‘Prayer Works’ & 2 Other Things Christians Should Stop Saying Now

One reason people stay away from Christianity is not because they don’t know any Christians.

It’s often because they do.

Our actions and our words as a follower of Jesus have the power to attract or repel people from Christianity.

The number of people who never go to church or follow Jesus keeps growing. And their thinking keeps changing too (I’ve outlined 15 characteristics of unchurched people here).

So what can we do about it?

Well, in addition to modeling humility, grace, truth, love and so many other things that describe the earliest Christ followers, we Christians can watch our words.

This post was inspired by a great piece by Scott Dannemiller recently profiled in the Huffington Post in which Dannemiller urged Christians to stop saying “feeling blessed” whenever something good came their way. He makes a thoughtful, insightful argument around that.

I think there are three other things Christians should really stop saying.



1. Prayer works

Should we really stop saying that prayer works?

Well, yes and no.

Most people who say prayer works these days really mean God did what I wanted him to do. As if prayer was a button to be pushed to release exactly what they wanted from the vending machine.

Prayer is not a button to be pushed; it’s a relationship to be pursued.

Prayer does ‘work’, but it works very differently than we’d like. It still ‘works’:

When we can’t trace out any direct result from our prayer.

When the opposite of what we prayed for happens.

In those moments when we feel very distant from God.

When we bang down the door of heaven for years and are not sure anything is going on up there at all.

There are scores of people inside and outside the church whose spirits are crushed because they prayed (fervently) and:

They didn’t get the job

Their mom died of cancer

Their child was born without a heartbeat

They ended up in a car crash that left them permanently disabled

Prayer doesn’t ‘work’ because I got what I wanted and they didn’t.

The parade of saints across the centuries would have been shocked to see prayer reduced to God-doing-what-I-asked-him-to-do-when-I-asked-him-to-do-it.  God is not a puppy to be trained or a chef in the kitchen who prepares food to suit our every whim. He is sovereign.

As Richard Foster says:

For those explorers in the frontiers of faith, prayer was no little habit tacked on to the periphery of their lives; it was their lives. It was the most serious work of their most productive years. Prayer – nothing draws us closer to the heart of God.

Do things happen supernaturally when we pray? Well yes they do. But often in ways we cannot understand or even trace out.

I think Christians can take consolation in the fact that when we pray, we often don’t know what to pray for or even how to pray, yet the scriptures tell us the Holy Spirit will translate the prayer into something better than we could phrase in the moment.

So pour your heart out to God. Pray about the things the scripture says are close to God’s heart. And when something ‘goes your way’, be grateful and offer it back to the God who gave it to you. And when things don’t go your way, understand that God is still very much in control and very much loves you. Just because God is silent doesn’t mean God is absent.


2. God told me to…

Often you hear people (and pastors) say things that start with “God told me to…”

The longer I follow Jesus, the more hesitant I am to say God told me to anything specific. Maybe that’s an issue I need to work on, but it springs from my observation that I’ve seen this misused far more than I’ve seen it used well or authentically.

In fact, I’ve often noticed that the more outrageous the claim, the more likely someone is to say “God told me to…”

When I hear someone claim God told them to do something, I feel like saying:

God told you to do that? Really? God himself spoke directly to you and told you to specifically build that building for which you have zero money?  Or leave that church that you were in deep conflict with without resolving things? Or buy that house that’s way out of your price range? Wow!

Are you sure it wasn’t the pizza? Or the voice in your head that often tells you to do the things you simply feel like doing?

For the record, I believe there are times when God does speak to people today.  But let’s be realistic. What made me put this phrase on the list is the number of times I have heard the phrase used to describe a decision that is:

selfishly motivated (come on, admit it…you’re justifying your impulses)

contrary to scripture (the scriptures pretty clearly suggests that what you’re doing is sinful…or at least isn’t wise)

designed to shut down debate (does anyone really think they can win a “God told me” debate?)

I’m not saying God never tell us anything directly, but I am suggesting it happens far less than most of us claim.

So what’s a better course?

Say something like “based on what I know from scripture, I believe this is the best/boldest/wisest course of action.”

That makes sense. And then you can have an intelligent discussion. And you don’t pull the God card to justify something about which Christians and others can have a legitimate discussion.

Or, if you’re just trying to shut down debate, just be honest. I wanted to do it so I did it.  There. Now you said it and everyone will feel better.

If you’re dead honest, you might even realize you made a crazy decision.


3. I could totally feel God’s presence

You’ve heard this before. We live in an emotional age and we’ve arrived at a place where many of us feel like we’ve become mini-authorities on when God is present and when God is not.

But analyze that.

The truth is we tend to feel God’s presence more:

When the band played our favourite song

When the band played five of our favourite songs in a row

When the room was packed

When the decision went our way

When we felt happy during our quiet time

Is God only present when we feel him?

Or better yet, is God’s presence synonymous with our ability to detect it?

Well, of course not.

So why do we insist on speaking like it is?

Nowhere did God promise that the Holy Spirit is a feeling or an emotion.

Jesus did explain to us that the Spirit is a Person and moves freely. The Holy Spirit is bigger than our emotions and not subject to our editorial commentary about whether he is present or not.

I have had moments when I believe I felt the presence of God palpably.

But God is just as present

on our worst days as he is on our best days

when we are uncomfortable as when we are comfortable

when we are hurting as when we are healing

And sometimes…the room was just full, and the band was just really good.

We need to learn to trust in God’s presence especially in those moments we suspect he’s absent.

What If?

What if Christians started having more intelligent, less consumer-oriented, deeper conversations with people?

What if our relationship with Christ was grounded more deeply in God’s character and less in the constantly shifting circumstances we see around us?

I’m thinking the dialogue inside out and outside the church would be so much healthier for it.

What do you think?

Any other things Christians should stop saying now? Leave a comment!

  • Anonymous

    I agree but I was 12 years old when my stepdad found out that he had cancer. I grew up in the church and I prayed without ceasing and asked and thought I’d receive and asked in accordance with what I thought was God’s will to heal my stepdad. I mean why wouldn’t a godly man that was showing me and my brothers what a healthy relationship/marriage was and a man that loved us like we only wished our father would love us. A man involved in the church and striving to do good. Why wouldn’t that be His will? But God didn’t heal him. It wasn’t God’s will to heal him. My stepdad died 2 year later when I turned 14. I thought I prayed enough. I thought I had enough faith. What happened? What are your thoughts? I haven’t lost faith now at 25 years of age but a part of me is still upset with God for taking my stepdad away from me. I just don’t understand how it couldn’t of been His will and how healing my stepdad would’ve hurt things. I mean as soon as he died, the rest of our world turned upside down. We went from being financially stable and serving others to being poor and haven’t been able to get our heads above water yet. I want to get past this but its like a piece of me died with my stepdad. I ask this because I am sure those who have gone through similar situations have the same questions.

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  • Tim Stowe

    Training works to make that person THEIR best, not necessarily THE best.

  • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

    You are a very kind person. Thank you Eric.

  • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

    Preaching on that in a few weeks. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree, the church is filled with hypocrisy. Going to address that head on in our current series.

  • Me

    My issue is I am a Christian but can’t get into how everyone is so fake in this religion. I was Catholic but got married and I always here oh the wife should submit to your husband lol. What sometimes happens is that is a reason for control. Also you should read your bible go to church tyth act this way but most Christians I have met are the first to judge talk bad to you and gossip! Wow I’m telling you I am a good person and if this is the better way supposedly then you can keep it, I don’t want to be a Hippocrates I will just stay a sinner

  • Eric Nance Woehler

    You’re a good writer.

  • Josh

    Another really helpful and thought provoking post!

  • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

    Thanks Steve. Really appreciate this (and you).

  • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

    Thanks Patrick! (Just found your comment today. :)

  • Steve Dobson

    Eli…i think you missed the point of the article…The amount of non believers and/or the amount of people that find it hard to believe in some sort of deity is growing rapidly, and the reason for this is that “Christians” ( some anyways ) talk about their god in such a way it turns people off (I believe you recognize this)….The Point of the article was to show a different way of navigating a conversation about God. I am an atheist myself and have been for a long time, but parts of me will defend People helping people and for some reason Carey does it very well with out offending, or being pushy! I would suspect your reading this article for a reason and maybe exploring Connexus would help. As an atheist I can tell you I get much more out of it then I would have ever thought.

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  • patrick

    Just found your sight today…great insights.

  • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

    Great question. I think for sure there are moments when I have ‘felt’ God’s presence. I had one yesterday for that matter during an intense prayer time with a friend.

    But sometimes the room is just full and it made us feel good. And more importantly, the Bible assures us of God’s presence in those moments when we feel nothing good. So that’s kind of the point. Hope that helps.

  • Ken Noble

    Points 1 and 2 are spot on. Point 3 is a bit confusing though. Do you suggest that under no circumstance should we acknowledge feeling God’s presence at all because He’s still with us even when we don’t feel Him? Could you clarify please? I’m thinking, yes! feelings can be shallow, but feelings are still valid to knowing God is present. After all, he gave us feelings and emotions. For instance, without the feeling of remorse, there can be no ‘sinners prayer for forgiveness of sins’. No?

    Christians can as well be slow to saying: “I don’t care what you are going through. All I know is that your problem is nothing before God”.

    I believe people don’t care how much we know, until they know how much we care. God bless!

  • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

    Eli…I’m sorry you feel this way. I don’t believe in magic. I believe in Jesus. And I do believe there are many who do want to know God. I have worked with many of them over the years. It’s never time wasted.