If you want to start an argument, ask people what they think about written vs extempore or spontaneous prayers. Depending on your age and background, you will usually love one and dislike the other. Add to that the possibility that an artificial intelligence “bot” might have written the prayer and we are in a deep theological and ethical discussion.
You may already have heard of ChatGPT, otherwise known as Open AI. The technologically savvy among us know that it is one of a new breed of Artificial Intelligence (AI) bots, which can mimic human conversation but also provide answers to questions by summarising information on the internet. Smart home devices such as Amazon’s Alexa have already been doing this, but ChatGPT has supercharged the field.
First, the bad news. ChatGPT can only work with the information it has, and for something with intelligence in its name it can give some dumb answers. But it can also be surprisingly inventive and people have been using it to compose songs, write poetry, do homework essays and, now, compose prayers.
Developer Steve Oades, a member of a Sydney Anglican church, admits this is controversial. He has begun to cautiously incorporate some AI results into a project called ￼I Believe in Prayer (ibip.io).
“AI-generated prayers are often not appropriate as they can be hard to comprehend, too verbose or incorporate poor theology,” he says. “That sounds a bit like normal human prayers – which is not surprising given AI learns from human content. But AI can ‘learn’ what is ‘right’ from feedback and gradually improve. It can learn the prayer’s preferences, and it can surprise them with challenges and new prayer items.”
However, composing prayers might only be a minor application of the technology. Mr Oades is looking for feedback on other uses such as translating old prayers to modern English, finding Bible verses relevant to a prayer topic and providing prayer points for every chapter in the Bible – yes, all 1189 of them).
“AI is not new, but OpenAI/ChatGPT has brought to attention many of its capabilities by making them more readily accessible.” he says.
The development of the IBIP prayer app was nearing completion when OpenAI forced a rethink on the concept. “Previously the app was focused on making it easy to share prayers with prayer partners and groups and accept prayer feeds from missions and churches. With the introduction of OpenAI, it became apparent that helping people produce prayers and plans could be incredibly useful. We thought planning to pray is hard work – could AI help make that easier?”
Trying apps out
An American app, which incorporates the results from the Blue Letter Bible website, calls itself Pray the Bible – AI Assisted. The smartphone app page claims, “We take your prayer request and fuse it with relevant Bible verses. You get access to limitless, personalised, bite-sized prayers so you can pray meaningful impactful prayers, every time, for longer.”
When I tried it, I put in a prayer request for someone’s health and it popped up a Bible verse and a prayer for the person composed around that verse. It wasn’t bad, or theologically improper, although I could have done it myself. But then I work with words for a living. These apps are designed for people stuck for words when praying.
The Bishop of South Sydney, Michael Stead, who formerly worked in IT, designed an app called Bible Crawler that helps people link Bible words and verses with each other in their original languages.
He thinks that AI could be of assistance in helping us form our prayers, but it is potentially problematic when it is being relied on for the content of our prayers.
“It is useful tool for some tasks, such as modernising prayers in archaic language or turning a list of prayer points into flowing text,” he says. “But I would not recommend relying on it to compose prayers from scratch, because this bypasses the important task of prayerfully considering what to pray for in accordance with God’s will, and how to frame our requests to God. The Bible teaches us to present our requests to God (Phil 4:6) – not to repeat the requests composed by an AI.”
For example, Bishop Stead used AI to create this prayer, expressing hope in the midst of discouragement.
“Heavenly Father, We come to You in a time of discouragement and despair. We feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of our current circumstances. We know that You are the only one who can bring us hope and peace in the midst of our struggles. We ask that You would give us the strength and courage to face our challenges with faith and trust in You. Help us to remember that You are always with us, even in the darkest of times. We pray that You would fill us with Your hope and peace, so that we can find joy and strength in You. Help us to remember that You are our refuge and strength, and that You will never leave us or forsake us. We thank You for Your love and mercy, and for the hope that You bring. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
“This is a good though somewhat generic prayer,” Dr Stead says. “But it lacks ‘heart’ because it isn’t coming from someone’s lived experience.”
A better example was the chat bot’s modernising of an old prayer. The input was:
Thy main plan, and the end of thy will is to make Christ glorious and beloved in heaven where he is now ascended, where one day all the elect will behold his glory and love and glorify him for ever.
Though here I love him but little, may this be my portion at last. In this world thou hast given me a beginning, one day it will be perfected in the realm above.
Thou hast helped me to see and know Christ, though obscurely, to take him, receive him, to possess him, love him, to bless him in my heart, mouth, life. Let me study and stand for discipline, and all the ways of worship, out of love for Christ; and to show my thankfulness; to seek and know his will from love, to hold it in love, and daily to care for and keep this state of heart.
Thou hast led me to place all my nature and happiness in oneness with Christ, in having heart and mind centred only on him, in being like him in communicating good to others; this is my heaven on earth, but I need the force, energy, impulses of thy Spirit to carry me on the way to my Jerusalem. Here, it is my duty to be as Christ in this world, to do what he would do, to live as he would live, to walk in love and meekness; then would he be known, then would I have peace in death.
The AI bot rewrote this as:
Your main goal and purpose is to make Christ glorified and beloved in Heaven, where he is now ascended, and where all the chosen will one day be able to see his glory and love and praise him forever. Even though I may not love him much here, I hope that will be my destiny. You have given me a start in this world, and one day it will be perfected in the afterlife.
You have helped me to understand and know Christ, even if it is not completely clear, to accept him, possess him, love him, and bless him in my heart, words, and actions. I should strive to learn and practice the ways of worship out of love for Christ, to show my appreciation, to seek and know his will out of love, to keep it in my heart, and to take care of it every day.
You have led me to put all of my being and joy in unity with Christ, to have my heart and mind focused only on him, and to be like him in doing good for others. This is my paradise on earth, but I need the strength, energy, and motivation of your Spirit to take me to my heavenly home. It is my duty to be like Christ in this world, to do what he would do, to live as he would live, to walk in love and humility, so that he will be known and I will have peace in death.
Although some may lament the loss of poetry and beauty in the original language, the resultant prayer is easier to understand for many people.
The IBIP prayer app, incorporating AI, is due for release in July and Mr Oades is already thinking of other uses.
“One Christian mission has raised the potential of handling multiple languages within the prayer app,” he says, “The app doesn’t cater for this yet but the potential is to use AI to enable people to share and receive prayer points using their preferred language. This feature could benefit churches with members for whom English is not their first language. For example, this potentially enables Chinese, Spanish and English people to join the same prayer group.”
There’s a lot more to this new technology than the current headlines would indicate and it may yet be harnessed to help boost prayer for individuals and churches. To that we say, “Amen”.