Prayer vs. Benediction: Three Basic Distinctions

(This post is aimed at Christians, and particularly “churchy” Christians, so feel particularly free to skip it if it doesn’t pertain to you!)

Three common mistakes in public worship are connected with the difference between prayer offered aloud during the service on behalf of the congregation and the benediction, which is normally uttered at the end of the service by the pastor, preacher, or other ecclesiastical representative.

Distinction 1: Prayer is us speaking to God. Benediction is literally a “good word,” a blessing, spoken to us. Sometimes these two genres, with their completely different vectors (“from us” versus “to us”), are blurred by people reciting a doxology (a “word of praise” or “glory” to God) at the end of a service. But a benediction properly is an encouraging word given to us by God’s representative. It isn’t simply another form of prayer.

Distinction 2: We usually close our eyes to pray in this culture, as in many others, and often we also bow our heads as a sign of reverence. But for the benediction it has made more sense to open our eyes, lift our heads, and receive the blessing with thankful faces as it is given. Still, one could imagine praying or receiving the benediction in the alternate mode, so no legalism is mandated here! Just awareness of what’s going on, to which one can respond as one believes one ought.

Distinction 3: With the surge of renewed concern for a fully Trinitarian theology has come an unfortunate liturgical confusion. The benediction can quite properly be offered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, since it is a blessing from the Triune God. But prayer cannot properly be offered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, because then–well, then to whom are we praying?

Christian prayer is offered by Christians, those who follow Jesus Christ and, per John 15, are in Jesus Christ, and who therefore pray as if we were Jesus Christ—that is, “in Jesus’ name.” (That’s what the formula “in Jesus’ name” means: as if we were Jesus himself praying, under his authority and acting as his servants.) Christians thus pray, as Jesus prayed and as he taught us to do, to God the Father. And we do so in the spiritual power and companionship of God the Holy Spirit. That is how to pray “Trinitarianly.”

We don’t need any more mental fog in our worship services than we have already, so let’s clear up at least these few patches, shall we?

0 Responses to “Prayer vs. Benediction: Three Basic Distinctions”

  1. gingoro

    In church “Prayer is us speaking to God”. In most churches it seems that Prayer is the minister talking to God and the congregation listens in.

  2. Jeff Loach

    Necessary post, John. Can I add a further annoyance? There are certain parts of the evangelical subculture for whom the “benediction” comprises three simple but unbelievably disturbing words in this context: “You are dismissed.”

    In such situations I find myself either (a) wanting to scream at the dismisser for missing an opportunity, or (b) pleading silently to the dismisser to offer me a blessing.

    (And I love it when people in my own congregation keep their eyes open for the benediction!)

  3. Joel

    How about praying “in the name of Jesus, and by the power of the Holy Spirit…”?

    A lot of people in my tradition bow their heads and present open hands to “receive” the blessing of God (benediction). Good symbolism there, too, I think.

    • Sung Kim

      Joel,
      Since you posted, I have pondered and struggled with a “good symbolism” you mentioned, and come up with this thought below.

      (Please, I hope people here forgive me for being off the point of Dr.Stackhouse’s post)

      I wondered if it is really a good symbolism.

      Rather than a good one, I think it could be more often a danger which leads people into a magic.

      (Of course, we can open or raise our hands to express our joy but not to “receive” the blessing)

      Like Dr.Stackhouse says, we pray in Jesus name, ‘as if we were Jesus Christ,’ but we cannot receive a blessing by ourselves as if we were God.

      I might have gone too far, but this is what I think now.

      [But, I am still struggling about how to distinguish between a good symbolism and a bad one in our worship.]

      • John Stackhouse

        Sung Kim,

        We are receiving a blessing from God. That is why we can open our hands, in a posture of faith, an expression of our need and our grateful confidence that God will supply our need. We open our hands to receive what good word God has for us.

        Clearer now?

          • Ronda Cornett

            we lift and open our hands as a sign of total surrender to God. Surrender of our will to His will, our lives in service to Him.

  4. Bailey

    Being benedicted is one of the best parts of gathering for worship!!

  5. Paul

    Thanks for this, John. I have never heard this so clearly laid out, even though I’m ordained into a tradition that is steeped in exactly what you are arguing for. Interestingly, my preaching mentor, Darrell Johnson, often prays before preaching: “Spirit of the Living God we believe that you inspired…..and we pray this in Jesus’ name.” Would love your thoughts on praying to Jesus or to the Holy Spirit. Can we address them directly in prayer? Because, even in my Anglican heritage, Jesus is directly spoken to in certain collects and canticles (as is the Holy Spirit).

    • John Stackhouse

      Yes, Paul, I do think we can pray to Jesus or pray to the Spirit, since we are praying to the One God who is also Three. But then we should pray to Jesus or the Holy Spirit appropriately, that is, as each is depicted in Scripture and expounded in (good) theology.

      Thanking Jesus for suffering on the Cross and asking the Holy Spirit for inspiration strike me as an obvious examples. To be sure, one could ask God, or God the Father, or Jesus for inspiration, too–each makes a certain Biblical and theological sense.

      Indeed, Jesus himself says, “If you ask ME anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). Jesus is, after all, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).

      Thanking the Father for suffering on the Cross (as I have heard in at least two public prayers), does NOT make sense. We can, however, properly thank the Father for the suffering he underwent as his beloved Son was crucified, yes–then we have our Trinitarianism straight. (Whether every reader of this blog will agree that the Father can suffer is another matter!)

      And I think we must think carefully about when and what to pray directly to the Spirit. The normal NT pattern is to pray to God the Father and the secondary pattern is to pray to Jesus.

      Praying directly to the Spirit, however popular especially in some modern Pentecostal and charismatic circles, may be a good idea…. It seems to me it would depend on how truly Trinitarian and how carefully Biblical and theological that prayer is. The worrisome tendency in Pentecostal/charismatic piety, as their own leaders recognize, is toward a “monotheism of the Third Person,” with the concomitant danger that the Triune God revealed quite concretely in the Bible diffuses into a “Spirit” of one’s own preferences.

      I trust it doesn’t need saying, but of course God doesn’t fuss about the correctness of our theology when we pray. But prayer can be done with more or less precision, more or less beauty, more or less edification, and praying along the lines set out in Scripture and orthodoxy is simply praying as spiritual adults.

      Why should we NOT try to pray with as much art and accuracy as we can, rather than just offer to God well-meant but clumsy communication along the lines of “Well, y’know, it’s like, whatever: I love you, God–and like, thanks and stuff, and Jesus, you, too, and, well, yeah. –I mean, Amen.”

      • Paul

        Yes, John, you’ve again clarified the issue well. Though God doesn’t, as you say, accept our prayers based on our theological acumen, maturation in our prayer life is an important part of our discipleship. I know that I have been blessed in learning more about who my wife is, and thereby learning to talk to her more appropriately, accurately, and (as a result) more fully. The same should be true for my prayer life. Sounds a bit like 1Cor 13:11 (though I know I’m using that phrase a bit out of context).

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