Evangelical Questions: Why Don’t You Pray to Jesus?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about Prayer. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Today’s verse comes from Luke 11:1-2:
“And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples. And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name….”
If you’ve ever visited an Evangelical church for a worship service you’ve probably noticed a lot of differences from how we conduct worship in our church. A couple videos back I talked about this at length and if you want a more thorough discussion on that take a look at the episode about honoring the Sabbath. And one of the things you may have noticed is that they address prayers directly to Jesus, while we do not.
…And here’s a bit of an aside…All of the issues I’m discussing are addressed in depth on the FAIR Latter-day Saints website. And many other issues this series won’t touch. Almost every video in the comment section (“Hi people who leave comments!! Love you!”) someone will ask about addressing some other aspect of the same topic, but sometimes it’s just far beyond the scale of what I’m trying to do here. But FAIR has a massive collection of articles and research that explores every nook and cranny of just about every issue you can think of. One of my hopes for this series is actually that something you hear makes you curious about the topic and you set out to learn more. And the FAIR website is just a treasure trove of information for you to dive into. Okay, back on topic…
So before we talk about why Latter-day Saints pray differently, we need to work to understand why Evangelicals are praying directly to Jesus and what it means to them to do so.
First we should say that Evangelicals also pray to the Father. And some also pray directly to the Holy Spirit. That’s not off limits to them and you will hear plenty of this in their services or private prayer. But they have special affinity for praying to Jesus that’s a bit hard for us Latter-day Saints to understand.
Evangelicals would start with the Bible and say that we have examples from the New Testament of people praying to Jesus and it seems to work out for them. There are 3 main examples of this plus one other, and we’ll quickly look at all of them.
The three examples are Stephen, Saul, and Ananias – their stories are found in Acts chapters 7-9. The other instance is in Revelation 22:20, the second to last verse of the Bible. There are some other examples that people quibble about, but these are the ones where there is agreement that these are prayers directed toward Jesus.
So first let’s look at Stephen’s example and try to see how Evangelicals see it. In Acts 6 we see that Stephen is a man full of the Spirit and working to spread the Gospel. The ruling council called the Sanhedrian – they’re a ruling council for Jews during this era – if you remember Jews are under Roman occupation so the rule of Rome is still enforced, the Sanhedrian is a ruling body or court for religious matters the Roman government didn’t concern itself with. The members of the Sannhedrian are upset with Stephen, they conspire to make false charges against him and haul him into court. The charge is that he has spoken blasphemous words against Moses and against God. Stephen is asked if the charges are true and he gives a passionate speech explaining how Moses points directly to Jesus. The Sanhedrian is furious – they “gnashed their teeth at him” – and then they drag him outside the city limits and start stoning him. Stephen looks up to Heaven, sees Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in a vision, and prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.”
Stephen’s prayer is very short and directed at Jesus, despite the fact that Heavenly Father is there too. Evangelicals take this to reinforce the idea that Jesus is the mediator between God and man. They’re not taking this passage to say, “You shouldn’t pray to Heavenly Father,” but they do take it to reinforce the idea that no longer did people need to consult a priest or make an animal sacrifice to approach God. Praying in Jesus’ name is now the key to communication with God. For them, “praying in Jesus’ name includes praying directly to him.” They see Stephen taking this option – even though God the Father was right there too.
Bruce R. McConkie addresses this in his Doctrinal New Testament Commentary by basically saying the prayer was consistent with what Stephen had just preached, and was being stoned for – calling Jesus God. Jesus, showing his approval for Stephen’s actions, reveals himself to Stephen as he is dying, and Stephen addresses him directly because that’s how he got in this spot in the first place.
We’ll look at the example of Saul, but Evangelicals basically make the same argument here. In Acts 9 Saul (who becomes Paul) is traveling around persecuting Christians for many of the same reasons the Sanhedrian was persecuting Stephen. He and his companions are walking on the road to Damascus. Saul sees a great light and hears a voice asking, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” Saul answers back directly to the voice, “Who are you?” and the voice tells him that it is Jesus speaking and then gives him some further directions. Paul’s “who are you” is a kind of prayer directed at Jesus. Evangelicals would say that this is an example of praying to Jesus when things worked out.
Is it? Technically, yes. Paul speaks to Jesus, speaking to the divine is prayer, so Paul prayed to Jesus. And it worked out for him.
But the experience does seem like an outlier. It’s not a normal occurrence to be traveling down the road, blinded by a light, and have Jesus speak directly. And I suppose if you have this experience, answering directly is the right thing to do. But these are not the normal circumstances of how most of us are going to pray our entire lives.
The final example Evangelicals would cite is Ananias. He’s a disciple living in Damascus, where Saul is headed. Now, Saul had been blinded by his encounter with Jesus on the road and Ananias is who gets called on to restore Saul’s sight. Ananias has a vision of Jesus asking him to go to a certain house where Saul will be to restore his sight. Ananias’ first response is, “Yes, Lord.” And I think we Latter-day Saints would agree that if Jesus appears to you and aks you to do something, the correct response is, “Yes, Lord.”
But none of these examples – Stephen, Saul, or Ananias – are typical. They happen very soon after the resurrection of Jesus, they all happen within a short time of each other (Acts 7-9), they all involve Jesus appearing to someone, speaking to them, and the person speaks back. Evangelicals see this as a prototype of prayer, while we would probably see it as an understandable exception.
And there is one other example that helps explain why Evangelicals see praying directly to Jesus as a good thing. Revelation 22 is the last chapter of the Bible. It’s not the last chapter that was written – that’s probably 2 Peter, though there’s plenty of debate – but it is the last chapter of how the New Testament is arranged, and this verse is one of the final verses we read, so it has some weight.
The verse goes like this, “He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” And, ‘he who testifies to these things,’ is Jesus himself, and the phrase “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus,” is seen as a prayer in agreement that he does so.
And that phrase, “Come, Lord Jesus,” has a history. It is considered the second oldest formulation of prayer, second only to the Lord’s prayer. Part of how we know this is that Paul quotes it in 1 Cor. 16:22 – but he quotes the Aramaic version, Maranatha. The people living in Corinth are Greek speakers. So for Paul to assume they would know an Aramaic phrase suggests that it was a well known prayer. The phrase also appears in another book from that era called the Didache, which is kind of like an early “church handbook” and teaches about how the church should be run in practical terms. The phrase, “Come Lord Jesus” or Maranatha is suggested as a way to end a prayer, much like we would say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” Early Christians could say, “Come, Lord Jesus. Amen,” and they meant the same thing. And the phrase, “Come, Lord Jesus,” goes on to have an important place in Christian worship for many centuries.
Evangelicals aren’t usually super interested in ancient church history though. And they don’t understand the history and development of how that phrase has been used. Remember the entire Evangelical movement is about 70 years old, so they don’t care much about history before that except to jump way back into time to the days of the New Testament. And when they see “Come, Lord Jesus” in the New Testament they take it to be a prayer toward Jesus. But they miss the fact that the phrase was being used as something much closer to, “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” Their desire and motivation here is not bad. They want to get as closely connected to Jesus as they can, and that is admirable. But in doing so they miss the fact that Jesus himself asked us to pray in the name of the Father.
One of the weaknesses of the Evangelical movement is that because they hold a view of the Bible as inerrant, they take things in it more literally than context and history would allow. They take “Come, Lord Jesus” as a literal prayer, not a formation of praying in Jesus’ name. Their hearts are in the right place, but they get a bit lost in the weeds of obeying the Bible vs. obeying Jesus. I say that kindly, and I think they have very good motives for doing so, but the resulting practice has some issues.
Repetition in Prayer
The other issue I want to briefly introduce here is repetition in prayer. For the most part we would be on the same page as Evangelicals about scripted prayers. Like us they would say scripted prayers are to be avoided because it’s too easy to pray them without your heart in it. However, there is a sizable minority in the Evangelical world who experiment with scripted prayers, and they have an interesting motivation for doing so that I want to point out.
Now, usually scripted prayers are not new prayers. They are very old prayers that have been written down and repeated throughout the centuries. You’ve probably heard of The Book of Common Prayer which contains the Anglican prayers assigned to any given Sunday. Evangelicals who are interested in this kind of thing have a soft spot for Anglicans so that’s usually their go-to source. These prayers have been prayed by Christians for many centuries. And there is a decent sized minority in the Evangelical culture that longs for learning about ancient ways. They have an innate understanding that their so-called “happy clappy” churches are actually missing something. And they know the thing they’re missing is ancient. Using very old scripted prayers is one attempt they make to learn ancient practices. They know that something has been lost, and they long to have it restored. I’ll push my luck here and say: they long for a restoration. And what they long for in theory and vagueness, we have in specificity. Just something to think about as you talk with your Evangelical friends about these kinds of things.
I hope you will join us next time. I love getting your questions in email – you can find me at [email protected] And I will see you next time.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.