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.