The way some people talk about prayer owes more to New Age spirituality and witchcraft than biblical Christianity. I don’t want to name any names, but I recall when I was a teenager being taught about “spiritual warfare” in ways I cannot seem to find supported in the Bible. Sometimes God and Satan were cast as warring opposites, a kind of yin and yang balancing each other out, even while squaring off. Which side will win in the battle over your soul and the fate of the universe? Well, whichever side you support, of course.

Obviously it sounds really stupid and basically blasphemous when put that way. But books, songs, and movies were made for the evangelical subculture that reflected just that kind of warped theology of the spiritual plane. Jesus almost became a version of Tinkerbell, needing our “applause” to gain strength and prevail over defeat.

This sort of man-centered spirituality is at the heart of the modern-day prosperity gospel, particularly in the strain known as “Word of Faith.” Promoters of this religious scam regularly encourage followers to speak only positive words and warn them against bringing curses upon themselves with negative attitudes. Do you want health, wealth, and prosperity? Name them and claim them. Do you want to ward off disease and disaster? The power of your tongue can rebuke their effect upon your life.

1. Prayer’s power is outside of ourselves.

All of this kind of spiritual hoo-ha mistakes the real presence of spiritual power in the Christian’s life as existing for the glory of us, rather than the glory of God. By all means, pray big prayers and expect God to come through, but remember that prayer isn’t magic.

When some Christians talk about the “power of prayer,” one gets the impression that there is some force inherent in our words, sourced in ourselves, that can make or break reality. The “name it and claim it” crowd operates as if the one praying is in control rather than the one prayed to.

Is prayer powerful? Yes, definitely, but specifically because the One being prayed to is powerful. The one doing the praying is in fact by his praying demonstrating that he has no power in and of himself. That is functionally what prayer is—an expression of helplessness. If we were powerful, we wouldn’t need to pray.

2. Prayer’s power is capital-S Spiritual.

When James says that “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (5:16), we need to take great care to notice that “as it is working” gives a shape to the prayer. Literally, this verse can be expressed this way: “the prayers that work”—or, “the effective prayers”—“have great power.” This tells us two things. First, some prayers don’t “work.” By this, I assume it is meant that we don’t always get what we ask for when we pray. We may ask God to provide a certain desire or heal a certain wound. Sometimes he says no. But second, we notice that the prayers that have effect, have great power. Where could that come from?

If you said you, go sit in the corner.

But you didn’t say that, did you? You know where great power comes from. You know when you’re frustrated in traffic, irritated with your family, triggered by a reminder of your past, tripped up by a recurring sin, or depressed by an inconsolable loneliness that “great power” is not something that comes to you naturally. It isn’t found “within”—at least, not within your natural self.

No, the power that effective prayer has is nothing and nobody less than the Holy Spirit of God, who not only hears the prayer, but carries the prayer and replies to the prayer, and even inspires the prayer!

But let’s take it a step further. Prayer isn’t magic, because we have no power in and of ourselves. Prayer is expressed helplessness. But also, prayer isn’t magic, because God isn’t helpless without our moving him or unleashing him or activating him in some way. I cringe every time I hear some well-intentioned preacher use the phrase “let God”—as in, “You have to let God take control of your life” and “You need to let God be God.”

First of all, God doesn’t need you to let him do anything. He isn’t restrained or controlled by you. God isn’t like some tethered toddler on a parental leash at the mall, struggling for freedom to have at the world around him. What saps we are if we think we have the power to “let God” do anything. He’s God. We’re not. Period.

So in prayer, you are not commanding the Spirit or summoning the Spirit like he’s a cosmic butler. In prayer, you are not in the place of control but in the place of submission. Prayer is effectively “spilling your guts,” because through prayer we bare our hearts, minds, and souls to the God who wants to be our friend. And the more we do this baring, the more we will experience of his power, even in our lowest and weakest of moments. Prayer is essentially weaponized weakness.

3. Prayer’s power is personal.

No, prayer isn’t magic. Prayer in practice is simply talking to God. We don’t need to make it more complicated than that. Of course, prayer is heavy-duty stuff; it is the act by which we say “Here I am” in response to God’s calling our name, our peeking up from behind the bushes a la Adam and Eve in response to God’s “Where are you?”

Prayer is the act that, through Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, puts us in the open embrace of the Father who listens with love. You can kneel, you can stand, you can sit, you can recline. You can clasp your hands or lift them. You can bow your head or raise it to heaven. You can close your eyes or behold creation. You can pray aloud or in your head. However you are going about it, we can’t complicate the act itself by ignoring the simplicity that all of it is talking to God.

One way to kill your prayer life is to overthink it. The best friendships you and I have are with people we feel we can be ourselves with. We feel most easily “at home” with the friends we don’t feel self-conscious around. This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t plan your prayers or schedule time for prayer. It just means that the most vibrant prayer life is found in the one who is most willing to bring his whole self to God, willing to be himself before God, for better or worse.