Anytime a Christian has made a relatively-major decision, it seems nearly inevitable that a certain phrase will find its way into the post-decision conversation: “I prayed about it.” And that’s a great thing to do, right? Or… is it?
(And yes, I know you’re probably thinking, “Is this guy seriously attacking prayer?” Well, there is a precedent of God doing it [Isaiah 1:15], so give me a chance to explain.)
The assumption often behind this phrase is an expectation that God reveals the “right” decision at some point along the way. Whatever method He may use is not so much the issue – it comes in various forms. The crucial issue is the untested assumption behind it: God reveals to a person what he should do if he just prays long enough, hard enough, and/or sincerely enough.
People may point to biblical texts about God responding audibly to certain men’s prayers, assuming God will do the same today. But even in biblical times, this was restricted to very few people on very few occasions, and came to or through an apostle or prophet (i.e. 2 Chronicles 20:5-17). Besides, this extent of revelation is not usually what people who “pray about” things are expecting.
So what are they expecting? There is not usually a clear or uniform answer. Sometimes a sign or coincidence, sometimes a peaceful feeling, sometimes a sudden feeling of certainty about a path forward. What is quite evident though, is the “prayed about it” idea often misuses the decision-making process.
Here are some of the common ways this mentality proves detrimental to decision-making:
- Prayer can be used as a check-box. Praying about it fulfills the requirement that would otherwise make it an ungodly decision. The decision may involve a moral choice, but you wouldn’t know it, because once you pray about it you think you are clear.
- Prayer can be used to justify bad decisions to others. Sometimes people use prayer an attempt to add weight to the argument for the decision they are making (or, likely, have already made) when disclosing it to others. Your reasoning may seem shaky, and they may think it is an unwise decision, but you use prayer to support your argument and tip the scales in your favor. In this case, it is also an outworking of the fear of man – because you know others always “pray about” their big decisions, you wouldn’t think about saying you made a decision without “praying about it” too.
- Prayer can give validity to self-isolation. Instead of asking for counsel (especially counsel one knows may contradict his own desires), the easy path is “praying about it.” But that actually betrays the biblical exhortation not to “separate” oneself and thereby seek one’s own destruction (Proverbs 18:1).
- Prayer can ask for worldly desires for sinful reasons. In James 4:3, James pulls no punches: it is possible for people to pray with wrong motives, in order to spend it on their pleasures. I have no doubt this is more common than we would like to think. More than this, these very prayers are likely conducted with the goal of easing a guilty conscience from someone who knows he shouldn’t want those things.
- Prayer can influence a misleading peace of conscience. After praying and feeling better, people often assume the improved feeling is the “peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4:7). We use this to validate a bad decision because “I had a peace about it.” But this misunderstands the “peace” and how it comes on a number of levels:
- It fails to consider “peace” may be from an uninformed or seared conscience, and they really shouldn’t have a peace about it.
- It may be a non-sinful decision (which is why the conscience isn’t alarmed), but it is not the best decision because wisdom has not been exercised by biblical principles and priorities.
- The peace Paul speaks of in Philippians 4 is not a peace of conscience, but rather the peace of God in the midst of temptation to anxiety (Phil 4:6-7). Paul’s point is that this peace comes regardless of the outcome.
And perhaps worst of all…
- Prayer can function as a trump card. It is placed above the reach of any functional biblical authority, using any combination of the above errors to support: ‘Should I divorce? Well, I prayed about it and don’t feel wrong.’ ‘Should I marry a non-Christian? I prayed about it – how dare you challenge me?’
When a person has prayed about it, he immediately becomes the spiritual one. God has confirmed it – who can argue with him?
If it were only these cover-ups that were affected by this mentality, it would be bad enough. But sadly, the practice has become so common that often even the most faithful believers are impacted directly. How so? By the massive amount of unspoken peer pressure to adopt this same practice. Unfortunately, this leads to a burdened conscience with no good way of relief: for how long should they pray? For what resolution should they be looking? They have been handed a burden with no means of removing it.
This, in turn, leads to other problems in seeking to do what is most pleasing to the Lord. People unwittingly think prayer is so important in decision-making, compared to other factors, that they actually shortchange the hard work of searching the Scriptures; researching the situation; getting wise counsel; thinking carefully about the various options; and submissively considering where sinful desires may be negatively influencing the decision. They waste time avoiding a balanced approach because they are so worried about being unspiritual or using their “own strength.” So they neglect God’s appointed means of knowing how to please him.
Beyond this balance, there are some things – in the sense of deciding whether to do them or not – simply do not need to be prayed about. This doesn’t mean you don’t need prayer for grace or strength to overcome the difficultly involved in acting upon a decision, but some things are simply right or wrong according to what the Bible has clearly taught you, and you do not need any extra help in making the decision.
How do we resolve this? Here are three solutions:
1) Understand the right place prayer does occupy in making decisions.
There are right ways to pray about decisions. Some of these include: committing your desires to the Lord (Proverbs 16:3, Psalm 37:5); asking for God to make something happen even when you don’t know whether he will (Romans 1:9-10); asking for wisdom in a trial (James 1:5-8); asking for strengthening grace from Christ in a time of temptation (Hebrews 4:16); confessing your ungodly and sinful desires that are wrongly influencing your decisions (James 4:8-10).
2) Take advantage of the many resources God has given for decision-making.
Believers have everything for “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Scripture is sufficient to equip for “every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If God has not revealed it in his word, he does not expect us to know or do it (Deuteronomy 29:29; Micah 6:6-8). God gives wise counselors that help make decisions successful (Proverbs 24:6).
3) Stop looking for God to respond directly to your decision-making requests.
This has not been God’s way of operating except on specific instances during the time when Scripture was being revealed. It is great to pray God will help you understand and find the pertinent passages, and ask for him to bring wise counselors into our life. But do not expect him to inspire the 67th book of the Bible in order to answer your prayers. All of our decisions where God doesn’t tell us specifics beyond the Bible are opportunities to trust him and his goodness, and we should thank him (in prayer!) for these.
Prayer, when used rightly, is an important part of our decision-making. But don’t forget the other factors, don’t let prayer lead to foolishness, and don’t use prayer to justify what the Bible doesn’t permit.