What’s in a Word?: Why I don’t have ‘prayer tools’

Occasionally I post these ‘What’s in a word?’ posts because I am convinced that how we talk  is important, and the way we name things and speak of them effects what we see.  Sometimes I think certain metaphors fall short of the truth and end up communicating something damaging. This is how I feel about the language of tools.

I have heard people talk about prayer tools, relational tools, pastoral care tools, missional tools, evangelistic tools, and discipleship tools. In these contexts ‘tool’ is shorthand for strategies, set forms, techniques or patterns of relating. However, by employing the language of tools, we end up saying what we ought not say.  We employ a metaphor and the metaphor reshapes our understanding.

Years ago I attended a church that had a regular healing service. It became a major outreach activity at our church– people would bring family members or co-workers for prayer and through that ministry people experienced God’s healing.  But something didn’t sit quite right with me about it.  The leader of the service had several ways of praying that he encouraged the intercessory prayer teams to pray, different prayer strategies, “Tools in your  prayer toolbox,” he called them. The idea was that by praying in different ways, you might hit the ‘healing sweet spot’ or build the faith of the person enough that God could really do something in their life (God sometimes obliged).  Prayer, in these meetings ceased to be a conversation where we presented our requests before God, but became a technique which would produce a desired result.

This is the problem with the language of tools. What is a tool? In the traditional sense, a tool was something you hold in your hands and  manipulate to complete a particular task efficiently. In our highly technological age, ‘tools’ are what you use to change part of a document or image, or  where set your preferences for surfing the web. In either case, tool is not a relational term (even ‘relational tools) but when used of prayer, relationships, conversations, it reduces it to a formula: if you apply x to y with enough torque,  you get desired result z  or x+y(t)=z.  In Technopoly, Neil Postman characterized our society as being so enamored with the tools we’ve made, that our tools have started to remake us. Shouldn’t we cultivate a sensitivity to the way ‘tool metaphors reshape the way we relate to God or one another?

Strategies and modes of prayer should not be called tools but ways of relating. When we use our ‘prayer tools’ we relate to God in an I-It relationship rather than I-Thou (to use Martin Buber’s typology).  It isn’t that technological metaphors can never be used for aspects of the Christian life, or our relationship with God and others, but it should never be our primary metaphor for life with the Divine. The scriptural metaphors that speak most meaningfully about pray are organic (think Psalm 1 or John 15) or relational (John 10 Shepherd and sheep, Luke 15-the Prodigal Father).  We are living beings and created for relationship and we don’t learn to relate better by depersonalizing prayer and relationships. How you talk about God matters and how you talk about talking to God matters!

Does this mean that we shouldn’t strive to pray effectively or pray strategically? Well yes and no. Sure it matters how you pray for something and prayer methods (i.e. ACTS, prayer books, etc) can be helpful. Certainly I know that if I ask my wife for something the wrong way, I’m never going to get it. But the heart of prayer (and all relating) is not technique but intimacy.  Tools are only effective when appropriately wielded and can only take you so far; prayer is more about faithfulness, trust, worship, speaking honestly without shame and placing your whole person in God’s care.  I don’t know of a tool or technique that gives you that sort of intimacy with God, but I know that God is always there to meet those who keep coming to meet him.