A Quick Chat: Don Whitney

October 29, 2015

christianaudio President, Cory Verner, spent time with Don Whitney to talk about a powerful prayer technique that has the potential to bring your dull prayer times to life!

Hi Don. How are you today?

I’m way better than I deserve.

In Praying the Bible, you say that many Christians “do not pray simply because they do not feel like it.  And the reason they don’t feel like praying is that when they do pray, they tend to say the same old things about the same old things.” This type of prayer leads to boredom. I’ve certainly felt like that even recently!  That’s the reason I picked up your book!  Just curious, when was the last time you were bored praying?

Hmmm. That’s not something I monitor to such an extent that I can tell you with certainty. What happens much more often is that I pray when very tired. The fatigue makes it harder to focus, even when praying the Bible. My mind wanders more frequently when I’m weary and trying to pray. Still, nothing helps me to pray with more focus at such times than praying the Bible.

You say that we (if we are believers) can  improve our prayer lives by changing way we pray…or, rather our method of prayer.  Is this true?  Can you explain?

For most Christians, it seems that their usual method of prayer is to say the same old things about the same old things. Eventually that becomes boring. When prayer is boring, people don’t feel like praying. When people don’t feel like praying, it’s hard for them to make themselves pray. As a result they don’t pray, at least with any fervency or consistency. This sense of failure in prayer causes them to believe they are second-rate Christians.

I am convinced that instead of saying the same old things about the same old things in prayer, if people would pray the words of a passage of Scripture it would make a dramatic difference in the entire experience.

In Praying the Bible you argue that Speaking aloud everything that occurs to us as we slowly read the Word IS the antidote to a dull prayer life.  Could it really be that simple?

For most Christians, yes! It must be rather simple to have a meaningful, satisfying prayer life, otherwise most Christians couldn’t experience it since God does not call many who are “wise according to worldly standards” (1 Cor. 1:20).

By the way, I don’t think one has to “speak aloud” in prayer (as the question implies). Furthermore, let me emphasize that there is no method that will enliven prayer for someone who isn’t indwelled by the Holy Spirit.

But for most Christians, I believe the simple, permanent, biblical solution to the boredom in prayer that results from saying the same old things about the same old things is to pray the Bible.

How did you discover this method? 

On March 1, 1985, we had a guest speaker at the church I was pastoring in the Chicago area. He was teaching on the prayers of the Apostle Paul and emphasizing how we should pray these prayers today. At one point he held up his Bible and said, “When you pray, use the prayer Book!” Suddenly I realized I could pray the entire Bible, not merely the prayers in the Bible.

So I began praying each day through one of the passages in my daily Bible reading. Soon I was reading the Psalms and found it easy to make the words of the psalmist my own prayers.

Eventually I discovered that what I’d stumbled upon was in fact an ancient Christian practice. Jesus prayed psalms on the cross (see Mt. 27:46 and Lk. 23:46). Followers of Jesus in the Book of Acts (4:23-26) prayed psalms. And many prayerful people since Bible times (such as George Müller) practiced praying the Bible.

Is it similar to the age old practice of lectio divina?

It all depends on what one means by lectio divina. I’ve seen the practice defined in some ways that are virtually identical to the method I describe in Praying the Bible. On the other hand, I’ve seen descriptions of lectio divina that reflect practices outside the bounds of Christian spirituality, in my opinion. So for me, because the term lectio divina can mean so many different things—including some I cannot endorse—I avoid using the term unless I’m in a rare situation where I have the time to define what I mean and do not mean by it.

Is it something you’ve practiced for a long time?  What has been the greatest impact of this type of prayer on your life?

Having prayed the Bible almost daily since the first of March, 1985, I can testify that there’s nothing in all my devotional life that more quickly and consistently kindles my consistently cold heart like praying the Bible. I almost never feel like praying when I begin to pray, but I can take the fire of God’s Word (see Jer. 23:29) and plunge it into my cold heart, and very soon—almost always—I begin to feel like praying.

Beyond this, the greatest impact is that when I pray the Bible I don’t “heap up empty phrases” (Mt. 6:7) by saying the same old things about the same old things.

You challenge us in the book not to just pray common and known scripture references and passages but to pray everything even the entire Pauline epistles!  Is this possible?  Do you find this challenging to do?

Actually, next to the Psalms, I believe the New Testament Epistles the easiest part of the Bible to pray. For starters, there are a number of prayers in them already (as at the end of Ephesians 1 and 3). Because of the didactic nature of the epistles, I find that virtually every verse suggests things to pray. Often, even between the commas in a single verse, I easily find matter for prayer.

Narrative passages—which comprise the largest literary genre in the Bible—usually require a different approach. In the Psalms and Epistles we can look at the text microscopically. For example, I’ve seen someone pray for twenty-five minutes over just five words: “The Lord is my shepherd.” With a narrative, however, you have to back up and get the big picture, praying the big, broad, brush strokes of the text. For in a narrative passage, you typically read a number of stage-setting verses before you get to the “punch line.” It may be only the “punch line” that prompts prayer in a narrative passage, and not every detail leading to it. Of course, any detail in a narrative that prompts prayer should result in prayer. But the overall expectation is different for a narrative than for a psalm or epistle.

Once having actually prayed through a passage, though, I’m confident that a person can open to any part of the Bible and turn it into prayer. That’s why chapter seven of Praying the Bible is titled “The Most Important Part of the Book.” In it I encourage readers to put down the book and actually pray through a psalm for seven minutes. For once having done this, many will be hooked. They’ll never pray the same old way and say the same old things again. And like riding a bicycle, once they’ve done it, they never forget how.

The best place to learn to pray though the Bible, you say, is by practicing with the Psalms.  Why are the Psalms such a great starting point to learn this technique?

The Psalms are generally the easiest place in Scripture from which to pray Scripture because of the original purpose of the Psalms. The Book of Psalms is the only book of the Bible inspired for the primary purpose of being reflected to God in song. Thus so many of the Psalms can be spoken or sung to God exactly as they are because when they were originally written they were direct expressions of a believer’s heart to the Lord.

So just as David prayed, “You, O Lord, are a shield about me” (Ps. 3:3), so can we. It’s simple to adopt those identical words as our own prayer. After speaking them as our own heart’s expression to the Lord, we can either move on to the next verse or we can amplify that thought by asking the Lord to shield us in a particular way, or by thanking Him again for shielding us in recent difficulty, etc.

Although it’s not difficult, praying from other parts of the Bible often requires one more small step. For example, when I read of Jesus miraculously feeding the multitudes I’ll have to pause briefly to consider how to turn that into prayer. That’s a narrative. Its purpose is different than that of the Psalms. It wasn’t intended primarily to be spoken or sung directly the Lord. So if I’m wanting to pray through that story, I’ll praise Jesus for being so great a God as this miracle reveals Him to be, or pray for His provision in a situation I know of where there is a great need, and so forth.

As someone has said, the Psalms are like a little Bible: every doctrine in the Bible is in the Psalms, either in the bud or the flower. And someone else has said that there’s a psalm for every sigh of the soul. No matter what you are going through, there’s a psalm (and probably several) that puts into expression what’s looking for expression in your soul.

The examples you give of praying through the Bible are powerful.  The sample prayers you provide seem so fresh to me compared to much of the prayers one hears corporately.  It gave me a glimpse into the power of this technique.

That said, I almost feel guilty using words like technique to describe how one should pray.  It seems so contrived.  BUT, when you experience the power of this exercise you realize that a new technique may be exactly what we need!  Do you agree?

Yes, but like you, the word “technique” or “method” can sound a little clinical when we’re talking about something so personal as prayer. On the other hand, we’re not loathe to use terms like these or to speak of a different “approach” or a “tip” regarding improving our conversations with others. The goal of learning new listening “skills,” for example, is a better personal relationship with others.

Any time we learn “how” to do anything better in the Christian life, whether it’s learning to study the Bible, to meditate on Scripture, to introduce the gospel into a conversation with an unbeliever, etc., we are in the realm of techniques and methods. But that doesn’t have to mean we’ve introduced something unspiritual into those disciplines. Remember, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Lk. 11:1).

Incidentally, if people will pray the Bible, they’ll pray the elements in the model prayer Jesus gave to His disciples in response to this request. While we may not pray every element in the model prayer every day, over time our prayers will regularly encompass everything Jesus teaches us to pray.

I love the John Piper quote in chapter 4 “Open the Bible, start reading it, and pause at every verse and turn it into a prayer.”  Was Piper one of your inspirations for this method of prayer?

No, frankly I didn’t come across the Piper quotations that I use in the book until I started writing the book. But I’m glad I did, because they are a welcome confirmation of some of the things I teach in the book.

An advantage to praying this way is that our prayer will be far more biblical than just making up our own prayers.  That makes a lot of sense.  This seems like a no brainer.  Are there risks associated with this type of praying and if so, what are they?

There is the risk that as someone prays through a verse they may read into it a meaning or application that isn’t there. But this is going to be true any time we get someone into the Bible, whether it’s to pray the Bible, study the Bible, or merely read the Bible. In response we certainly don’t want to discourage someone from getting into the Bible for fear they’ll misunderstand or misinterpret something.

Instead we should have enough confidence in the Word and Spirit of God that if people will pray the Bible they will be on the safest possible ground in prayer, far safer than always making up their own prayers.

And of course people are going to misunderstand and misinterpret the Bible. Since no one perfectly understands every verse of Scripture, all Christians, throughout their lives, will need to learn the way of God “more accurately” (Acts 18:26).That’s one of the reasons why the Lord puts us in local churches and gives us pastors and teachers. While I’ve never known of anyone who learned to pray the Bible and then came up with some weird interpretation and infected their church with it, obviously that could happen. If it does, then it’s the task of the pastoral leadership to teach with patience and correct with gentleness, as instructed in the Pastoral Epistles.

If anyone fears that a person will learn to pray the Bible and then misinterpret a passage and begin to pray contrary to Scripture, they should realize that people are certain to pray contrary to Scripture if they don’t use the Bible in prayer and always make up their own prayers.

You suggest using the “Psalms of the Day” plan to pray through a psalm a day. Can you describe that process?

First let me state the purpose for learning the “Psalms of the Day” (which, by the way, isn’t original with me). The benefit of this is that it will guide people to five psalms from which they can choose one to pray.

In other words, it gives them some direction as opposed to just thumbing through the Psalms and trying aimlessly to decide on one to pray through. My experience is that such aimlessness adds friction to the devotional life. It slows down any momentum toward prayer, which is the last thing most of us need, and also tends to result in overlooking many of the psalms.

It’s based on the idea that there are 150 psalms and generally 30 days in a month. If you divide 150 psalms by 30 days that means there are five psalms to consider for each day of the month. I recommend taking 30 seconds or so to quickly skim five specific psalms each day and picking one of those five as the one you’ll pray through that day.

So, step one is simply to determine what day of the month it is. If it’s the 15th day of the month, then the 15th Psalm is the first one you turn to. If this one impresses you as one you’d like to pray through, then you’re done. Start praying through Psalm 15. But if you’re not sure, step two is to add 30 to get the next psalm you’ll consider, which in this case will be Psalm 45. Just keep adding 30 until you quickly look at five psalms. Then pick one of those five to pray through; the one that you seem to be drawn to the most that day.

Thus on the 15th of the month—every month—the five “Psalms of the Day” are 15, 45, 75, 105, and 135. On the 27th of the month, you’d scan Psalms 27, 57, 87, 117, and 147 and pick one of those five to pray through.

On the 31st use Psalm 119. While Psalm 119 will come up on the 29th (for that day the psalms are 29, 59, 89, 119, and 149), even if you use it on the 29th you’ll probably have plenty left over to pray through on the 31st.

Another benefit of this method is that it systematically exposes you to all 150 Psalms. They are all equally inspired, though they are not all equally easy to pray through.

Thank you Don for taking the time!

You’re welcome, Cory! Thanks for the opportunity to post this interview. I so appreciate the ministry of christianaudio.com and am grateful to be able to partner with you on each of my books you’ve made available in audio.

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