When is prayer dangerous to our spiritual health? When prayer itself becomes our idol. There are several signs that evidence prayer idolatry.
Sign #1-Prayer becomes a substitute word for God.
My attention was drawn to this several years ago in preparing for the National Day of Prayer. The theme was "Prayer, America's Hope." That is not theologically correct. Highlighting this wrong focus was the Scripture quoted in support of the theme, Psalm 33:22 "May your unfailing love rest upon us, O LORD, even as we put our hope in you." Clearly our hope is in The Lord alone, not in prayer.
Prayer is not America's hope, God is. It says so right in that text. The difference is subtle, but critical. It is not semantics, it's idolatry.
Sign #2-Prayer becomes the end rather than the means to an end.
I regularly meet Christians with a zealous fervor for prayer. At face value, it is commendable. Sadly I fear that sometimes their passion puts prayer on the throne, pushing Jesus to the side.
Emphasizing prayer this way is like putting all the focus on communication in relating to your spouse. What if your husband asked, "Do you love me?" and you answered, "I talk to you every day for at least an hour." That would not be satisfactory. What if your wife asked, "Are you faithful to me?" and you said, "I call you during lunch when I'm at work." That would not be an answer. What if your spouse asked, "Do you value me above all others?" A response of, "You are the first one I call when I need help," would be inadequate.
When well-intentioned Christians call the church to engage in prayer, we must beware of creating a tragically wrong emphasis. Jesus called us to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind." Prayer is one way we interact with the One we love. He is the end, prayer is the means.
Sign #3-Prayer becomes "The Work" of the church.
The slogan that "Prayer is the Work" can be misused. Recognizing it is vital to depend on God in prayer is one thing. Identifying prayer as the sum total of the work of the church is another. Prayer is not a replacement for mission.
As Matthew records Jesus' final instructions to the disciples 28:18-20, prayer is not mentioned. Going, discipling, baptizing, and teaching are. Saying "Prayer is the work" is an overstatement. Prayer is part of the work. It must play an integral role in the Christian life, as an expression of worship, dependence, and relationship. But to say prayer is the work implies that prayer is all that needs to be done.