CRITIQUE OF PRAYER BY PHILIP YANCEY
AN ASSIGNMENT SUBMITTED TO DR. BARKSDALE
March 27, 2015
World-renowned author and speaker Philip Yancey has written a very honest and thought provoking book about prayer. For those who do not know much about Yancey he has authored anywhere from eight to twelve different books on some pretty intense topics; things like being disappointed with God, where is God when it hurts, why bother with going to church, and much more. He is also known for being the editor at large for the magazine Christianity Today.
In this work Yancey attempts to leave no stone unturned. By doing so means that this is not a small piece of writing. The book itself weighs in at 336 pages, not counting the additional resources he provides or the copious amount of notes at the very end of the book. This book is one that is meant to challenge and encourage you in your prayer life. All twenty-two chapters will leave you with a better sense of understanding about the topic being discussed. While at times you may start off scratching your head, he leads you by the hand through each topic to the destination he has chosen.
This masterful work is broken down in to five sections: keeping company with God, unraveling the mysteries, the language of prayer, prayer dilemmas, and the practice of prayer. Each one of these sections is organized in a way to progressively build upon each other. While you may be tempted to skip around chapters it should be recommended not to. Each section consists of anywhere from three to six chapters, with chapters ranging from 7 to 20ish pages. Sprinkled through out the chapters you will find additional stories added in to aid in the effectiveness of the main point of the chapter.
In the very first chapter Yancey brings out the fact that our deepest longing is to be in communion with God. The way we do that is through prayer and he goes on to explain why we long for that. Yancey explains, “We pray because we want to thank someone or something for the beauties and glories of life, and also because we feel small and helpless and sometimes afraid.” Showing that we want to communicate with a higher power than ourselves. He finishes off the chapter by talking about what a challenge it is for modern pray-ers to spend much time praying compared to the saints of old.
In the following chapter he opens up about the struggle that takes place in the heart of the one praying, even admitting, “Prayer allows me to admit my failures, weaknesses, and limitations to the One who responds to human vulnerability with infinite mercy.” That resounds throughout the Christian life, that we should be so vulnerable to God in prayer.
If I were to cover every chapter in the book it would take up more space than allowed for the assignment, so I will just briefly cover a few of them. Take chapter three for example, it is a very well rounded chapter dealing with approaching God just as we are. The author makes the point of wanting to know if it is the real me approaching God or is it my persona? This is an important distinction to make, in this authors humble opinion. As a believer we do no want to go before God in any false way. Yancey made a great point that hit home for me, “Whenever I get depressed by my lack of spiritual progress, I realize that my very dismay is a sign of progress.”
Another strong chapter in the book is nine, it is titled “What Difference Does It Make?” and I think everyone at some point has asked that question about praying. In reference to the work of Bonhoeffer, and the example he left behind, Yancey says, “We cannot simply pray and then wait on God to do the rest. At the same time Bonhoeffer cautioned against an activism that simply opposed the forces of evil without drawing on the power of prayer.” He used this example for us to understand we cannot merely sit back and wait on God to do all the work, and how God chooses to respond is up to God.
One of this author’s favorite chapters was chapter eleven, titled “Ask, Seek, Knock.” The main focus of this chapter was for the reader to understand that we are to be willing to be persistent in our prayers and not to give up when we feel we aren’t being heard, he references the story of the widow and corrupt judge.
The book as a whole deals with many of the topics Christians come across in their prayer life. However there are some topics Yancey covers and it is manner of personal disagreement that brings struggle to my understanding.
This section is going to be the most difficult to write because there was much I agreed with in the book and very little disagreement. Chapter ten in particular is one that was found troublesome. Yancey, in the very first and second sentence, points out God makes what are seen as two contradictory sentences. Things only get more confusing not because of the scriptural references used in the chapter, but because of the scientific argument made. It was hard to follow what was being argued for. Being a pretty descent Calvinist, my understanding tends to be that God has already predestined what will happen, including whether or not we will pray about something.
On page 150 he makes the statement, “Generations my pass before persistent prayer receives its answer.” Is this supposed to be a comforting thought or one that discourages? It could easily be one that is taken either way. But why use such a confusing phrase to begin with? There is an internal struggle with this statement, “Asking, seeking, and knocking does have an effect on God, as Jesus insists, but it also has a lasting effect on the asker-seeker-knocker.” It is something that needs to be settled in one’s self before it can fully take root and be productive, because despite how he made his argument in previous chapters it still does not gel well for this author.
The biggest struggle that faces this book is the lack of application, yes there are a lot of chapters in the book and it has a lot of highlightable material. It just didn’t seem to be completely practical. It was full of awesome stories that took you on a journey; there is no doubt about his ability to tell a story, and to do it well. It just felt as though some chapters were all stories without a clear path to follow.
While I don’t recall reading an actual purpose statement of this book, it is safe to assume that it wants you to have a more productive and enjoyable prayer life. That is possible if you do what I have heard one pastor say, “Eat the meat and leave the bones.” So what is the meat to be taken away? First and foremost God hears us when we pray. Not only that but he wants to be in communication with us. Yancey points out, “God finds ways to communicate to those who truly seek God, especially when we lower the volume of the surrounding static.” The point being is when seeking God don’t allow things to get in the way as interference. Try and hear from him because he wants to speak to us.
There needs to be a constant conversation taking place between God and I, because without it I am powerless to accomplish anything. According to Yancey, “Conversation between real friends is a constant stream.” I need to not be so self-centered in my times of prayer because the prayers of Jesus were more other-centered and more for the glory of God. A very powerful argument he makes is, “Although Jesus offers no metaphysical proofs of the effectiveness of prayer, the very fact that he did it establishes its worth.”  The very fact that Jesus felt the need to pray should be more than enough of a reason for me to pray. Who am I not to pray?
As was mentioned before there needs to be persistence in prayer, not just for the sake of praying but because God gives vent to those who persists. “God views my persistence as a sign of genuine desire for change, the one prerequisite for spiritual growth.” In the end that is what this is all about right, spiritual growth. Growing to be more Christ like. The biggest take away is to keep on praying no matter how bad I may feel I am doing, because Christ thought it was important enough to do, who am I not to follow his example.
This was a very powerful book that made this author think long and hard about some of his convictions. Some were changed while others were strengthened. It also left me with some more questions, than it did answers in some of the later chapters on prayer and physical healing, and living with the mysterious. This is a book I would recommend to just about any believer whether they have been a Christian for a month or years.
This book will guide you through some powerful things to invigorate your prayer life. It will challenge certain perceptions you have held and encourage you to chase after God with a renewed vigor. Don’t pick up this book if you want your prayers to look the same they did before you read it.
Yancey, Philip. Prayer: Does it make any difference? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
 Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does it make any difference? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)13.
 Ibid., 26.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 32
 Ibid., 124.
 Ibid., 150
 Ibid., 154.
 Ibid., 54
 Ibid., 56.
 Ibid., 81.
 Ibid., 151.