I gave my pentecostal neighbor a copy of Walter Chantry’s book “Today’s Gospel” and he in turn gave me a copy of a book he just read and was excited about called “The Circle Maker“. I knew nothing about the author, Mark Batterson, and I didn’t research anything about him before reading, as I didn’t want to bias my reading in any direction. With that said, I found the book to be moderately helpful, but perhaps not in the way Batterson intended, or to the extent he hoped. Let me explain.
Batterson’s basic premise is that we don’t pray bold enough nor big enough for people who believe in an all powerful King of the Universe. He uses an old story of an Israelite named Honi (taken from “The Book of Legends” from the Talmud and Midrash) who prayed for rain during a drought and would not settle for less than what he knew God was capable of. It was a bold prayer, emboldened by his refusal to move from the circle he drew around himself until God answered his prayer. I found this a helpful reminder of a sermon I heard a few years ago from Tim Conway titled “The Art of Pleading With God“. The sermon, and Batterson’s book, urge us beyond timidly running down a list of things we’d like God to do “if its His will.” I agree with Batterson when he notes “Of course, I threw in the obligatory ‘if it be Your will’ at the end. That tagline may sound spiritual, but it was less a submission to God’s will and more a profession of doubt. If you aren’t careful, the will of God can become a cop-out if things don’t turn out the way you want.” However, I found Conway’s (echoing Spurgeon) solution to be much more biblical than Batterson’s.
But first, more of what I appreciated. I think the primary benefit of this book is biographical. In his book “The Pursuit of Holiness”, Jerry Bridges notes that an aid in the pursuit of holiness is finding motivation in the stories of others – be it in Scripture or history. Batterson’s book was helpful in that it showed how a particular person sought God in prayer and how God answered. I found similar encouragement in Wes Lane’s “Amazingly Graced” when he talks about beginning to pray with the boldness of David in the Psalms. What I did not find encouraging was Batterson’s methods or explanation of the success of his prayers. I see this as an example of God answering in spite of us, not because of us – of the Holy Spirit aiding our prayers.
But a few more positives first: “Who you become is determined by how you pray [or how others pray for you].” “Our dreams are as nebulous as cumulus clouds… Keep a prayer journal… The more faith you have, the more specific your prayers will be and the more specific your prayers are, the more glory God receives.” He notes our problems in prayer are often 1) We don’t know what we want 2) We quit too early.
So there is much encouragement in the book, but ultimately I cannot recommend it because the main premise is not biblical and because Batterson demonstrates little desire to root anything he says in Scripture. He spatters some passages throughout his book, but there is no exposition of any passage, not even a passage on prayer. When he does quote a passage, he never tells you what passage it is (unless you look in the back of the book, even though there is no endnote telling you to) and he almost never says anything about what the passage actually says. Most of the time, as other reviewers have noted, Batterson simply draws speculation out of accounts that are not from Scripture, or he completely mis-uses/interprets the passage. After I began reading the book, I noted to my wife that I just can’t think like people like Batterson. I can’t come to a text and come up with the things they do because it is so foreign to the context and meaning of the passage, and I couldn’t understand how he was able to do it.
As I read more of the book, I began to understand how Batterson was able to (mis)interpret the Bible the way he does. I noted at the beginning that this book was recommended to me by a pentecostal neighbor. I mentioned this because Batterson is a pentecostal as well (his church is officially non-denominational but is “closely aligned” with Assemblies of God). A key part of Batterson’s prayer system is his belief that the Holy Spirit gives prophecy and revelation to Christians today. Nearly every example in the book was of someone receiving revelation of what God promised them, if they would only pray. An example is:
“One day, as I was dreaming about the church God wanted to establish on Capitol Hill, I felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to do a prayer walk. I would often pace and pray in the spare bedroom in our house that doubled as the church office, but this prompting was different. I was reading through the book of Joshua at the time, and one of the promises jumped off the page and into my spirit: ‘I’m giving you every square inch of the land you set your foot on – just as I promised Moses.’ As I read that promise given to Joshua, I felt that God wanted me to stake a claim to the land He had called us to and pray a perimeter all the way around Capitol Hill. I had a Honi-like confidence that just as this promise had been transferred from Moses to Joshua, God would transfer the promise to me if I had enough faith to circle it.”
This is the introduction to a chain of events accounted throughout the rest of the book that ends up with Batterson’s church owning a lot of property in Washington D.C. and growing very large. Despite the apparent success of Batterson’s prayer walk, I hope you noticed the great problem with what he just said. He believes that Joshua 1:3 was a promise to him. And as he tells his readers to do, he circled that promise in the Bible, and then prayed in confidence because it was a promise. Later in the book he explains how he feels justified in doing this:
“Notice that the promise was originally given to Moses. The promise was then transferred to Joshua. In much the same way, all of God’s promises have been transferred to us via Jesus Christ. While promises must be interpreted and applied in an accurate historical and exegetical fashion, there are moments when the Spirit of God quickens our spirit and transfers a promise that He had originally given to someone else. While we have to be careful not to blindly claim promises, I think our greatest challenge is that we don’t circle as many promises as we could or should.”
When I read this, I began to see how Batterson could so egregiously mis-read Scripture. His belief that the Holy Spirit reveals extra-biblical information to Christians today trains him to think extra-biblically. This pattern is repeated throughout the book time and time again. And Batterson encourages Christians to do this by reading through the Bible and circling promises they see, believing they apply to themselves. The most egregious example of this is a story he tells of a couple whose young son becomes mute due to a severe case of autism:
“During those desperate days, they went to visit their pastor for counsel and encouragement. While praying for them, the pastor received a promise from God. He jotted Isaiah 59:21 on a sticky note and handed it to them. ‘As for me, this is my covenant with them,’ says the LORD. ‘ My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants – from this time on and forever,’ says the LORD.’ The pastor shut his Bible and said, ‘I guess that settles it. Your child will talk.'”
In my opinion, Batterson’s belief in this extra-biblical “revelation” warps his view of Scripture such that it becomes putty in his hands to mean whatever he “feels” the Holy Spirit is telling him it means. Faithfully interpreting and applying what the Bible actually says takes a back seat to reading through your Bible and circling any time any promise is made to anyone and then “naming it and claiming it” as your own (see another Amazon reviewer’s comments about the prosperity gospel in relation to this book). Batterson explains:
One thing is certain: Our most powerful prayers are hyperlinked to the promises of God. When you know you are praying the promises of God, you can pray with holy confidence. It’s the difference between praying on thin ice and praying on solid ground. It’s the difference between praying tentatively and praying tenaciously. You don’t have to second-guess yourself because you know that God wants you to double-click on His promises.
The fatal flaw of “The Circle Maker” is that it takes this view of the Holy Spirit’s work today and combines it with a misinterpretation/application of 2 Cor 1:15-20. “By the most conservative estimates, there are more than three thousand promises in Scripture. By virtue of what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross, every one of them belongs to you. Every one of them has your name on it. The question is: How many of them have you circled?” The proper way to apply 2 Cor 1:15-20 is to take promises like those made to Abraham about the promised land and recognize how they are fulfilled in Christ by His return and the establishment of the New Heavens and the New Earth, and to see how we are blessed in that. Note, we do not take a passage about the promised land, and because of the work of Christ, “claim it” for a piece of real estate we want. God blessed Batterson with property in Washington D.C., but he never promised him that property. Especially not in Joshua 1:3.
Tragically, Batterson’s view ends up defaming God. Near the end of the book, Batterson notes
“When you live by faith, it feels like you are risking your reputation. You’re not. You’re risking God’s reputation. It’s not your faith that is on the line. It’s His faithfulness. Why? Because God is the one who made the promise, and He is the only one who can keep it.”
Batterson admits his method of prayer risks God’s reputation. But because it is built upon unbiblical foundations, it really is a risk to God’s reputation. What does this teach people who mistakenly claimed a promise God never made to them and thus never fulfilled? As of the writing of this book, the couple’s autistic son is still mute. Falsely claiming promises that were never made can do real damage to God’s reputation.
We are much better off diligently studying the Bible to understand it in its proper context and then praying bold prayers that plead with God. The idea of arguing with God in prayer is really a better explanation of what Honi, the old Israelite who prayed for rain, was doing. Batterson could have used this story and written a great book based upon the examples of David’s recorded prayers in the Psalms, as others have done (see the mentioned Conway sermon on sermonaudio.com, or Spurgeon on Job 23:3-4). This would have been edifying to God’s people. Instead, Batterson wrote a book that misguides our faith and truly does risk God’s reputation.