When we pray for discernment, what do we expect to happen?

September 8, 2016

In Roger Olson’s most recent blog post, “Evangelical Christian Thoughts about ‘Mindfulness,’” Dr. Olson asserts that genuine Christian prayer must include talking to God. From his perspective, if we’re not talking, we may be meditating, but we’re not praying.

Is he right?

If so, doesn’t this conflict with how we often talk about prayer? In my job as pastor, for example, I often ask laypeople to consider serving in lay leadership positions and on committees. Usually, they respond by saying something like, “Let me pray about it and get back to you.” I know I’ve responded this way when others ask me to make important decisions.

But what are we really saying when we say we’ll “pray” about a decision?

I suspect few of us imagine that God will tell us in an audible voice whether we should do something or not. So are we waiting to feel an intuition, a hunch, a warm feeling in the pit of our stomachs? And if so, am I right to be suspicious of this kind of “prayer”?

C.S. Lewis certainly would have been. In The Screwtape Letters, the senior tempter Screwtape urges his young apprentice to get his human patient to focus on his feelings when he prays. (Please note that when Lewis uses “Enemy”—writing from the perspective of Screwtape, a demon and senior tempter—he’s referring to our heavenly Father.)

Whenever they are attending to Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the actions of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.[†]

These words convict me. I often judge the success of my prayers based on how I feel while praying, or shortly thereafter. So when I pray for discernment, how much of what I “discern” will depend less on the Holy Spirit and more on whether I’m “well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment”?

Once, while talking to a candidate for ministry, I told him he should seriously consider going to a particular seminary. He said, “I’ve prayed about it, and I just don’t feel that the Lord is leading me to go there.” Frankly, I thought he was mistaken. And I wanted to say to him, “Yes, but how do you know that my telling you this isn’t a part of the Lord’s guidance? Maybe the Lord is using me to get you to consider going to this seminary.”

On what basis did this person discern that he shouldn’t go to this seminary if not his own feelings? Is that O.K.?

What are your thoughts?

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 195.

One Response to “When we pray for discernment, what do we expect to happen?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    An interesting question. If we look at Moses and some of the prophets, we see God “talking” and not just “listening.” And the Spirit said, “Separate unto me Barnabas and Saul,” in response to intense prayer. Paul recounts episodes of God speaking to him. But in the “Model Prayer,” Jesus does not say anything about “asking for guidance” or “listening” to God. However, I do think that I have come to conclude that it was “God’s will” that I do or don’t do something based on “feeling” in a couple of instances or so. Yet, it also may be that the action was the most “logical” choice so that the “feeling” was simply “coincidental.” So, I share your leeriness about seeking “feelings” as “guidance” or an “answer to prayer,” but I am not sure this is invalid in itself, as opposed to simply being a matter of easy and frequent abuse or error. (I think any such feelings should be “double-checked” by other indicia of guidance if possible.)


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