Problematic Words in Prayer: Misappropriating “Be With”

This is the second of a series of posts in which I identify words or phrases which should be omitted from public prayers. This is not only because they typically are stock phrases which have become over-worn clichés. They also are inappropriate because they can communicate sloppy or incorrect theology to those who hear them and who are joining their thoughts to these prayers.

In the first essay, I identified an adverb which is overused and should be avoided in prayer—“just.”  In this post I identify a combination of words to be avoided by the pastor in some contexts—“be with.”

Often I have heard pastors request that the Lord “be with” others in their time of need or in their various tasks. Frequently the worship leader provides a series of requests that God “be with” various people for various reasons. Accordingly, the pastor entreats the Lord to “be with” the sick, “be with” the dying, “be with” those traveling, “be with” missionaries, “be with” governmental leaders. Such requests are especially empty when they go no further than that—i.e., they are not followed by a result clause.

A statement such as “be with the youth mission team so that they might faithfully convey your message of mercy to those they serve” contains much more substance than simply asking God to “be with the youth during their mission trip.” At least the former petition expresses some purpose for God’s presence. The latter expression is vague and lacking in specificity, and thus is less meaningful in content. It may also reflect simple laziness or thoughtlessness of the speaker to identify the specific purpose of the petition.

More to the point, I don’t believe that this request is appropriate theologically. Why would one pray that God be with Christians when he has already promised such in his word? Before his ascension, Jesus assured his followers: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). At Pentecost the promise of the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit was bound with baptism (Acts 2:38). The Apostle Paul promises that nothing in life and death can separate believers from Christ (Rom. 8:38-39). Indeed, Paul’s emphasis on being “in Christ” assumes a constant union with Christ by faith (e.g., Rom. 8:1; 1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 2 Cor. 1:21, 5:17; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 1:1-3, 2:6-13; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2, 28). The writer to the Hebrews applies Yahweh’s promise in Joshua 1:15 to believers: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).

In the Lutheran Confessions, the Formula of Concord affirms this ongoing presence of God in the Christian: “To be sure, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is the eternal and essential righteousness, dwells through faith in the elect, who have become righteous through Christ and are reconciled with God. (For all Christians are temples of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who moves them to act properly.)” (Kolb/Wengert, 571-572:54). So what is the need to petition God to be present among those with whom he is already present by his gracious word of promise?

More significantly, if a pastor in the worship service asks God to be with the worshipers (“Be with us, O God, as we have gathered here to worship you”), this is unnecessary because Christ has promised to be among his people when they gather in his name (cf., Mt. 18:20). Such a prayer is especially superfluous when it follows the invocation.

I am not aware of any example in the New Testament of a saint who prayed for his own needs or interceded on behalf of other believers and requested that God “be with” him or the other Christians. I conducted an electronic search of the English Standard Version (ESV) translation of the Bible and found nothing comparable to this in the New Testament. This illustrates the impropriety of one who is united with Christ to make this request.

Interestingly enough, I did a similar word search of prayers in the Old Testament and found no cases of this request. One might expect otherwise, given the distinctive dynamics of God’s presence in the covenant to Israel. Many of the psalms rejoice in God’s presence (e.g., Ps. 16:11, 21:6, 41:12, 95:2, 100:2). One psalm exhorts the people to “seek his [YHWH’s] presence continually” (Ps. 105:4). Of course, in Psalm 51 the penitent King David prays to God: “Cast me not away from your presence” (v. 11). But to my knowledge none of the psalms or prayers in the Old Testament compare to the common prayer offered today that God “be with” his people.

The prayer in the Old Testament that comes closest to expressing this request is the so-called “Prayer of Jabez,” which was so highly celebrated in popular American Evangelical culture due to the best-selling book of that title. 1 Chronicles 4:10 states: “Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!’  And God granted what he asked” (ESV, emphasis mine). However, even this prayer is not comparable to the contemporary use of the petition that God “be with” someone. Jabez is not asking God to be with him but rather that God’s hand might be with him. Consistently in the Old Testament Yahweh’s hand is associated with his power to rescue and protect. Accordingly, this is a request not for God’s presence but for God’s protection.

My recommendation is therefore that pastors delete from their prayers the request that God “be with” his baptized people. The Lord is already with them according to his word of promise. To make this prayer is to ask for what is already given by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

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11 Comments

  1. Fritz Quitmeyer April 20, 2017
    Reply

    Thank you, I am not a pastor, but use that phrase often. I now can have more thoughtful dialogs with our Father.

  2. Timothy Koch 28 days ago
    Reply

    Dr. Peter,

    A couple of thoughts.

    1.) The Office of Evening Prayer does appropriate the Emmaus disciples’ request, “Stay with us Lord, for it is toward evening.” So…while they said it in ignorance, we do not…thus making it a prayer to “be with.” Not only is it a “be with” prayer, but no further directives are given. It’s a straight up “be with” prayer for ourselves. In the context of the service, perhaps it functions similarly to the invocation?
    2.) The popular hymn “Abide with me” is a prayer to “be with.” Certainly it’s more than that. It not just generic. But the “be with” or “abide” language is definitely the emphasis.
    3.) The morning and evening prayer come close to this, “let your holy angel be with me.” (again, it’s not generic, the request is tied explicitly to protection from evil).

    That’s all, just wanted to share.

    Thanks for your thoughtful article.

    • David Peter 25 days ago

      Timothy,
      Your comments are appropriate. You make the case for this usage in liturgy and hymnody. My emphasis is on how this language is found in scripture, and I still find it lacking. I don’t regard Luke 24:29 to be a prayer since the two disciples did not recognize that they were speaking to the Lord.
      David

  3. Jason 27 days ago
    Reply

    Aren’t we suppose to pray for things we already have as well as praying for that which is lacking? I pray for “daily bread” even though Jesus said not to worry about such and that he would provide (and my pantry and bank account are full). Is the issue the words used or the apparent lack of faith that may be involved? To take one of you examples and rewrite it to encourage faith you might come up with “As you have promised O Lord, be with us today as we gather in worship.” Is this okay or is this also problematic?

    • Fritz 25 days ago

      I used to use “be with so and so” without adding why it’s important to me. He knows why, but I feel that I need to go further than I used to. It’s helping me focus on having a conversation with my Father as I would with my earthly father.

    • David Peter 25 days ago

      Jason,
      I think your revision is certainly better since it recognizes God’s promise of presence. My main concern is that we oftentimes pray in ways which involve little recognition of what in fact is already our reality.
      David

    • Jason 20 days ago

      David, so you are saying that sometimes our prayers don’t seem to acknowledge what God is providing or has provided, as if we our always empty waiting for God and yet never seeming to receive? In such situations, would you think we would do well to look at the “complaint” psalms that plead for God’s help (and even complain about His seeming delay or lack of answering our prayers) but that also recognize His continued care and expresses trust in His provision and answering of the psalmist’s need(s)?

  4. David Peter 19 days ago
    Reply

    Jason, yes I think your understanding and approach here is appropriate. My main emphasis in these blogs is that our prayers follow the pattern of those we see in scripture. Your appropriation of the pattern and content of the complaint psalms exemplifies this approach. Thanks for pointing us to this!

  5. Dale 18 days ago
    Reply

    Dr. Peter, I am an LCMS missionary in Ghana, West Africa. In this position I train men to be pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana. While training, I hear this same sort of “be near” theology in many ways. One of the most egregious is a song sung here that says,
    “God’s gonna bless someone today. It may be him or it may be her, or it may be someone far away, but God’s gonna bless someone today.” I have pointed out to them by The Small Catechism on the Creed the blessings in abundance that God has given us (1st, 2nd, and 3rd article gifts.) God is not found either here or there. He, instead, is near enough to feed even the evil person. If that is true, then why should we pray God to be near so and so when, as you pointed out, we have that assurance in our Baptism.

  6. Jonathan Moyer 18 days ago
    Reply

    I can confess to ignorantly using this pattern of prayer. I suspect because the phrase regularly appears in scripture and liturgy when addressing people (“Grace be with you”, “peace be with you”, and especially “the Lord be with you”) it *seems* appropriate for prayer as well.

  7. Dale Critchley 15 days ago
    Reply

    Of the 3 phrases mentioned in this series, this one seems the most appropriate for usage, especially for Lutherans. We understand that God is omnipresent, but He also comes to us specifically through Word & Sacrament, and He comes to us through the church (“Thy Kingdom come.”). We regularly pray for things God has already promised to give (forgiveness, life, and salvation). What I love about praying this is that I don’t have to say, “If it be Your will,” and when I pray it in the presence of the suffering, I can assure them that God will indeed answer that prayer as requested and assure them of His presence.

    If we shouldn’t pray for what God has already promised, then we need to stop using benedictions, both Aaronic & Apostolic.

    And when I tuck my children in at night, I should stop saying, “Jesus guard and keep you through the morning.”

    All that said, it can certainly be misused or misunderstood, so it’s worthwhile to ask, “Why do you use that expression?” But I wouldn’t discourage its use.

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