouns suitable for divine antecedents.

But “thees” and “thous” have circulated out of the English language and have been relegated to studies of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. For some reason, we have preserved them for our prayers. Like last summer’s vegetables, we’ve canned them for the winter, when we will take them off the shelf for special occasions.

I don’t use them. I opt instead for the second-person pronouns of my mother tongue, common words like “you” and “your.” Don’t get me wrong. This choice was not made out of disdain for those who use “thou” (I’m not even sure it was a conscious decision.). I just prefer to speak to the Father using words I’m comfortable with. Does that make me irreverent? And what about those who use that noble language? Should we be critical?

First, I think it is easy to trace this usage to the popular translations of the Bible that have been used through the ages. The King James Bible, arguably most influential English translation in history and still on the bestseller list, employs these pronouns in 6,542 verses. It should be pointed out that the KJV does not make a distinction between God and ordinary men with these words as we do today. Every time it refers to the second person singular, whether the subject is human or divine, the translators used the pronouns in question.

The American Standard Version, which appeared at the turn of the twentieth century, beats that by exactly twenty verses, showing occurrences in 6,562 verses.

But as language evolved and as new translations appeared on the market, translators began to minimize “thees” and “thous” in newer editions of the Bible. The Revised Standard Version, which came out in the middle of the twentieth century, uses the language in only 1,468 verses. Finally, versions like the New King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, and the English Standard Version dropped these words altogether. There must be a connection between the speech we use in prayer and the translation of the Bible that we use. This might explain why “thou” is more common in older generations that are familiar with the KJV and ASV.

The next logical question is, “Why did the English translations drop these pronouns?” They were dropped when the words fell out of common usage. Languages evolve; words change. And that is what happened to “thou.”

The English language once had different singular and plural second-person pronouns. “Thou” was singular, and “ye” was plural. At some point the singular second-person pronoun dropped out of circulation. Language expert Mignon Fogarty explains what may have happened.

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, at some point in the 14th Century, the plural form—you—started being used to address one person as a way to show respect. They point out that once the word you started being used that way, the use was likely to spread because it’s always safer to show respect than not to.

So the etymology tells us that, strictly speaking, “you” was regarded as a more respectable way to address another person than “thou.” This runs counter to some who argue that “thou” is more reverent than “you.” Linguistically, this is not true.

Should we be critical of those who use “thou” in prayer? Methinks thou dost protest too much.

My good friend Mel Futrell has given the best rationale I have heard for using the archaic second-person pronouns in prayer. Actually, his statement is based on a letter he received from Dr. Ward Allen, author of Translating for King James and a one-time professor of English at Auburn University. The letter, a response to Mel’s question on pronouns in prayer, reads,

When we step into church, we are stepping out of time. We step into eternity…English which is not everyday, street, commercial English is an aid towards putting aside the world. You ask: “Is there a recognized, solemn form of language to be used in reference to God? You may drop the word recognized. You and your congregation may recognize the forms, no longer current, but which you have inherited from tradition.

His point is that we, the churches of Christ, recognize these pronouns as solemn and dignified. As Mel points out, who would prefer Tillit S. Teddlie’s “Worthy Art Thou” to read “Worthy Are You”? (Shades Mountain Messenger, February 15, 2004).

One last point. Those who are going employ solemn language in prayer should know how to use it. “Thou” is the subject (e.g., “Why hast thou forsaken me?”). “Thee” is the object (e.g., “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.”). “Thy” is the possessive when the word that follows begins with a consonant (e.g., “Thy kingdom come.”). “Thine” is the possessive when the word that follows begins with a vowel (e.g., “Thine is the kingdom.”).