AUDIO VERSION: YouTube Podbean
Social bonding is an important element of any human relationship. To form positive relationships with each other, we need to spend time talking together and sharing our different perspectives. The experience of feeling listened to and empathized with is so intensely positive and uplifting to the soul that we are willing to pay counselors to provide this service for us. But it’s much better when we can find people who are willing to listen to us and care about us free of charge, and this is what makes Christian prayer groups so very popular.
When Christians group up to pray, they are essentially using prayer as an excuse to socially bond. You hardly need other people to assist you in praying. You have God with you at all times, and He is always listening to you. The primary reason we participate in prayer groups is for the affirming experience of having other humans demonstrate interest in and concern for us. There’s nothing wrong with this motivation, although we could use to be a lot more honest about what we’re doing and stop trying to hide our efforts to meet basic human needs under the guise of “seeking God.”
Seeking God is something you do in the privacy of your own soul, and your efforts to seek Him are never so hampered as when you’re praying in groups. For starters, someone is always talking when you’re in a prayer group, and this makes it hard for you to focus on your own thoughts. There is also the expectation that you will be agreeing with whatever is being prayed for, even though most of the time you should not. The reality is that God is rarely treated with honor in these little get-togethers. The part where we share our news and offer support and encouragement is great. But then everyone chucks those four essential soul attitudes of reverence, submission, dependency and trust out the window and we all sit around telling God what to do.
It is because God is so routinely disrespected in group prayer sessions that it is often wise for you to take a complete break from group praying when you hear Him calling you to make some major improvements in the way that you talk to Him. Since it is the main means by which you relate to God, prayer plays a critical role in shaping your dynamic with Him. Just as a wife will never develop a strong marriage if she is constantly ragging on her husband, you aren’t going to get very far with God if you’re constantly insulting Him in your prayer life. Prayer is critical, and since the Church teaches us to pray all wrong, when God starts educating you on ways that you could improve your treatment of Him, you need to cherish His insights as the great gifts that they are and not let any Christian tradition stop you from pursuing the changes that He wants.
Now all of that said, is it possible to participate in group prayer sessions without talking to God as if He has the intelligence of a tomato and no purpose in life except to please His human masters? Yes, it is, but this is going to take an entirely different approach than you’re used to.
One of the biggest problems with prayer groups is that they encourage you to pray over other people’s lives. This is never acceptable for you to do. Certainly you’ll find examples of people praying for each other in the Bible, but you’ll also find examples of people worshiping false gods and rebelling against God in the Bible. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean God considers it a pleasing activity. If you’re serious about improving the way that you pray, you need to be seeking God’s opinion directly and stop using the Bible as an excuse to dictate His feelings for Him. If God tells you that He finds something annoying, then that’s how He feels, and you need to respond to that direct communication and not start quoting passages at Him to tell Him that His feelings are invalid. Remember that you’re working with a living Being here, not some computer program. God has very strong opinions about what He likes and what He doesn’t like. He also has very strong opinions about how He wants you personally to interact with Him.
So why does God find it annoying for you to tell Him what He ought to be doing in the life of some other soul? Because He’s God and you’re some ignorant speck. He created the person who you’re praying about. He created this entire universe, and He’s so much wiser than you are that it’s laughable. It’s simply derogatory for you to sit there advising God on what He ought to be doing. And while you’re busy telling Him what to do, you’re simultaneously implying that what He’s currently doing is wrong. How is that not insulting?
God is not just bumbling around making poor judgments and then hoping it all works out in the end. Everything that God does is a precisely calculated move which is expertly unfolding a very complex and brilliant strategy. Just because you can’t immediately grasp the genius of what He’s doing with your joke of a brain hardly authorizes you to step into the role of His advisor. Now that sounds harsh, but if we’re going to get serious about honoring God, we need to face how utterly obnoxious we’re being. The style of prayer that Christians uphold as God honoring is nothing more than a bratty tantrum. First we start asking Him for something that He isn’t giving us without even bothering to consider that He is withholding that thing from us for good reasons. Then when He doesn’t instantly deliver what we want, we keep asking Him for it over and over again. Isn’t it true that when you ask others to pray for you, you’re secretly believing that there is power in numbers? Aren’t you really just trying to coerce God into giving you what you want by getting a bunch of humans to gang up on Him for you? Yes, you are. If you didn’t feel there was power in group, you wouldn’t bother with it. You’d talk to God yourself and have confidence that He loves and listens to you. Then when He doesn’t give you what you want, you’d deal with your frustration between you and Him, you wouldn’t start posting pleas on the internet for other Christians to coerce Him into changing His answer.
Christians use prayer to drive, command, coerce and control God. Then they wonder why He is plaguing their lives with trials and refusing to draw near to them. Why do we have so many Christians feeling totally dependent on fellowshipping with the brothers? Why do so many of them observe a pattern of forgetting about God the moment they stop attending church? Why do so many feel they need the assistance of rousing worship tunes and the buzz of being in a group setting in order to feel close to God? Because God is refusing to draw near to them in a real way, thus they’re strung out on trying to compensate for His Presence with these pathetic pretenses. And why is God refusing to draw near? Because they’re refusing to treat Him with respect. They’re always bossing Him around and acting like they are oh so much wiser than He is. They’re always criticizing Him and acting like He can’t possibly work without them. They’re always butting in to His personal relationships with other souls and giving Him a bunch of unwelcome advice.
“God please be with Mary on her trip.”
Really? How do you think God is going to respond to such an insulting request?
“Gee, thanks for the heads up. I’m only with Mary 24/7 and carefully orchestrating every aspect of her life. I’ve never looked away from her for one nanosecond, but I love how you suggest I might ditch her for her entire vacation. Your confidence in My goodness and My love for My own creatures overwhelms Me.”
And then there’s when you try to instruct God on how He ought to be maturing other souls.
“God, please help John to trust You more.”
Do you know what God is going to say to this?
“What I’m doing with John is between Me and John. Rather than telling Me what to do with other people, how about you respond better to what I’m doing with you?”
Are you seeing the problem? Group prayer sessions come down to a bunch of Christians sitting down and taking turns telling God what to do in each other’s lives. Instead of each person praying for their own issues, the expectation is that each person will pray for someone else in the group. Joe prays for Frank, Frank prays for Tim, and Tim prays for Joe. Well, no, this is a complete reversal of what God wants to happen. God wants Joe to pray about Joe, Frank to pray about Frank, and Tim to pray about Tim. This is because God responds to each of us based on our soul’s response to Him, and He doesn’t allow other humans to control our soul’s response. It might be obvious to you that Frank really needs to work on developing more submission to God’s Authority. But until Frank becomes receptive to this idea in the privacy of his own soul, there isn’t a darn thing you can do to improve the dynamic that Frank has with God. And while you’re busy telling God to override Frank’s stubborn little will by forcing Frank to learn submission, you’re totally disrespecting God’s preferences.
God wants every soul to have the option to defy Him. He wants obedience to be a choice, not something He rams down our throats. He wants spiritual growth to be a two way street. He teaches us, and we choose to embrace what He’s saying and cooperate with His efforts to change us. Of course God could forego all of this and just zap us into different people. He’s God, He can do anything. But as God, He makes up His own mind about how He wants to interact with the different creatures He has made. When it comes to interacting with His humans, preserving an element of free choice in the relationship is very important to God, and that’s the very element you’re trying to take away when you tell Him to soften hearts, open minds, and override wills.
“God, please draw Sally closer to Yourself.”
No, He’s not going to do this. Sally is already receiving invitations from God and deciding how she wants to respond to them. If Sally is stuck in rebellion, it’s because that’s where she wants to be. What you’re really asking is for God to force Sally to become receptive to Him. He doesn’t want to force Sally. He’s only going to draw Sally closer in if Sally decides to start showing sincere interest in having a closer walk with Him.
A major problem with Christian prayers is a lack of thought. You just rattle off requests without really thinking about the implications of what you’re saying. When you know that some soul is fighting God, it distresses you, but instead of thinking about how important choice is to God, you start telling Him to do what would make you feel more comfortable, which is make the rebel stop rebelling.
Most of our prayer requests revolve around making us more comfortable. We are stressed by humans in distress. We are uncomfortable being around suffering, so we’re always praying for that suffering to go away. And in this endless pursuit of immediate comfort, what happened to our willingness to learn and mature? What happened to our desire to change and improve the way that we treat God? When do we ever get around to treating Him like more than just our problem solver? We’re in a relationship here, we’re not on a battlefield. Developing a rich relationship with God requires focusing on Him and desiring to treat Him ever better. War is about blasting back your enemies when they encroach on your territory. The Church teaches you to approach prayer like you’re engaging in war, hence the very popular term prayer warrior gets tossed around quite a bit in Christian circles. In war, you’re not trying to bond with your fellow soldiers. Your focus is not on interpersonal dynamics, but on threat assessment and problem resolution.
Think about how Christians pray when they’re in groups. We’re like generals gathering in the strategy tent to share the current threats to our various districts on the battlefield. Rob has some snarky boss who is making his life tough at work. Steve’s been diagnosed with liver disease. Jack’s stressing over finances. We exchange the latest news about how we’re each feeling assaulted by third parties, then we take turns launching prayer nukes to blast each other’s enemies back. Steve prays for Rob’s boss to lighten up. Jack prays for Steve’s liver to get miraculously healed. Rob prays for Jack’s lenders to give him more time to catch up on his payments. No one’s talking about maturity, everyone’s just interested in negating the stress as quickly as possible. It’s like we’re all working off the ridiculous theory that we’re only in this world to kick back on comfortable cushions, eat cake, and feel jolly. Whenever some trial comes along, we act like something’s strayed off course, and we urge God to get everything back as it should be, which means we’re skipping through life feeling great about everything.
When do we ever get around to acknowledging that God is the true Source of our trials and that clearly those trials are what we need since God is the One intentionally bringing them into our lives? When do we ever get around to practicing submission and asking God to help us learn everything that He wants to teach us? Sure, sometimes we play around with requests to grow, but we’re always focusing on the wrong targets. Jane prays for Emily to have greater trust when Emily needs to be praying for herself. Hannah asks God to help Naomi through her faith crisis, when Naomi needs to help herself by embracing the lessons God is offering her. We can’t do each other’s growing. We can’t control each other’s wills. And the longer we spend focusing on what someone else is stressing about and trying to assess what they need with our non-existent wisdom, the longer we’re refusing to do the work that God is calling us to do.
So what would it look like for you to pray right in a group setting? First, you have to keep the focus on the only relationship God has given you some say over, and that is your own relationship with Him. Stop trying to get involved in everyone else’s business. Listening and empathizing is certainly good, and if you feel like God’s giving you some useful advice to pass on, then by all means speak up. But when the sharing time is done and the group starts to pray, you need to be praying about your own relationship with God, not about anyone else’s.
Now once you get your focus back where it needs to be, you’ll discover a very useful advantage of group praying that is never explored when we’re busy trying to fix each other. In your life, God has two main ways of inspiring you to grow. The first method is for Him to mess up your personal life with direct trials. This is a fabulous way for Him to get you to bump up against the limits of your own maturity so that you and He can then work on moving forward. But a second method which can be equally effective is for Him to have you cross paths with other humans who He is plaguing with trials that you haven’t personally dealt with. By bringing other people into the mix, God greatly expands the range of topics you will give serious thought to. For example, Tina is a new mother who is having a grand time taking care of her baby girl. God could strike Tina’s baby with some frightful illness, and Tina would suddenly find herself in a major stress crisis, but God decides that Tina isn’t ready for the intensity of a direct trial. And yet Tina is starting to get obsessed with her child, and God wants to move her back towards a healthier balance by confronting her with the possibility of losing her child. So He has her cross paths with Heather, a woman who has just found out that her baby girl has a fatal disease. Heather is devastated of course, and when she’s crying all over the ladies in her weekly prayer group, Tina is there and Tina is horrified.
Naturally Tina identifies with Heather since they are both new mothers, and Tina can’t help imagining how she’d feel if she was in Heather’s shoes. This is exactly what God wants Tina to do, because He knows that contemplating Heather’s situation is going raise up all kinds of questions for Tina that He wants to address with her. The thought of losing her child will make Tina realize how dependent she’s become on her baby. God can then point out to her that her dependency has grown too strong and talk with her about backing it off. The thought of God striking a young baby with some brutal disease is going to raise up serious doubts about God’s goodness in Tina’s mind. Those doubts have been there all along, but like all of us, Tina tries to ignore their presence as much as she can. Well, we don’t grow by avoiding the tough issues, so God wants to use Heather’s crisis to force Tina to confront the limits of her own trust in Him. Why would a good God make an innocent baby suffer so horribly? How can God be trusted if He so intentionally shatters hearts and lives? These are critical questions that Tina needs to wrestle with if she’s going to grow closer to God. Here’s where meeting with a group of Christians can really benefit Tina, because during those group sessions, God will use the information that other ladies share to stir up all kinds of fears and questions within Tina. When it’s time to pray, Tina should then close her eyes and think about the issues God is stirring up for her. When she prays, she should be praying about those things and asking Him to help her learn what He wants to teach her.
“God, when I hear about what You’re doing with Heather it really scares me. What if You were to do something like that to my own daughter? How could I ever bear losing her? What is it You want me to learn here? I’m feeling afraid and full of doubts about You. I know You say that You are for me, and that You want to help me grow closer to You, and these fears make me feel like there is distance between us. Help me align with Your perspectives and priorities. Help me gain more confidence in Your love for me and in Your goodness. I’m realizing that I don’t ever want to be separated from my child again. She’s only been in my life a short while, yet it seems like she’s become a critical part of who I am. You say that You are enough for me, but I’m honestly not feeling like I can connect with that. I certainly don’t want to lose ground with You because I’ve lost my grip on the right priorities. Now that I think about it, I think my child has really become my first love in life, and that doesn’t seem right. I should be able to let go of anything and still be alright knowing that I have You. But I’m really not there, am I? Help me to get back to where You want me to be. Help me to really want You to be first in my life.”
This is a prayer that greatly pleases God. Look at how fully Tina is engaging with Him. She’s responding to the issues He’s raising up for her, she’s listening to His promptings, she’s being very honest about her struggles, and she’s aligning herself with His priorities. Instead of asking God to give her the things she wants, she’s acknowledging that there is a major discrepancy between the things He says are important and what she has come to feel is important. She then asks God to get her back to where He wants her to be: satisfied with Him as her First Love in life. This is a fabulous prayer, and this is the kind of attitude that is really going to move Tina down the road of spiritual maturity. But she only got here by keeping her focus on herself and taking the time to listen to what God was saying to her as she listened to Heather. Now if Tina had just prayed the typical group prayer, she would have said something like this:
“God, we need a miracle here. Heather’s baby has been given only weeks to live, but we know that You have the power to heal. Please touch this baby with Your healing power and restore her health. Please fill Heather’s heart with peace and drive out all of the sorrow and fear. We believe in faith that You are able. We claim in Jesus’ Name that Heather’s baby is already healed, and that no weapon formed against us can stand. Hallelujah! You are Jehovah Rapha—the God who heals! This baby’s suffering isn’t in Your will! It’s a demonic attack! We bind this disease! We bind all sorrow, suffering, and illness! We are erecting a prayer wall around Heather and her baby and her home! In the Name of Jesus, amen!”
This prayer is total garbage. All Tina is doing here is peppering God with commands and throwing around a bunch of rank and power that she doesn’t possess. Notice how she insults God by talking about His decision to inflict Heather’s baby with disease as being some terrible thing. There’s no respect for God’s wisdom, no acknowledgment that He has positive purposes for what He is doing. Tina flat out denies God’s sovereignty by suggesting this illness has occurred against His will. She exalts the power of humans to idolatrous levels by suggesting that they have the power to throw up walls that will corral demons and force God to align with human agendas. She tries to wield the Bible like a magical talisman by quoting a Hebrew Name for God and making an inference to Jesus’ comment to His disciples about binding things on earth. She’s not bothering with examining the context of Jesus’ statement, she’s just turning it into a promise that she finds personally useful. In this prayer, Tina is trying to leap into a crisis situation and play the role of problem solver. She is trying to dominate God when she should be submitting to Him. She is refusing to revere or trust Him, and she’s minimizing our dependency on Him by suggesting that she and her fellow Christians can play a major role in helping Heather out of her crisis. Is God going to draw near to Tina when she talks to Him this way? No. He’s going to convict her about it, and when she refuses to respond to that, He’s going to discipline her. When she refuses to respond to discipline, He’ll eventually stop giving her opportunities to ever know Him better, and that will be one more Christian bumped into the vast pool of souls who have been cut off from intimacy with their Maker because they simply refused to ever embrace those four essential soul attitudes. This is a road that you really don’t want to go down, but the Church is shoving you down it with great force, and that means you’re going to have to work to change direction.
Consider the first prayer that we made up for Tina: the one that actually honored God. Now how likely is it that you’re going to pray this way in a group setting? Until you start improving your prayer life when it’s just you and God, hanging out in groups is only going to get in your way. You need to have time to form positive patterns between you and God before you can honor Him with the way that you pray in group settings. And since most of what’s going on between your soul and God is too personal to share with other humans, praying out loud in groups just isn’t very practical.
Prayer is an intimate thing, and just as you shouldn’t be posting films of you and your spouse making out in the bedroom, you shouldn’t be sharing your intimate soul communications with God in public settings. Certainly it can be edifying to praise God corporately, and it can be a good example to others to model praying with the correct priorities. But baring your soul to humans is simply not appropriate. In group praying, the temptation to show off and impress others with your spirituality is very strong. When you pray out loud in groups, you’re very aware that your conversation with God is being eavesdropped on, and honesty is the first thing to go once we know we’re being monitored by others.
If you must do group, the ideal way to go about it is to get together for the sharing time, then have a period of silence during which each soul can concentrate on what God is saying to them personally. After everyone has had the chance to privately respond to God while practicing the soul attitudes which honor Him, then if someone wants to share an insight or close with some general thanks, fine. But given the fact that God detests it when we’re fake with Him, and given the fact that it’s simply never appropriate for us to try and influence what He’s doing in His relationship with someone else, it’s really not possible to build a convincing case for why praying out loud in groups is a good idea.
Prayer Warriors: Disrespecting God & Proud of It
Praying for Your Flock in a Way that Honors God (Guidance for Pastors & Priests)
Praying for the Sick
Practicing Submission in the Way that We Pray
Why You Shouldn’t Ask God to Change People: Improving Your Response to Grudges, Rebellion & Grief
Talking to God: Two Essential Rules