“Daddy, I just want to tell you what a great daddy you are! You are just so special! I love you so much.”
“Thank you. That’s very kind of you to say. I love you, too.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t clean my room this morning. I’ll do it tomorrow for sure.”
“Ok. Please don’t forget.”
“I won’t. I promise. So I was wondering… can I have a pony?”
When Christians use the word “prayer,” probably 99% of the time or better, what they are referring to is a request to God to divinely intervene in human affairs. Think about the implications. We are asking the sovereign Lord of the Universe to contravene the laws He has put in place and change something to work in what we perceive is our favor. Again, think of the implications.
“Pray for Sister So-and-so. She’s hurt her back again.”
“Pray that Johnny will get accepted into the college he applied to.”
“Pray that I’ll get over this cold.”
“Pray for the Christians in Sudan. They’re being persecuted.”
“Pray for the people that had their homes destroyed by the flood.”
“Pray for this. Pray for that. Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray.”
“Well, of course you shouldn’t only ask God for stuff! You’re also supposed to do things like praise Him and confess your sins, too!”
When I was growing up in Evangelical Institutional Christianity™, I was taught that a really good technique for praying was to use the ACTS method—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Basically, you’re supposed to spend some time telling God how wonderful He is, list all the bad things you did since the last time you prayed, thank Him for the prayers He answered since the last time you prayed, and then recite to Him the list of stuff you want. Of course, if you want to really be legitimate, you need to tack on “…in Jesus name” at the end.
This sounds to me an awful lot like the fictitious conversation at the beginning of this post. Our prayers have become empty rituals that actually stifle our relationship with God and misrepresent Him to others. “Well,” the indignant objection goes, “you’re supposed to really mean all the stuff you say!” Which happens to be exactly what my rosary-wielding friends tell me as they slide beads around a string. “It’s supposed to be more than just a ritual, you know.” Yeah. Except it isn’t. I don’t care how sincere you are, the ritual becomes The Thing which becomes a substitute for the relationship. So back to the initial conversation. What father would want to hear those words from his child? Would he ever think that a compliment is sincere? Would he ever be able to have a conversation with his child without suspecting an ulterior motive?
The Western Christian concept of prayer is tied very closely to the concept of theological determinism, which essentially assumes that God supernaturally controls every aspect of our lives. Now the concept of theological determinism deserves its own deconstruction, but here, I’ll just touch on it.
Here’s how the two concepts are tied together. A Christian prays for something—asks God to suspend the laws of either nature or free will and miraculously intervene in some situation. So either things work out as the Christian desires, or they don’t. If things work out in favor of the Christian, they praise God for answering their prayer. (‘Cause even though God is omniscient, He really wants His children to ask Him for stuff. How does this work if He plans the future before you pray? Easy! He knew ahead of time that you would pray!) If things don’t work out in their favor, then God allowed it for a reason. Or you didn’t have enough faith. Or you had unconfessed sin in your life. It’s hard to say. These things can be murky.
I love the adamant claim that “God answers prayer!” What about when things didn’t work out the way I wanted, even after I prayed about them? “Well, sometimes God says ‘No,’ and sometimes God says ‘Later.’ Boom!” That disclaimer just covered every possible situation, and lends sophistic credence to the specious claim that “there’s power in prayer.”
Back to theological determinism, this quandary over answered versus unanswered prayer compels us to make up concepts such as God’s “perfect will” and “permissive will.” How much time do Christians spend agonizing over God’s will? God has given us enough guidance to make decisions. He’s given you common sense and the ability to educate yourself. He knows that you will make mistakes and He wants you to learn from them. He even gives us wisdom. But He’s also given us free agency, and allows us to make our own decisions—good or bad. You don’t need to spend hours agonizing over God’s will for your life. You know what He wants you to do today. So do it.
Christians, however, take this concept to an extreme, as they gleefully point out God’s divine intervention in world events. Something either happens because God ordained it—or He allowed it for a reason that we don’t understand. A great example of this is when there’s an earthquake in California—you know—because it’s located on a tectonic fault line. Inevitably, some pious saint will solemnly say, “Obviously, God is judging them. Those California people better wake up before God really sends His judgment.” Usually, this is because San Francisco has openly embraced the homosexual community. When asked about the Christians that had homes and businesses damaged in the earthquake, they sincerely say, “Well, God allowed it to happen for a reason. After all, His ways are above our ways.” A quiet “Amen” echoes through the room.
Mightn’t it be possible that sometimes, bad things happen as a result of our poor choices? I think it’s likely. Or is it possible that natural forces sometimes result in injury and damage? Can one who builds his house in hurricane alley and has his home destroyed by a hurricane reasonably assume that God specifically targeted him for punishment? Conversely, if his house escapes damage from a hurricane, is it reasonable to assume that God spared his house because he has curried special favor with God? Like Jesus implied to His disciples (Luke 13), sometimes towers just fall on people. Can God suspend the laws of nature and intervene in human events? Of course He can. But don’t forget that the natural is no less miraculous than the supernatural. God has given us an amazing, orderly world that is governed both in the physical and metaphysical realms by cause and effect. This phenomenon is an amazing developmental tool that can be used for good or for bad. Does God intervene in human events? I think that He does. To what extent, I can’t say. I’m pretty sure that the times He intervenes are usually subtle and unpredictable. Does God have a purpose for this world? Unquestionably. How exactly does He accomplish this purpose? I couldn’t even begin to speculate. What I do know is that He has given this world to us, and He expects us to build His kingdom.
We ought to be very careful about attributing things to divine intervention, because by doing so, we can easily mislead people into perceiving a false image of God. Your confident insistence that “God answers prayer” might cause a less mature believer to wonder what they’re doing wrong because God isn’t answering their prayer. Or your dead certain observation that “good things that happen are God’s blessing” might cause them to wonder why God isn’t blessing them the same way, and might lead them to forget that God expects us to make wise decisions or that difficult circumstances help us grow. Or your piously stating that “God allows bad things that happen for a reason” may cause others to wonder (and rightly so) what kind of God would purposely cause one human to be cruel to another.
A huge problem with the way that Western Christians view prayer is that power is attributed to prayer rather than to God. This is extremely important, so allow me to elaborate. There is no power in prayer. Yes, you read that right. There is no power in prayer. Power resides with the Creator. When we refer to “the power of prayer,” we glorify the request process rather than the one we are addressing. We lead people to believe that there is some sort of magical ritual that we must perform in order to get what we want. We then must come up with ridiculous explanations for the times that prayer “doesn’t work.” Explanations like, “it must not have been God’s will.”
My view of prayer has changed dramatically over the last couple decades. One thing that has influenced me pretty significantly has been my interaction with my children. One particular recurring incident stands out pretty vividly. When they were very young, my kids would sit in their booster seat at the table, and invariably, they would drop their fork on the floor. They would look down in dismay, point to the fork, look at me, and whine. I would look back at them, and ask, “What do you think you should do about it?” They’d look at me and say, “Get down and pick it up?” “You got it.” And they would climb down, and pick up the fork they had dropped. I shouldn’t have to explain that I didn’t want my kids growing up assuming that I’d intervene every time they had a problem—especially when the problem was self-induced. I wanted them to understand that there were repercussions for their actions and wanted them to be self-sufficient—at least to the extent they were able.
I’ve wondered many times since then if God doesn’t look at us the same way. When we whine about some life circumstance, I wonder if sometimes God doesn’t look at us and say “What do you think you should do about it?” As I’ve written about previously, I believe that God has placed us in this world for a reason—to develop us into beings of character and wisdom. You shouldn’t ask God to intervene in something that you aren’t willing to assist in yourself. Want God to help the flood victims? Perhaps He’s thinking, “I’ve already put a mechanism in place to help the flood victims. That mechanism is the assembly of followers of Jesus. Of which you are a part. So what are you doing to help the flood victims?” Want God to help someone who is sick? What are you doing to help that person? Want God to protect your kids? He gave them two parents, didn’t He? Care about the persecuted Christians in Sudan? Are you reaching out to them? Or do you maybe not care about them as much as you wanted to believe you did? The bottom line is that asking God to magic away all of the problems in the world is actually contrary to His purpose for us here on earth. Were He to do that, our character development would grind to a halt.
When asking God to intervene in our lives, perhaps we should adopt the perspective of children in a family. When we ask God for something, let’s think about the implications that our request might have on others. You see, getting a pony might be fun for a kid, but might be bad for the family who can’t stable it or even afford it in the first place. Don’t forget that when you ask God to help you get a particular job, you’re asking Him to deny that job to several other applicants. When you ask God to resolve some situation in your favor, the resolution you seek may be detrimental to another, or even ultimately to yourself.
Now I realize that I have come across as being cynical about prayer. I don’t mean to be cynical, but the abuse and misconstruing of prayer has gotten completely out of hand. Recognize that the Creator made you and wants a relationship with you. However, He also placed you in this physical world with all its struggles (which are made worse by our poor decisions) for a reason. He wants us to communicate with Him. But don’t treat God like a genie in a magic lamp whose sole purpose in life is to grant you wishes. Try picturing your communication with God as being between you and your spouse. If every time your spouse spoke to you he or she only asked for something or other, what kind of relationship would that be? Wouldn’t you like to simply hear, “I love you” sometimes? Wouldn’t you like for your spouse to ask your opinion once in a while? Maybe it would be nice to hear a story about something that happened to them recently.
Have you ever asked God for a challenge? A struggle? A difficult set of circumstances that will force you to learn and grow and develop character? Just a thought. These days, my requests to God are less likely to be for things or for divine intervention in challenging circumstances, and are more likely to be that God will help me do the right thing or help me develop a character trait that is lacking.
I don’t want to discourage anybody from talking to God. In fact, I want just the opposite. But don’t turn prayer into a ritual for selfish gain. Don’t portray it in a manner that causes people to think that God is a capricious, egotistical despot who is just as likely to incite violence or cruelty as he is to bestow a blessing.
Have an actual conversation with God. Just talk to Him. Tell him about things that worry you, or about things that you’re confused about. You don’t have to force yourself to perform a ritual to earn God’s love. Just don’t ask God for things that are selfishly motivated and expect Him to move heaven and earth to make it happen because He owes you because you spent 10 minutes telling Him how awesome He is.