One major part of the health and wealth gospel is the positive confession movement. Also known as “name it and claim it” teaching, this spurious theology suggests that believers can basically get whatever they ask for; as long as they have enough faith at least.
I have dealt with this teaching elsewhere, eg: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/29/problems-with-the-positive-confession-movement/
Here I want to focus more closely on the nature of God and the nature of prayer. It seems that the positive confession movement has a defective understanding of both. Indeed, it seems that for many evangelicals (not just the word of faith folks), prayer has become much more of a magic charm, a magic wand, or a type of amulet, instead of what it is intended to be – a means of communication and relationship with God.
Dennis Okholm warns about confusing prayer with magic: “Magic attempts to control or manipulate the divine will in order to induce it to grant one’s wishes, especially through the use of techniques such as charms, spells, rituals, or ceremonies. Christian prayer involves a struggle of wills in which the pray-er attempts to persuade God, all the time seeing prayer as a divinely given means whereby the pray-er can participate in God’s agenda.”
To argue that prayer should be understood in this sense is not to deny the element of petition and request. That is certainly there. But it seems to be a minor sub-point, not the main theme. W. Bingham Hunter in his 1986 book The God Who Hears develops this idea nicely:
“Most of us tend to view getting answers as the goal and prayer as the means to that end. But God views it differently. Given the perfection of his person, it is certain that God does not need us to talk to him because he’s lonely or insecure, nor does he depend on our advice or help in running the universe. Yet the commands in Scripture to pray suggest that he wants us to pray; he actually enjoys having us speak to him. Developing a relationship with us is God’s goal, and answers to prayer are a means he uses to foster self-disclosure, growth and understanding of both him and ourselves.”
Indeed, this idea of relationship is vital. It gets at the heart of the matter concerning the purpose of prayer. If prayer can simply be defined as talking to God, then prayer is, at its core, the means to relationship with God. We tend to see prayer in an instrumental sense – as a means to an end. But God desires prayer for the purpose of fellowship with himself – a love relationship. Augustine could go so far as saying that “true, whole prayer is nothing but love”. Many believers – and not just positive confessionists – miss this vital truth.
Jesus did not pray a lot to “get” things from his father. He prayed because of the love relationship found within the divine trinity. Michael Green and Paul Stevens put it this way: “Prayer for Jesus was not primarily a ‘discipline’ but the daily meat and drink of fellowship with the Father. Prayer is like fellowship. As in friendship, prayer is not for anything at all, even for ‘answers’. It is for the relationship. It is for communion. . . . Jesus reveals that what God wants from our prayers is not the substance but the relationship implied in our praying”.
A major problem with the idea of positive confession is that it treats God as some cosmic servant, waiting to do our every bidding. And prayer is simply the means by which we get the divine dispenser to dish out the goods. Such a view not only cheapens the concept of prayer, but turns our understanding of God into idolatry. As H. D. McDonald puts it, “that prayer is a sort of Aladdin’s lamp, which anyone can operate at will once he has learned the secret”.
Moreover, this view too highly stresses the role of the one who prays while minimising the role of the one who answers prayer. That is, all the emphasis is on having faith, being persistent in prayer, standing on the promises, and so on. It is as if whatever good comes to the believer is the result of his or her own efforts, instead of the goodness and grace of God. Again, prayer must be distinguished from magic.
In this regard David Crump has some incisive things to say about the nature of prayer. In his volume on Jesus and prayer in Luke-Acts, he notes that to speak to the efficacy of prayer is to misunderstand it. Prayer, he insists, is “a means by which individuals discover God’s will revealed to them so that they may become attuned to it and participate in its continuous unfolding”. Thus the issue does not lie in how much we pray or how fervently we pray or how often we pray:
“God enlists human prayer in the outworking of his plan, but the efficacy of prayer is not determined by anything which the pray-er brings, except agreement with the will of God. It would be difficult to find a more non-magical view of prayer than that presented in Luke-Acts. The distinctive feature of magical thought, wherein one seeks to control or compel divine forces to operate in a desired fashion through the careful use of specific techniques, is far removed from the attitudes expressed by Luke.”
The positive confession mindset also seems to render senseless the concept of unanswered prayer, and/or the silence of God. A theology that demands God’s instant response to our every hue and cry will certainly struggle with the idea that God might be silent, absent or distant. Yet this theme is found throughout Scripture, and has been the experience of many devout believers throughout the ages.
The moving words of C.S. Lewis, written soon after the death of his wife, are a classic example: “When you are happy … you will be – or so it feels – welcomed [by God] with opened arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.”
And consider just a few of the passages which address this theme:
-Psalm 10:1: Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
-Psalm 13:1-2: How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
-Psalm 22:1-2: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
-Psalm 28:1: To you I call, O LORD my Rock; do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who have gone down to the pit.
-Psalm 83:1: O God, do not keep silent; be not quiet, O God, be not still.
-Isaiah 45:15: Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel.
-Habakkuk 1:2: How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?
These and other passages make it clear that often God is silent, or at least appears to be. For reasons we may not understand, it is part of the walk of faith to experience this silence, this absence, this sense of God’s abandonment. As Winkey Pratney once put it: “Everyone who has set his heart on serving God will have this darkness come at some point”.
The question is not, ‘should I be experiencing this sense of forsakenness and darkness?’, but, ‘how will I respond to this temporary but painful chapter in my life?’ Or as Hunter remarks, “Truly victorious Christians are those who admit their humanness and who admit the emotional insult of God’s apparent silence when we suffer” (1986, 90).
Finally, we must acknowledge that a loving God will of necessity often say no to our prayers. It is a distorted picture of God, and a faulty understanding of Scripture, to assume that God should grant us our every request. No loving parent would do such foolishness. Neither does God.
Indeed, of necessity some of our prayers must go unanswered. As Lewis remarks, “anyone can see in general that this must be so. In our ignorance we ask what is not good for us or for others, or not even intrinsically possible. Or again, to grant one man’s prayer involves refusing another’s. There is much here which it is hard for our will to accept but nothing that is hard for our intellect to understand. The real problem is different; not why refusal is so frequent, but why the opposite result is so lavishly promised.”
The biblical accounts of the prayers of God’s people receiving a divine no are numerous and well known. One thinks of Job, David, Jesus and Paul, to name but a few. Thus we are in good company when a request is denied or a prayer not answered as we would like.
Leith Anderson devoted an entire volume to the dilemma of unanswered prayer. He provides many examples of the unanswered prayers of saints past and present and writes, “God doesn’t act the way we choose. He doesn’t always give the answer we want. No is a common word in the divine vocabulary with regard to prayer – even when answering the greatest of the saints”.
Thus we must have a fuller and a more biblical understanding of prayer than what we so often get from the positive confession camp. If not, we will see many more people shipwreck their faith.