Nurturing/ Teaching Courses
Spiritual Formation Institute
Yancey, Philip. 2006. Prayer: Does it make any
Difference? London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Dr Alex Tang
Philip Yancey, author of best selling Disappointment with God and Soul
Survivor, is a popular author because he puts in words, what many Christians
are feeling but are afraid to articulate. He deals with controversial topics of
living a Christian life with brutal honesty. Hence a book on prayer is most
welcome. Prayer is the most talked about subject in Christian life yet least
practiced. Yancey stated that to him, prayer is the area where two themes of
struggle in Christian life meet: “Why God doesn’t act the way we want God to and
why I don’t act the way God wants me to.”
In Part 1, Yancey developed the theme of who God is and who we are in
relationship to Him. He also highlighted the fact that God wants to keep company
with us. It is in this context that, Yancey developed his argument why we should
pray. To him, prayer is a partnership with God which he developed in Part 2. God
wants to partner with his creatures in His great redemption plan of the present
fallen creation. Prayer then is a form of negotiation. Skillfully skirting the
theological issue of whether an unchanging God can change His mind, Yancey
explored the numerous passages in the Bible that God did changed His mind. He
concluded that the underlying reason that God does change His mind is because of
love. “For God so loved the world…”
In Part 3, Yancey explored the ‘language of prayer.’ Basically, this section is
a ‘how to pray’ section. However I am glad he explored the silence of God in his
chapter ‘the sound of silence’. For some reasons, most churches do not teach the
fact that in a life of prayer, there are times when God does not seem to be
present. Spiritual writer like John of the Cross talked about a dark night of
the soul- an experience where God seems to be absent. One reason why this is not
commonly taught may be that many Christians may not be able to accept the fact
that God will voluntarily withdraw the awareness of His presence from us.
However as many spiritual writers have attested, these dark nights are necessary
for our spiritual growth. Another reason may be that almost all Christians are
struggling with prayer (or time to pray). A God who seems absent may not fit
into their theological framework.
Part 4 is the climax of the whole book. I was looking forward to discover what
Yancey would say about two important issues for us who are struggling with
prayers- unanswered prayers and prayers and physical healing.
Regarding unanswered prayer, Yancey wrote, “Some, but not all, unanswered
prayers trace back to a fault in the one who prayers…to God’s mystifying respect
for human freedom and refusal to coerce…to dark powers contending against God’s
rule…to a planet marred with disease, violence and the potential for tragic
accident.” What about the unanswered prayers not due to these causes mentioned?
After 15 pages, Yancey concludes, “In the end, unanswered prayer brings me face
to face with the mystery that silenced Paul: the profound difference between my
perspective and God’s”. It is a mystery but it does not help those of us who are
struggling with unanswered prayers.
Yancey seems to have struggled much as he wrote about prayer and physical
healing. Earlier in the book he has noted the tremendous growth of the church in
Nepal. “The first Nepalese became a Christian in 1950. Now the Church numbers
more than half a million, and Nepalese church leaders estimate that 80 per cent
of converts have resulted from physical healings…European and American doctors
who work there as missionaries, and they admit they have no scientific
explanation…David Aikman’s book Jesus in Beijing reports a similar
pattern of apparent miracles in China.” Yet, in his chapter on prayer and
physical healing, he wrote, “Nevertheless, I do believe that what many people
think of when you say the word ‘divine healing’-supernatural interventions in
the law of nature governing our bodies-are extremely rare. They are miracles,
This is a brave and honest statement especially in the face of certain groups of
Christians who claims that God performs healing on demand (just remind Him of
His promises, that’s all). Earlier in the chapter, Yancey extracted an article
which he co-authored with Dr. Paul Brand for Christianity Today. Dr. Paul
Brand is well recognized as an authority on orthopedic surgery for leprosy
patients and a well respected Christian. In the article, Dr Brand remarked,
“From my own experience as a physician I must truthfully admit that, among the
thousands of patients I have treated, I have never observed an unequivocal
instance of intervention in the physical realm. Many were prayed for, many found
healing, but not in ways that counteracted the laws governing anatomy. No case
have I treated personally would meet the rigorous criteria for a supernatural
miracle.” This is an amazing statement from a Christian who has treated
thousands of leprosy patients. I am sure he prayed for them. Not a single one
got healed miraculously! They were all healed by conventional medicine. And this
is in India, an underdeveloped country if anyone is to argue that miraculous
healing occurs in only underdeveloped countries.
I believe Yancey wrote this because he has seen the “great damage that result
when we presume upon God (for healing)”. Yancey’s approach is to review our
prayers with a checklist before praying.
• Am I expecting a miracle as an entitlement?
• Am I using the benefits of God’s ‘common grace’-the healing built into our
bodies and the medical knowledge we have gained?
• Do I wrongly blame God for causing suffering?
• Am I prepared for the possibility that physical healing may not take place?
I find this checklist fascinating and useful to check our inner attitude and our
relationship with God before praying for healing. Yes, we are still called to
pray for healing.
In any Christian bookstores, the shelves are full of books about prayers. This
indicates that though prayers and praying is a common spiritual discipline, many
of us have problems with it. I have enjoyed Philip Yancey’s book for three
reasons. Firstly, he is an excellent wordsmith and it was enjoyable to read his
writing. Secondly, this book is full of interesting anecdotes and reports about
the Christianity in different parts of the world because he has a journalist’s
instinct for seeing the big picture. Finally, he is honest about his struggle
with praying and how much time he spent on it.
|posted 5 September 2006|