Approached by God (II) – Prayin’ like a Pagan

So Ahab summoned all the Israelites and gathered the prophets at Mount Carmel. Then Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If Yahweh is God, follow Him. But if Baal, follow him.” But the people didn’t answer him a word.
1 Kings 18:20-21 HCSB

You know the story. Elijah challenges the prophets of the false God Baal to a contest. It’s a contest to prove which God really is the authority in Israel. Is it Baal or Yaweh?

The contestants face only one challenge – to light a fire under a pile of wood on which has been placed slain animal as an offering. Not only is it a pretty easy miracle for a healthy god, it’s in the god’s interest to do it. Burnt sacrifices are what gods are all about. To the pagan mind, the smoke from the burnt offering is the food off which the gods live.

Elijah lets the Baalites go first, they prance around and shout and call upon Baal to Act and light that fire….

…Nothing happens…

they jump higher, pray louder, make more extravagant promises about what they will do for Baal if he just does this one tiny thing…

… Nothing happens…

…except that Elijah starts heckling them

At noon Elijah mocked them. He said, “Shout loudly, for he’s a god! Maybe he’s thinking it over; maybe he has wandered away; or maybe he’s on the road. Perhaps he’s sleeping and will wake up!”
1 Kings 18:27 HCSB

they shout, they pray, they rave, they even cut themselves to show to Baal how serious they are…

…But Nothing Happens.

Here’s a prevocative thought that’s been buzzing round my head for a couple of days now. I wonder if some of our ways of praying, and our thinking about prayer, would be more appropriate for a pagan worshipper of Baal than for a child of Yahweh?

The parallels may not be immediately obvious, I haven’t seem to much ritual self-harm in prayer meetings or Church services (at least none involving sharp implements), but are there other ways in which we pray like the pagans?

Could it be the verbose, stylised prayer language that some of us use for public prayer?
Have you ever made deals with God in your head? Promises to do extravagant things for God if he will hear your prayer and act?
Have you ever been in a mission or ministry planning meeting when someone has suggested that we “need to cover this event with a blanket of prayer”?
Those 24 hour rolling prayer meetings?
Isn’t it easy to get sucked into the thinking which says, ‘We need to pray all night to show God how serious we are’?

These things might all be good and true, but I’ll always be a little suspicious…

… and on the lookout for people bringing knives and spears…

What made Elijah different?

Well, his prayer was very different…

At the time for offering the |evening| sacrifice, Elijah the prophet approached |the altar| and said, “LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today let it be known that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that at Your word I have done all these things. Answer me, LORD! Answer me so that this people will know that You, Yahweh, are God and that You have turned their hearts back.”

Then Yahweh’s fire fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell facedown and said, “Yahweh, He is God! Yahweh, He is God!”
1 Kings 18:36-39 HCSB


because he knew Yahweh his God…

3 thoughts on “Approached by God (II) – Prayin’ like a Pagan

  1. I've often thought that some of our verbose styles of prayer – involving much repitition – are like those referred to in <a href="; rel="nofollow">Matthew 6:7, i.e. like the gentiles (pagans?). People in church, Bible Study, wherever tend to use phrases in prayer that they know by habit but probably don't think about why they use them. Even things like "Lord bless this food to our bodies" when saying grace – I don't think that people often think about what this means when they say it, or even think about why they say it (other than because it's habitual).


  2. I agree, the funny thing is that knowing this, I still find myself using the same formulas, particularly when I pray in public.
    On the other hand, when people try to pray using unconventional language, I often find that they sound pretentious or irreverent. How do you tread the middle ground?


  3. What is irreverent about talking plainly with God? I think it is only a societal norm that "O Lord we beseech thee" is more reverent than "Dear God, please help me". All I'm suggesting is that we pray in plain English (or Norwegian, or Russian, or Chinese, or American – or whatever the language is where you are) and cut out the 'traditional' phrases that creep in to our prayer language – not necessarily all of them, just the ones that no longer mean anything, or have been so overused without thought that they are now unhelpful. Or thing like repeating the address of "Father" every three seconds (which can become really distracting).

    As to how to do it: until it becomes second nature to do this, like anything it requires training, which means that when we are praying publicly we should spend more time preparing and thinking carefully about what we are going to say.

    I still remember one of the most helpful prayers I ever listened to (participated in? well, I said amen to it) in church – I think it was in 1998. I don't remember the content, but the pray-er was one of my good mates who wasn't a particularly good or confident public speaker, not very eloquent – but I think because of this he probably worked at it and prayed very simply, but very well – and I don't think I had ever found it easier to listen to and follow along with a public prayer. So, I guess the message there is simplicity – to pray as simply as we need to, but no simpler.


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