In part 2 of this review, we went over Foster’s view of the spiritual discipline of meditation, a.k.a. contemplative prayer. In this part, we’ll look over chapter 3. Though simply titled “The Discipline of Prayer,” this chapter of Celebration of Discipline intentionally and openly omits other forms such as “centering prayer” in order to specifically address intercessory prayer.
As much as I hate to appear to be poisoning the well, and that I’d rather just save the bombshell for the end, it might be best to just put this up front: Foster’s view of intercessory prayer is grounded upon open theism.
Many people who emphasize acquiescence and resignation to the way things are as “the will of God” are actually closer to Epictetus than to Christ. Moses prayed boldly because he believed his prayers could change things, even God’s mind. In fact, the Bible stresses so forcefully the openness of our universe that, in an anthropomorphism hard for modern ears, it speaks of God constantly changing his mind in accord with his unchanging love (see Exod. 32:14; Jon. 3:10).
This comes as a genuine liberation to many of us, but it also sets tremendous responsibility before us. We are working with God to determine the future! Certain things will happen in history if we pray rightly. We are to change the world by prayer. What more motivation do we need to learn this loftiest human exercise?
Exodus 32:14 speaks of God relenting from bringing disaster upon the Israelites for crafting and worshipping the golden calf. Jonah 3:10 speaks of God’s relenting from bringing disaster upon the Ninevites, who genuinely repented without receiving any promise of God’s relenting. Neither of these cases should be taken as proof against God’s immutability or as the human ability to change God’s decrees. Indeed, the Hebrew term naham can be taken as “repent” in the human sense of changing one’s mind, but this should not be taken to be of the very same nature with God’s naham.
“Repenting” describes the process of changing one’s mind. It refers to the people of Israel in Exod. 13:17. More commonly, this sense is applied to Yahweh, though not with literal force. Rather, references to God “changing his mind” are to be understood anthropomorphically, since God in reality never “changes his mind” as do human beings. Such a process, when predicated of the divine being, refers to God’s perceived change of direction, thinking, or course of action (i.e., from a human perspective). The actual mechanism of God’s “mind” in this context is, humanly speaking, impossible to describe. Such divine “changes of mind” occur in the context of him withholding judgment on his people (cf. Exod. 32:12ff.; 2 Sam. 24:16; Amos 7:3ff.). Yahweh also refuses “to change his mind” (cf. Ps. 110:4; Jer. 4:28; Ezek. 24:24; Zech. 8:14) and promises to “change his mind” with respect to punishing any nation that turns from its wickedness (cf. Jer. 18:8; Jonah 3:9ff.; 4:2).
Stephen D. Renn, ed.”Repent.” Expository Dictionary Of Bible Words. Accordance ed. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2005.
Built upon the foundation of open theism, the rest of Foster’s discourse on intercessory prayer is an over-elevation of man and a downgrading of the true divine.
Learning Prayer by Experimentation
In Luke 11:1, one of Jesus’ disciples asks Him how to pray. Jesus responds in Luke’s account with a shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer. He then goes into a short parable discourse on God’s graciousness when we pray.
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” ~Luke 11.13 ESV
Citing Luke 11:1, Foster writes:
It was liberating to me to understand that prayer involved a learning process. I was set free to question, to experiment, even to fail, for I knew I as learning. For years I had prayed for many things and with great intensity, but only with marginal success.
As with many of Foster’s uses of Scripture, it is puzzling how one can read Luke 11:1 and thus conclude that prayer is a learning process by which we are “free to question, to experiment, even to fail.” While it is certainly reasonable in the Christian life to struggle with our sin, struggle with finding the necessary energy and time to do the daily disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer — perhaps “experimenting” with different practical strategies to manage our time and energy wisely, Scripture prescribes how we should pray.
Foster negatively addresses saying “If it be thy will” in prayer, noting that Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets never concluded a prayer this way. Rather, the apostles and prophets “were so immersed in the milieu of the Holy Spirit that when they encountered a specific situation, they knew what should be done. Their praying was so positive that it often took the form of a direct, authoritative command: ‘Walk,’ ‘Be well,’ ‘Stand up.'” This obviously presents a category error. Foster then concedes that “If it be thy will” is appropriate in certain circumstances as presented in Luke 22:42.
Lest there be obscurity as to what Foster means by “to experiment,” Foster later writes in this chapter:
To understand that the work of prayer involves a learning process saves us from arrogantly dismissing it as false or unreal. If we turn on our television set and it does not work, we do not declare that there are no such things as electronic frequencies in the air or on the cable. We assume something is wrong, something we can find and correct. We check the plug, switch, circuitry until we discover what is blocking the flow of this mysterious energy that transmits pictures. We know the problem has been found and fixed by seeing whether or not the TV works. It is the same with prayer. We can determine if we are praying correctly if the requests come to pass. If not, we look for the “block”; perhaps we are praying wrongly, perhaps something within us needs changing, perhaps there are new principles of prayer to be learned, perhaps patience and persistence are needed. We listen, make the necessary adjustments, and try again. We can know that our prayers are being answered as surely as we can know that the television set is working.
It would appear that open theism leads to a view of prayer whereby humans experiment with the best possible way to get a response from God. Some might call this “manipulation,” but Foster attempts to deflect this criticism soon thereafter.
A Child’s Imagination
Foster clarifies part-way through this section of the chapter, “We are not trying to conjure up something in our imagination that is not so. Nor are we trying to manipulate God and tell him what to do. Quite the opposite. We are asking God to tell us what to do.” What does this mechanism look like?
Foster’s primary illustration is the imagination of children. “As with meditation, the imagination is a powerful tool in the work of prayer. We may be reticent to pray with the imagination, feeling that is is slightly beneath us. Children have no such reticence.” Foster goes on to quote St. Teresa of Ávila — who “contrived to picture Christ within me” — and the character Joan of Arc — who “insists that she hears voices that come from God” — from George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan.
Several other illustrations highlight this motif. One involves Foster’s leading a four-year-old boy in praying for his ill baby sister. Foster tells the boy, “Since we know that Jesus is always with us, let’s imagine that he is sitting over in the chair across from us. He is waiting patiently for us to center our attention on him. When we see him, we start thinking more about his love than how sick Julie is. He smiles, gets up, and comes over to us. Then, let’s both put our hands on Julie, and when we do, Jesus will put his hands on top of ours. We’ll watch the light from Jesus flow into your little sister and make her well. Let’s watch the healing power of Christ fight with bad germs until they are all gone. Okay?”
A later portion advocates doing a similar laying-on of hands upon one’s own children: “Ask Christ to flow through your hands healing every emotional trauma and hurt feeling your child experienced that day. Fill him or her with the peace and joy of the Lord.”
So How Do We “Tune Our Televisions”?
Let’s end this on a positive note. What does scripture teach about our prayers being effectual? Martin Manser’s excellent Dictionary of Bible Themes lists 39 passages of Scripture concerning advice for effective prayer! To exposit these well would require a few more articles, but I’ll leave you these to chew on. I certainly need to do some of that chewing myself.
8617 – prayer, advice for effective
Scripture provides guidance concerning what attitudes and actions are appropriate for effective prayer. It also identifies a number of motives which are likely to lead to prayers being unanswered.
• Hindrances to prayer
Sin Isa 59:2 See also Ps 66:18; Jer 14:10–12; La 3:42–44; Mic 3:4
Disobedience Zec 7:13 See also Dt 1:43–45; Pr 1:28–31
Selfishness Jas 4:3
Injustice Isa 1:15–17 See also Pr 21:13; Isa 58:1–7
Lack of faith Jas 1:6–7
• Qualities that lead to effective prayer
Humility Lk 18:9–14 See also 2Sa 7:18; 2Ch 7:14; Ps 51:16–17; Isa 57:15; Mt 8:8 pp Lk 7:6
Obedience 1Jn 3:21–22 See also 1Sa 15:22; Jer 7:22–23
Righteousness Pr 15:29 See also 1Ki 3:11–12; Ps 34:15
Single-mindedness Jer 29:13 See also Dt 4:29; 1Ch 28:9
Faith Mt 21:21–22 pp Mk 11:22–24 See also Mt 7:7–11 pp Lk 11:9–13; Mt 8:5–13 pp Lk 7:1–10; Mt 15:21–28 pp Mk 7:24–30; Jn 14:12–14Manser, Martin H., and Alastair McGrath, eds. “8617 – Prayer, Advice for Effective.” Bible Themes Dictionary. Accordance ed. Altamonte Springs, Flor.: OakTree Software, 2012.