Praying With Discernment by Stephen Swihart

Praying With Discernment cover imageSummary: The way to pray better is to ask the holy spirit to give you the words.

I have been reading a wide range of books about discernment. While I am broadly interested in prayer, my focus in reading Praying With Discernment was on the discernment part, not the prayer part. I knew this was a self-published book and would likely disagree with much of it. I want to ensure I am not ignoring ideas about discernment because they come from streams of Christianity I am less attracted to.

This book is filled with stories of miracles. I have read many similar stories of praying for miracles and seeing them come to pass. I have personally seen some of those miracles, and I have, at times, been very attracted to the power of prayer shown in this book. I have listened to preachers advocate for the expression of power in prayer as a means of evangelism. But I have also watched the distorting effect of prayer when discernment seems to get lost.

I am also put off by some of the frivolousness of some of the prayers. This next story is an example.

“On another occasion, this friend took a small group with him to share their testimonies at a church. Before they arrived at their destination, they stopped for breakfast. Shortly after entering the restaurant the sky turned dark and it began to rain. In fact, it rained so hard that it would be impossible for any of them to get to the car without becoming completely drenched. When it was time to leave, my friend calmly and confidently said, “It will stop raining when we reach the front door. Let’s go.” Everyone got up and went to the front door. The instant the first person touched the door it stopped raining! Everyone got in the car without a drop of rain falling on them.”

I know that the point is that God cared about even the small things, such as being dry, so that they could share their testimony at church. But that type of prayer seems to focus on our own lack of planning rather than God’s care for us. Wearing a raincoat or using an umbrella also would have kept everyone dry.

Overall, I do not recommend this book if you are interested in discernment. As with my comments on Dallas Willard’s book on spiritual knowledge, I am left with no tools to address whether or not the prayer advocated for here is “good prayer.” Discernment in this book is mostly pragmatic. The prayers that are answered are from God; the prayers that are not answered are not from God, to some extent that is helpful. There are clear examples of the author giving illustrations about unanswered prayer being what God wants.

The author says that we can only pray in ways consistent with scripture. A helpful section points out that scripture’s promises are not universal promises.

“You Must Recognize There are Two Types of Promises. In broad terms, there are promises you can and promises you cannot claim. For example, some of God’s promises are restricted to a certain party (like Joshua’s guarantee of success wherever he went –– Josh. 1:7-8) or to a specific period of time (like Israel’s promise to be saved from all her enemies after the second coming of Christ (Zech. 14:16-21). You cannot merely find a promise in the Bible and make it your own. You must first be sure that it is not already designated for someone else.”

Overall, I am very mixed on the advice on how to gain discernment. I agree that we should pray for discernment. We should know our bibles and seek the advice of others. But he says we should only pray prayers that “have the endorsement of scripture.” That does not seem to be true of scripture itself. By that, I don’t mean that we should pray for things that are contrary to scripture (he has the example of praying to be allowed to pursue an affair.) What I do mean is that he seems to mean by endorsement of scripture, is that we should only pray in similar ways to the way that people have prayed in scripture. My reading of scripture is that God seems to often “do a new thing” and that if we only do what has been done in scripture, we are limiting God.

The author of this would benefit from studying Ignatius. I am on the record as saying I do not think that Ignatius is perfect in his understanding of discernment, but Ignatius believes that God has given us emotion and feelings and that one of the ways that God speaks to us is through “consolation and desolation.” This book tends to repress feelings and always assumes God asks us to do the hard thing. The modern evangelical distrust of emotion I think is a gnostic tendency to overly spiritualize our rational faculty. Ignatius always wanted to test our emotions and feelings to see if they were from God, but my concern is that in being overly rationalistic, we can tend to believe that our rational response is from God without the type of testing that Ignatius would expect us to do with either emotion or rational thought.

There is a good discussion about presumption in prayer. But again, while we do want to seek God’s will, resistance to exploring what we want in the name of seeking after God, can leave us unable to understand what we want and how that desire may or may not be influenced by sin. Some of the ability to name what we want in a given situation can help in the process of discernment.

Another concern that I have with the book is its theology. This vignette I think illustrates the problem:

“A distraught mother refused to be comforted when she learned that her son was involved in a deadly accident. When the pastor visited her, she lashed out at him and shouted, “Where was your God when my son was killed?!” The pastor wisely answered her question: “He was at the same place when His own Son was killed . . . He was on the Throne.” There are no genuine accidents, not as long as God is seated on His Throne!”

The pastor in this story not only was not being pastoral, but he was telling her a false theology because he was attributing evil to God. God does not ordain evil. I do not want to get distracted by the problem of evil, but what I think we can say is that while we may not be able to say exactly why God allows something to happen, we can say that God does not ordain evil. A better response to that mother was that God was with her son. That is a true statement. We cannot know why things happen in this life. We can speculate, but to claim to know is to claim a type of transendent insight we do not have acces to.

As I read the book, I was confident that the author would be a Trump supporter. I did not necessarily a strong supporter, but one that would have initially held his nose and voted for Trump against Clinton. And then grew to appreciate Trump more over time. I searched for the author, but I could not find anything about his experience in ministry or education. I did find his personal Facebook page. And while it is very rarely updated, several of the posts that were there were in support of Trump.

In the comments of one, he was directly challenged by a commenter about how he could justify supporting Trump. I am not trying to claim that no one with “good discernment” could support Trump. But in responding to the comment, the response was purely pragmatic and not rooted in a spiritual sense of discernment. And that is exactly the problem with discernment that does not have some sense of evaluation built into it. If it is purely a spiritual knowledge that can’t be challenged, it is of limited value in helping churches discern a path forward together.

Praying With Discernment: Moving from Sincerity to Spirituality by Stephen Swihart Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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