Philip Yancey has been holding out the torch for Christian skeptics since his first book, Where Is God When It Hurts?, and he’s been a prizefighter in that category ever since. From his editorship at Christianity Today to his best-selling books, Yancey’s name has floated in and around thinking Christian circles for years—most likely because of his strength as a writer and his willingness to probe even the most difficult questions without side-stepping their importance.
Yancey’s most recent work, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?, is a long, mature look at the Christian discipline of talking to God. Recently, Yancey gave RELEVANTmagazine.com the opportunity to ask him a few questions concerning his new book, skepticism and the practical side of prayer.
What was the motivation for writing your book on prayer? Many books have been written on the subject, why write another?
Most of the great books on prayer are written by “experts”—monks, missionaries, mystics, saints. I’ve read scores of them, and mainly they make me feel guilty. I read about people who pray four hours a day and find it an ecstatic experience, whereas I struggle to keep at it for 15 minutes at a time and find it hard work. I’m not an expert by any means. When I write, I try to represent the ordinary person in the pew, which means that, ironically, I’m qualified to write about prayer by being unqualified! I do have the freedom, though, to spend whatever time it takes to research, interview and learn from those who have something to teach us about prayer. And writing the book became a kind of life course in prayer.
In past books, you have written from a position of skeptic. Even as you provide a skeptic’s voice, you seem to betray a level of faith or comfort with prayer that a reader may not have found in earlier books? Is this a fair assessment?
“Betray a level of faith”—I like that! Normally we would think of betraying doubt or skepticism, not faith. But you’re right. I approach questions of faith with the skeptic’s eye, circling around them, resistant against propaganda, suspicious of the received wisdom. This book, too, I began from that stance, beginning with my questions about unanswered prayers, unhealed bodies, the times of silence and frustration in prayer. I found in the process though—and it stretched over two years—that prayer changed shape for me. I began to see it less as a transactional relationship, which often leads to frustration and more as what I call “keeping company with God.” At the end, I told my wife that I felt a new “voice” had emerged. I was representing the ordinary pilgrim, yes, but sometimes, in spite of myself, a kind of pastoral voice would sneak in. Maybe that’s what you detected.
What advice do you have for twentysomethings just beginning to embark on their Christian journey, specifically in regards to prayer?
In one word, Relax. It’s too bad prayer comes bundled in a package of “spiritual disciplines.” Really, we should see prayer as a spiritual privilege. We don’t do it as a callisthenic exercise to gain points with God; we do it, because it is good for us in every way. I quote the author Roberta Bondi who says so many people worry about “doing it right.” Hey, if you’re praying, you’re doing it right. I try to include some practical hints, but mainly I think a good prayer life depends on a trust relationship. You need to have a strong belief in a loving, merciful God who cares about you and the trust to open up to God with complete transparency. God already knows the naked truth about us, of course. Why not acknowledge it? So many times we act like the child who plays peek-a-boo—covering her eyes with her hands, thinking you can’t see her. Hiding ourselves from God is just as futile.
Recently, Scientific American published the results of a study of heart patients that concluded that prayer has no observable benefit for those who are being prayed for. What’s your response to this?
There have been at least 500 studies that show a positive relationship between spiritual practice and health. The study that got so much attention had the rather bizarre double-blind form of anonymous people praying anonymously for patients they didn’t even know. I believe prayer is an important ingredient to health, but my own emphasis is on community and close relationships. All the studies I’ve seen demonstrate that those who have a strong supportive community of faith around them have a definite edge in healing. Personally, I think miracles of physical healing are rare, but a kind of palliative effect of prayer is quite common. The key to a healthy life—and this applies whether you’re sick or not—is to align body, mind and spirit in the way God designed it. Leave out the spiritual aspect, and you handicap yourself.
After living a significant portion of your life as a Christian, how has prayer shaped you, your life, your relationships?
I spend some time in the book looking closely at Jesus’ own practice of prayer. As the Son of God, He knew how the universe worked. When He prayed, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” He knew well what He was asking. And yet at every major juncture of life—the temptation, choosing disciples, His baptism, meeting the needs of the masses, the Garden of Gethsemane—He made prayer a priority. I call that “getting His truth batteries recharged.” Jesus of all people knew that a sovereign, loving God rules the universe, and yet when He’s surrounded by guards buckling on swords and torture devices, it’s hard to keep that in mind. If Jesus needed prayer as a lifeline to the truth about the universe, how much more do I? Every day the world, especially through the media, conspires to convince me that what matters most in life is wealth, prestige, beauty. Jesus said exactly the opposite: the poor are blessed, as are those who mourn, the persecuted. Prayer forces me back to ultimate truth, gives me a refresher course in how God views this planet—with sadness, surely, but also with boundless compassion and love. And then I spiral in to how God views me—with sadness, surely, but also with boundless compassion and love. Then I go out, renewed, to join the stream of God’s work in the world.