I struggle with prayer. I don’t pray regularly or as much as I know I should. I don’t have any excuses for this; it’s the fruit of busyness and laziness and distraction. When I do pray, I sometimes run out of things to say, or my mind wanders. .
If you struggle with prayer like I do, Dr. Donald Whitney has a possible solution to help your prayer life. His upcoming book, Praying the Bible, describes an incredibly simple yet effective method for focusing our prayer using Scripture. This short and practical book lays out a simple method for praying through Scripture:
- Select a passage of Scripture (usually a Psalm) and read it.
- Read the first verse. If a subject for prayer comes to mind, stop and pray. Use the words of the Scripture to help guide your prayer.
- When you’re done with that verse, move on to the next verse.
- Repeat until you run out of time.
It’s really that simple. Dr. Whitney advises that the Psalms are the easiest Scriptures to pray through, and are most easily applicable to this method (though, with some modifications, you can pray through epistles and even some of the narrative portions of Scripture).
Dr. Whitney has been teaching this method of prayer for years as part of his “Personal Spiritual Disciplines” course at Southern Seminary, which is where I first encountered it when I took his course online. This method of praying through a Psalm is simple to do but I have benefited greatly from it. When I actually follow these steps, I don’t have any problem finding things to pray for, and tend to have a rich prayer time. It’s pathetic how little I actually put this into practice, because it really is beneficial.
Dr. Whitney says of this method:
“I have enough confidence in the Word and the Spirit of God to believe that if people pray in this way, in the long run their prayers will be far more Biblical than if they just make up their own prayers. That’s what people usually do: make up their own prayers. What’s the result? We tend to say the same old things about the same old things. And without the Scripture to shape our prayers, we are far more likely to pray in unbiblical ways than if we pray the thoughts that occur to us as we read Scripture.”
I have to agree with this assessment. When I pray through Scripture this way, I find that I am turned outward more, focusing more on the attributes of God and the needs of others than on my own list of petty requests.
I also appreciate that Dr. Whitney avoids the trap of mystical language that is creeping into Evangelical/Baptist thought on prayer. He doesn’t attribute this type of praying to an altered state of consciousness in which we are moved to pray in ways we don’t intend as we get a “word.” He is clear to say that we hear from God through His Word, rather than waiting for some mystical nudge that we attribute to the Spirit.
However, as much as I appreciate the method and approach of this book, I have a few concerns.
First, there are a couple of quotes or stories that could be misinterpreted. Dr. Whitney quotes Joni Eareckson Tada, who says that when we use God’s words (“God’s dialect”), we are “bringing God’s power into our praying.” I have no concerns about Tada’s doctrinal soundness, and I think I know what she means here–praying God’s Word leads us to pray God’s Will, and when we pray God’s Will, He works to bring it to pass for His great glory. However, in a day when Word-Faith heresy has been running rampant in Christianity, this statement can easily be misinterpreted as using God’s words as totems and incantations to get what we want.
Another questionable quote is when Dr. Whitney recounts how a woman was “prompted” to pray for a friend who lived on the other side of the country, only to be contacted by that friend soon after and asked about spiritual matters. While Christians are hesitant to dismiss such stories, they are at best happy providences, not proof of getting a divine “word.” (After all, what about all the times we are prompted to pray and “nothing” happens as a result?)
The bigger concern I have about this book is more about the intended audience. As I said, I first encountered Dr. Whitney’s prayer method through his seminary class, and for seminarians (especially those like me who have a lot of head knowledge but need more passion in prayer sometimes), this method is perfectly appropriate. However, for new believers or those who have been taught/influenced by weak Bible teachers, this could be a bit risky. Why? Because there is a danger of narcissistic eisegesis (or, as Chris Rosebrough calls it, “Narcigesis.”) Eisegesis means to read meaning into the text, instead of pulling the intended meaning out of the text (exegesis). Narcissistic eisegesis means to read oneself into the text, usually in the role of the hero of the story. What results is the terrible preaching of many popular megachurch pastors, in which every Bible story becomes an analogy for you and your challenges. You are David facing your personal “giant.” You are Daniel, working or going to school in your own “lion’s den.” You are Joshua, staring down a Jericho of work success or personal fulfillment.
What does this have to do with Dr. Whitney’s book? Dr. Whitney says in the description of this prayer method that praying the Bible is different than studying the Bible. While Bible study involves mining the meaning and context of the passage in order to properly interpret the text, praying the Bible is not as focused on right interpretation as much as on using the language of the text for inspiration. To his great credit, he does provide several examples of how to pray through a text using proper interpretive approaches. However, if the reader has been trained to see the Bible in this narcissistic way, then even using Scripture in prayer becomes an exercise in pursuing selfish goals. David’s prayers for the protection of Zion and the joy of God’s people will become prayers for personal success and advancement. Psalms that point to the coming Messiah-King will be turned into cries for success over one’s personal enemies. In short, if the reader doesn’t understand what/Whom the Bible is really about, then praying the Bible may not produce the results Dr. Whitney hopes.
Final Analysis: Praying the Bible is really a great little book that can be a very useful tool for Christians who have a good basic understanding of the story of Scripture, and know how to read the text in context. With this knowledge in place, praying the Scriptures becomes a powerful tool in personal holiness. And even new or untrained believers can benefit from this book, as long as there is a more mature believer who can provide some practical guidance on the Scripture interpretation issue.
“Praying the Bible” will be released on July 31st. You can preorder it here.
Please Note: I was provided a complimentary electronic review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. The preceding thoughts are my own.