When we consistently use passive, impersonal phrases — like “I got saved” or “prayer works” — to describe God’s interactions in our lives, we start to forget that the actor is in fact Yahweh God and not some generic, impersonal force.
Have you ever heard someone say “prayer works” or seen the bumper stickers that say “try prayer, it works”? Every time I hear someone say that, it makes me cringe. I certainly don’t have a problem with people praying — in fact, I believe it to be a tragedy that the church prays so little. My problem, as petty as it may seem, is with the actual wording of the phrase. Prayer doesn’t “work.” God works. Saying that prayer works is like saying that calling 911 gets intruders out of your home. The police get intruders out of your home. Calling 911 is just a good way to get the police to come to your house.
Prayer doesn’t “work.” God works.
So a better bumper sticker might read, to borrow a line from the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, “Ask Dad, He Knows.”
This is more than just wording. When we use these phrases — and only these phrases — over and over again, it does two things. First, it confuses children and non-Christians as to what we really believe. When someone who is not a Christian has a crisis, they may turn to prayer on the advice of a Christian friend. And their experience may likely be, “I prayed and it didn’t work; God must not exist.” To which I would respond, “Or maybe you just don’t have a relationship with the Father yet.” If I were to ask the president of the United States to take a day off work and spend the entire day with me, he would refuse. But it would be absurd for me to conclude that this means he would refuse his wife as well if she were to ask him the same favor. I don’t have a relationship with the president; she does. In the same way, non-Christians should not expect for their prayers to be answered in the same way as believers’ prayers, because they are not His children (John 1:12). Although there is certainly a place for prayer from non-believers, and God certainly has and does answer prayers from anyone as he chooses, we should not confuse the world by telling them that “prayer works” as if prayer-answers were as guaranteed as taking aspirin for a headache.
Second, it confuses us as to what we really believe. When we consistently use passive, impersonal phrases — like “I got saved” or “prayer works” — to describe God’s interactions in our lives, we start to forget that the actor is in fact Yahweh God and not some generic, impersonal force. What do we do when prayer doesn’t seem to work? Do we assume that our prayer tank must need to be refilled? It’s not magic; but so often we treat it as is it were. And yet, the awesome truth is that prayer as a conversation with God is indescribably greater than prayer as magic, in the same way that the love between a father and his child is greater than the gravitational pull between the Earth and the Moon. Magic implies impersonal force. Conversation implies relationship.
we start to forget that the actor is in fact Yahweh God and not some generic, impersonal force
The same problem applies to saying “I got saved.” Don’t believe me? Start telling people how old you were “when Jesus saved” you, e.g. “I was 9 years old when Jesus saved me.” If you’re not accustomed to using that phrase, it will probably feel awkward and uncomfortable to you; I know it does for me. That’s a problem. How did you “get saved?” Did you just work really hard? Did you step in a puddle of magic Saving Potion on your way to lunch one day? If you are saved, it is because Jesus saved you. We would do well to constantly remind ourselves of that, and to make it clear to others.
If you are saved, it’s because Jesus saved you.
The world offers an infinite number of false saviors: success, family, wealth, moral character, self-actualization, retirement, respect, relationships, appearance, fame, etc, etc. “I got saved” suggests (rightly) to the world that they can be saved too; but it doesn’t give the slightest clue as to how that happens. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through him. Don’t ever forget it, and don’t let them miss it.
The Next Step
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” Proverbs 18:21.
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Ephesians 4:29.
I’m not saying that the phrases “prayer works” or “I got saved” fall under the category of “corrupting talk.” But if your words confuse the lost about God’s active role in the world, and His power to save them, then they could hardly be said to be “good for building up” or to “give grace to those who hear.”
Think about what you’re telling people with your words.
Sometimes the Devil truly is in the details.