When asked why he writes about sensitive topics with irony and such honest skepticism, Phillip Yancey says, “I write books for myself, [since] I am a pilgrim, recovering from a bad church upbringing, searching for a faith that makes its followers larger and not smaller. I feel overwhelming gratitude that I can make a living writing about the questions that interest me. My books are a process of exploration and investigation of things I wonder about and worry about.”
Yancey begins each day spending an hour reading God’s Word, praying, and meditating, which he claims helps align his will for the day with that of the Lord’s. While prayer is the intimate place where God and His children can meet, it also can also be an extremely frustrating and confusing place to be, unless the person praying has the right frame of reference and proper understanding of how prayer works. To address these issues, Yancey answers fundamental questions like: “Is God listening? Why should God care about me? If God knows everything, what is the point of prayer? How can I make prayer more satisfying? Why do so many prayers go unanswered? Do prayers for healing really matter? And does prayer change God?” By studying all 650 prayers in the Bible, Yancey views prayer not so much as a way of getting God to do his will but as a way of being available to get in line with what God wants to accomplish on earth. This reading analysis will evaluate Yancey’s approach to the topic of prayer being a privilege and not a journey or duty and will define areas of personal application derived from the reading.
Yancey breaks up Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference into five concise parts. In part one, Yancey demonstrates, “Every faith has some form of prayer… 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. We pray for forgiveness, for strength, for contact with the One who is, and for assurance that we are not alone.” Yancey approaches prayer from a universal perspective in its ability to “define who [and Whose] we are.” For anyone searching to know God, prayer is the means, but as Yancey illustrates, “Everywhere, I encountered the gap between prayer in theory and prayer in practice.” Time, skepticism, and prosperity are all reasons listed for why people believe there is power in prayer, but still choose not to engage in the practice. C. S. Lewis conveys, “The prayer preceding all prayers is, ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’” Many people associate prayer with confession of sins and guilt, but prayer is so much more than helpless cries to the Lord. God wants His children to come before Him as they are. Scriptures affirm, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16; Ephesians 3:13). This boldness and confidence when approaching the throne must also be done in humility because as Yancey explains, “It accurately reflects the truth… It means, that in the presence of God I gain a glimpse of my true state in the universe, which exposes my smallness, and at the same time it reveals God’s greatness.” Being created in the image of God is one of the many reasons, as children of God; His followers should not be afraid or worry about being completely honest with Him. The Lord sees the heart of the matter and His heart also breaks when His children experience pain, rejection, loss, and every other emotion that attempts to make His children feel insignificant. While it is hard to approach prayer without some form of preconceived notions or preunderstanding, Yancey illuminates the most important thing is to make time for God because what one makes time for is most important to the person. Even if anger is what draws one to God, the main point is God is not being excluded from the individual’s life. Yancey demonstrates, “That God allows, even encourages, such gust of passion, which shows the strength of God’s alliance with us… From the Bible’s prayers, I learn that God wants us to keep it in the alliance, to come in person, even with our complaints.”
After addressing how prayer gets the believer into a right perspective, part two addresses what the point of prayer is and establishes, “To discount prayer, to conclude that it does not matter, means to view Jesus as deluded.” In this section, Yancey sets out to unravel the mystery of prayer by looking at unanswered prayers and explains, “For most of us prayer serves as a resource to help in a time of testing or conflict. For Jesus, it was the battle itself. Once the Gethsemane prayers had aligned Him with the Father’s will, what happened next was merely the means to fulfill it. Prayer mattered that much.” After establishing there is power in prayer, Yancey addresses the difficult questions pertaining to unanswered prayers and whether or not prayers can move God to act. Yancey claims, “I cannot, nor can anyone else promise that prayer will solve all problems and eliminate all suffering. At the same time, I also know that Jesus commanded His followers to pray, certain that it makes a difference in a world full of opposition to God’s will… [However,] God often allows things to play out naturally.” Yancey then compares and contrasts prayer being a wrestling match and prayer being a partnership with God, using the Patriarchs as primary examples.
Part three looks at the language of prayer, its hindrances, and various styles. Yancey says, “Even when prayer seems like a duty, like a homework assignment, we sustain the hope that it could grow into something more.” Given the difficulty of prayer, Yancey attributes this to, “A media-saturated culture [that] conditions us to expect a quick fix to every problem.” As Yancey tackles the language of prayers in the Bible, he demonstrates how the prayers being offered often elevated the needs of others above the one who was praying and demonstrated the Lord’s will being done. Next, he talks about the multiplicity of reasons why people do not pray: they feel unworthy, they are easily distracted, they are too concerned about doing it correctly, but as Yancey reminds the reader, “[Even when we do not know what to pray,] the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26-27).
Part four looks at prayer dilemmas and as Emily Dickinson wrote, “There comes an hour when begging stops, when the long interceding lips perceive their prayer is vain.” The first part of this section appears to be a continuation of the previous chapter on what to do when God is silent and it seems like one’s relationship with God is nothing more than two ships passing in the dark. While silence is definitely a dilemma, Yancey now looks specifically at unanswered prayers and whose fault it is. As Yancey demonstrates, “Unanswered prayer poses an especially serious threat to the faith of trusting children.” When dealing with the inconsistency problem, Yancey provides multiple instances where God chose to act and answer the prayers of some, while not answering the prayers of others. The story of the couple from India who happened to be in separate towers in the World Trade Center on September 11th 2001 was a perfect illustration. They both prayed and somehow both made it down the stairwells before the towers collapsed, which so impressed them that they converted to Christianity and the husband became a full-time evangelist. Along with Yancey, this writer cannot help but think of the other three thousand people who died, many of whom were probably praying for the same safety and rescue. This is just one more case that the Lord’s ways and thoughts are higher than mans. Another interesting point Yancey brings out is, “In answering prayers, God normally relies on human agents and in ministries and answered prayers, I learned that many began with a crisis of faith, and a crisis of prayer.” Yancey then shows how sin and unforgiveness hinders prayers.
Part five investigates the practice of prayer and the necessity of making time to commune with God. Yancey clearly defines prayers ability to lift up one another’s burdens, provide peace, lighten one’s mood, and offer liberation from anxiety. Being faithful in prayer also leads to patience in God’s timing and His plan, which further results in perseverance. This section especially highlights how prayer is able to sustain the follower of Christ and deepen his or her relationship with God. One of the best quotes Yancey uses comes from F. B. Meyer who said, “The greatest tragedy in life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer.” God is love and He wants the best for His children, so when a Christian intercedes on the behalf of another Yancey believes, “In short, prayer allows me to see others as God sees them (and me): as uniquely flawed and uniquely gifted bearers of God’s image. I begin seeing them through Jesus’ eyes, as beloved children whom the Father longs to embrace.” This observation was quite profound.
The story of young Megumi being abducted by North Koreans was heart wrenching, but Yancey brilliantly uses this story to parallel what happened to Joseph, Daniel, Esther, and Paul who were aliens swept into a new and strange culture. Prayer for each of them served as a channel of faith and here, Yancey teaches the importance that prayer, “Becomes a realignment of everything, restoring the truth to the universe, and gaining a glimpse of the world through God’s eyes.” Trusting God to use us however He sees fit is the key principle to be mindful of.
The story of Dovid Din of Jerusalem in The Hasidic Tales was also a great demonstration of God’s willingness to be there even in one’s anger. When he said, “All my life I have been so afraid to express my anger to God that I have always directed my anger at people who are connected with God. But until this moment I did not understand this.” This illustration was profound as Reb Dovid instructed Dovid Din to follow him to the Wailing Wall near the ruins of the Temple. At this holy site, Reb instructed Dovid to express his anger toward God and Dovid, for more than an hour struck the wall of the Kotel with his hands and screamed from his heart. Shortly after, those screams turned to cries, which later turned to sobs, but ultimately became prayers/praise to the Lord. God would much rather His children express anger than shut Him out.
Yancey concludes, “I used to worry about my deficiency of faith. In my prayers, I expect little and seem satisfied with less. Faith feels like a gift that a person either has or lacks, not something that can be developed by exercise, like a muscle. My attitude is changing though, as I begin to understand faith as a form of engagement with God.” When looking at what difference prayer makes, especially when people are facing tragedies and persecution, Yancey states, “We pray because against such forces we have no more powerful way to bring together the two worlds, visible and invisible.” When answering whether prayer has the ability to change God, Yancey contrasts Origen’s view that prayer is in vain because God is changeless, to Calvinistic thought, which places its emphasis on God’s sovereignty shifting the focus of prayer from its effect on God to its effect on the person praying. Yancey then uses Charles Finney’s model to resolve God’s unchanging qualities by illustrating, “God changes course in response to the sinner’s change in course, and does so because of those eternal qualities.” While this book is an invitation to communicate with God the Father who invites His children into an eternal partnership through prayer, it seems Yancey is not afraid to ask the tough questions, but some of his questions are a bit lacking, when it comes to the answers or responses provided. While he undoubtedly answers some of the key questions about prayer, it seems he often lands somewhere in the middle of the two opposing views, leaving the conclusion up to the readers. Some may enjoy this style, but this writer would rather have a clear answer provided with biblical proof.
Yancey calls the book of Psalms a virtual practicum in prayer with 150 psalms, so that when he is feeling inarticulate before God, he turns to this ready-made prayer. This is a great idea, especially since Psalms covers virtually everything from Genesis to Revelation and has prayers for practically every emotion and situation imaginable. Traveling to Israel last year and visiting the Wailing Wall was a profound experience, but to imagine only praying specific prayers from the Torah seemed to put God in a box. I agree with Yancey on using the psalms as a place to go to engage in prayer, but this writer also believes in the importance of allowing the Holy Spirit to intercede through us, just as Christ intercedes on our behalf to the Father.
The story about Karl, the lieutenant colonel from the Air Force really hit home with me. I too had dreams of entering the service, but was in a very similar accident breaking multiple discs in my neck and lower back. It took five surgeries to put me back together again, but my dreams had been shattered; or so I thought. I never blamed God or the individual who hit me, but I could not see the future playing out how I had envisioned it. The accident happened on the very day I received my ministerial credentials, so it was almost as if the enemy was trying to take me out before I could start my ministry. I spent much time in prayer as I was confined to the bed and began to commit whatever my future held to serving the Lord. I am thrilled to say, God has healed me and opened some doors I never thought would be opened and by this time next year, I should be an Army Chaplain. Going through five surgeries and never-ending physical therapy could have easily crushed my spirits and left me in despair, but I used ever encounter I had to tell people all about the awesome things God was doing in my life. I was blessed to have amazing neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons, but even they are amazed at my recovery and see it as a miracle. It is common to pray for things people want, but in part five, Yancey tells the story of how, “C. S. Lewis prayed every night for the people he was most tempted to hate, with Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini heading the list. Lewis did this because he realized Christ died for them as much as for him and that he himself was not so different from those ghastly creatures.” This is powerful and if we truly believe in the power of prayer, we must engage in it continuously, especially for our leaders and those who oppose Christianity and/or the nation of Israel.
Yancey’s approach to prayer clearly establishes even when one might think he or she is in control they are not. This realization may be frightening for some, but for anyone who embraces the intimacy of prayer with the Father will gladly surrender complete control to His perfect will and timing because they know His ways and thoughts are far above their own. This book would be well suited for anyone looking to have a deeper understanding of prayer and the impact it has on the believer’s life. As Henri Nouwen illustrates, “The paradox of prayer is that it asks for a serious effort while it can only be received as a gift. We cannot plan, organize, or manipulate God; but without a careful discipline, we cannot receive Him either.” In the end, when someone does not know what to do, they should pray, and even when they know what to do, they should still pray. Prayer is the believer’s lifeline to God and, “Prayer that is based on relationship and not transaction may be the most freedom-enhancing way of connecting to a God whose vantage point we can never achieve and can hardly imagine.” Just as the Spirit intercedes through the believer, Jesus is seated at the right hand of God interceding on the believer’s behalf when prayers are being lifted up.
Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? By Phillip Yancey, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2006, 359 pp. $16.99 (Paperback).
Phillip Yancey Website, http://philipyancey.com/about (accessed June 27, 2017).
Yancey, Phillip. Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2006.
 Phillip Yancey Website, http://philipyancey.com/books/prayer-does-it-make-any-difference (accessed June 27, 2017).
 Phillip Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2006), 13.
 Ibid., 13
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 68.
 Ibid., 80.
 Ibid., 86.
 Ibid., 87.
 Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference, 158.
 Ibid., 159.
 Ibid., 193.
 Ibid., 216.
 Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference, 221.
 Ibid., 242 & 244.
 Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference, 29.
 Ibid., 68.
 Ibid., 98.
 Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference, 118.
 Ibid., 131.
 Ibid., 134.
 Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference, 311.
 Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference, 55.