Sayings and mottos that sound pious but aren't. #4: "Pray big because we have a big God"

Otto Greiner, Praying Hands, circa 1900. CC
Some sayings sound legitimate on their surface. They sound pious. They sound biblical. Like this one: "Cleanliness is next to Godliness". Only problem is, that one isn't in the bible. At all.

It is sometimes hard to tell what truly is Christian and what merely sounds Christian. Charles Spurgeon wisely said, "Discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between right and wrong; rather it is telling the difference between right and almost right." So what sayings are right, and what sayings are almost right (AKA 'wrong')? Let's look at the following sayings which have become such cliches.
Some of these mottoes are:

1. "Let go and let God"
2. "I don't use commentaries because they're men's wisdom. I only use God's Word when I study."
3. "We can't know for certain what the bible means, I'm not that smart"
4. "Pray big because we have a big God."
5. "He's so heavenly minded he's no earthly good"

Does praying big mean as Cassandra Martin says on her blog,

We tend to pray small prayers, shy prayers, safe prayers. God wants us to pray big prayers, risky prayers, prayers that stretch our faith, expand our vision, and place us firmly in His hands. He wants us to take His word seriously and “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16) Praying Big begins with remembering that we serve a very BIG God. He is bigger than our fears, our struggles, our falls, our joys, our plans, and our expectations. Praying Big encourages us to invest ourselves in prayer in a big way. Faith-full people are always big pray-ers. When we pour ourselves into prayer, God pours Himself into us. Praying Big invites us to see our lives, our challenges, our opportunities, and our world through heaven’s eyes. Prayer changes our vision, our responses, and our attitudes because in prayer God changes us.

Gee. That sounds good. Or does it mean as Anna Diehl said on her blog, The Pursuit of God,

Here’s a popular little jingle in Christendom: “Pray BIG, because we have a BIG God.” But what does this mean exactly? If we need a car, does God want us to pray for a brand new SUV instead of some small beat up clunker? If we need a new place to live, does He want us dreaming of mansions instead of just hoping for a room somewhere? If finances are tight, are we supposed to name and claim millions instead of just what we need? Is God offended by our lack of faith when we don’t dream big and pray expectantly? Well, it depends.
God wants us to be bold in our prayers, but only when our priorities are aligned with His.
~Anna Diehl

Think about the kinds of things you’ve asked God for recently. What were your prayer requests over the last year? Lump them all together into your mind and then divide them into two categories: things that have to do with your earthly comfort, and things that have to do with your spiritual growth. Which category do you pray about more often?

Gee. That sounds good too.

Or does it mean as so many 'name it claim it' casually teach, like Joel Osteen, that we need to be more ambitious in what we're asking God for and more confident in what we're looking for in our lives and to do this we need to pray 'God-sized prayers'?

No. That definitely sounds bad.

This confusion is why we need to examine what we say and be mindful of our cliches.

The root verse for this ubiquitous phrase we've come to hear so frequently is usually supported by an interpretation of Hebrews 4:16,

"Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."

Gill's Exposition explains the boldness and confidence indicated in the Hebrews verse:

"...a drawing nigh to God in that ordinance with spiritual sacrifices to offer unto him: and this may be done "boldly"; or "with freedom of speech"; speaking out plainly all that is in the heart, using an holy courage and intrepidity of mind, free from servile fear, and a bashful spirit; all which requires an heart sprinkled from an evil conscience, faith, in the person, blood, and righteousness of Christ, a view of God, as a God of peace, grace, and mercy, and a holy confidence of being heard by him; and such a spirit and behaviour at the throne of grace are very consistent with reverence of the divine Majesty,

The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem,
by Gustav Bauernfeind (1848-1904). CC
Let's contrast confidence to approach the throne after the cross as opposed to the Temple days before the cross. In the days before the veil was torn it meant that you had to go through an incredibly time-consuming and intricate set of rituals to enter the holy of holies where the presence of God was. The High Priest must atone for his sins in order to be considered pure enough even to enter. If you made a misstep, you would be struck dead.

Think of Uzzah, who put his hand on the Ark of the Covenant, and was stuck dead instantly, because his hand is sin while the dirt of the ground is just dirt, not sin.

The Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of the tabernacle/temple by the veil, a huge, heavy drape made of fine linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn and embroidered with gold cherubim. God said that He would appear in the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:2); hence, the need for the veil. There exists a barrier between man and God. The holiness of God could not be accessed by anyone but the high priest, and then only once a year. God’s “eyes are too pure to look on evil” (Habakkuk 1:13), and He can tolerate no sin. The veil and the elaborate rituals undertaken by the priest were a reminder that man could not carelessly or irreverently enter God’s awesome presence. Before the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, he had to wash himself, put on special clothing, bring burning incense to let the smoke cover his eyes from a direct view of God, and bring sacrificial blood with him to make atonement for sins (Exodus 28; Hebrews 9:7) Read more:

In those days, coming boldly before the throne with confidence was not possible. However, once the veil was torn, signifying that THE atonement had been completed, we can all approach now. We don't have to wait for a certain day, we don't need a representative to go for us, we can all approach and He is listening. We know He is listening because He is our intercessor. (Romans 8:34)

So understanding the reason for our confidence (or boldness as some versions say) it brings the focus back on Jesus. Now to look at the size of prayers we're told to make.

We have somehow equated boldness in behavior to largeness of prayer. We've swapped confidence in approach for magnitude in request. If there are "big" prayers by definition they are saying that there are "small" prayers too, and worse, assigning a size to prayers tacitly insinuates that the small prayers are no good.

Philippians 4:6 teaches, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Thanksgiving Prayer, 1942.Photo by Marjory Collins.
Farm Security Administration (Library of Congress)
It doesn't say "by prayer let your BIG requests known to God" but instead it says do not be anxious about anything and make requests [of any size] known to God.

My God is big enough to care about everything, not just the big things. Are we to dispense with "small" prayers because He could get busy and overwhelmed? What a ghastly thought! He is perfect in patience. Because we don't want to take up His time? Time in heaven does not exist, and He is the author of time on earth!

In the link above, Joel Osteen explains to the Wall Street journal reporter about big prayers. He says that "we get into a rut" with our prayers. Wrinkling his nose and speaking dismissively, Osteen said that 'sure, we pray for our food, and our children, but we think hey, God's got bigger things to deal with than my goals and my dreams...' and so we don't pray big prayers." In Osteen's latest book Break Out, he explains why we should pray big--this is from the book blurb
We were not created to just get by with average, unrewarding or unfulfilling lives. God created us to leave our marks on our generations. Every person has seeds of greatness planted within by the Creator. When life weighs upon us, pushing us down, limiting our thinking, labeling us in negative ways, we have what it takes to overcome and rise above into the fullness of our destinies
One of the five strategies for living a more rewarding life and leaving our mark according to Osteen is to "pray bold prayers". The opposite to that of course, implicitly stated, is that praying 'small' prayers will result in a less fulfilling and rewarding life.

Yet to have a life fulfilled with all my personal dreams coming true is not the reason we pray. We pray because it is commanded (Luke 18:1). We pray to glorify God (John 14:13). We pray in a spirit of humility and unselfishness, pleading with Jesus to advance His cause and Glorify Himself. We pray to bear each other's burdens and to be in His will and for reasons large and small we make petitions to demonstrate our acknowledgement of our dependence on Him. Jesus should be the orientation of the prayer and His will ultimately should be the goal.

So, praying for our food a small prayer? The Lord told us to pray in this way. In Matthew 6:11 He said to pray for our daily bread. Acts 2:42 says that they were continually praying, meeting, and breaking bread together as acts of worship. Showbread (AKA Bread of Presence) was a holy item in the temple, and the manna was in the ark. Food's important.

Praying for our children? Is this a small prayer? Children are a heritage from the Lord, according to Psalm 127:3. Should David not have prayed for his sick son? (2 Samuel 12:16). Should Hannah not have prayed to be given a son? (1 Samuel 1:13). Should Job have not continually interceded for his children? (Job 1:1-5). Yet Job was called blameless and upright.

As far as the so-called "rut" goes...what about the persistent widow? She was lauded for persisting in her plea for justice. What about the admonition to always pray, and to pray ceaselessly? (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Ephesians 6:18 says "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests" 'All kinds", the verse doesn't say not to bother God with small petitions. It also does not say that the bigger you pray the bigger your faith is.

As we saw at the beginning of this essay from the three ways the phrase is used (Cassandra Martin, Anna Diehl, Joel Osteen) the 'pray big because God is big' mantra can mean different things by different people. The point of this exercise in examining these cliches and phrases is to be mindful of what we say, and to know what it is we're saying so we can defend or explain it. (Jude 1:3, 1 Peter 3:15). Is what we're saying God-honoring? Is it biblical?

Overall, though the cliche can be explained as a good thing, I try not to say this phrase at all because of the confusion it causes. Most often, people take it simply to mean that the bigger the prayer, the bigger our faith in God is. I pray for Him to heal my eczema. Do I lack the same quantity of faith as a barren woman praying for a child? And what about the biggest prayer of all, the most incredible act of the universe, prayer for salvation for someone? I think it's dangerous to start sizing up prayers., it's especially foolish to base a size of a prayer on the size of our God, because we can't know how big He really is. And with all His size, He is a God of mercy, and His eyes roam over the earth, and sees when a sparrow falls. He knows the number of hairs on our head. Those are small things.

Just meditating on the fact that we can pray to an interceding Jesus is an amazing thing to ponder and be grateful for. God isn't impressed by the size of our prayers,  Just as Jesus wasn't impressed by the length of the prayers of the Pharisee but by the condition of our hearts. With that in mind I encourage you to read Anna Diehl's piece above and see the example prayers. They give one pause for thought.


Further Reading

What are different kinds of prayer?

What are most common things people say are in the bible that aren't in the bible?