What Prayer is Not
An exploration of what prayer is not.
Prayer is not manipulating God. It does not cause God to do things.
This should be an unremarkable statement; if God is God, how can we force God to do something? Whatever prayer may be, it should be obvious that we are not able to force God to act in certain ways. If we could, it would mean we are God, and that God is not God.
In the bible, this "forcing of God's hand" is called "tempting the Lord." There is an article which mentions this here on a church rewired.
Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Jesus uses this saying in response to temptation in the stories in Luke 4 and Matthew 4. It is a key insight from the Hebrew Scriptures. Demanding of God, as opposed to humble dependence upon God, is an unsafe course. ... Technically, demanding God provide a sign is to step out of the Christian faith, and into the realm of magic. It essentially says that saying the right words, or doing the correct rituals, will manipulate reality. ... We have a good "magic" in our culture. It is called science and technology. These two are properly used with great care. We understand we have gone beyond science into something else (eg metaphysics, the arts, religion or superstition) when we enact ritual acts or words, which experience shows are not repeatable and independently verifiable. We have all sorts of peer regulation, and legislation, and consumer protection laws to make sure science remains scientific. ... The damage done by people purporting to be "scientific" without the discipline of the scientific method, and without a clear ethical base, has been great. No wonder then, that we reserve the term magic for something far removed from science, and more often associated with charlatanry.
Theology: We might call the paragraphs above the "theological reasoning" that prayer is not about causing God to do things.
Understand what we are saying here: there are many kinds of prayer. We are talking about one aspect of one kind of prayer. We are talking about prayer where we are asking of God, and where we also expect a response; we expect God to cause the request of the prayer to happen.
Practice: There is also a very practical reason to say that prayer is not about causing God to do things. Numbers of people have scientifically put prayer of this kind to the test, and it fails.
Among the most worthy prayers asking something of God must be those for the healing of sick people. There have been multiple scientific tests of such intercessory prayer. A very accessible summary of such experimentation can be found in A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists by David G Myers (Jossey Bass 2008), starting at page 33. (He outlines similar theological reservations to those I have listed.) He lists prayer experiments from such institutions as Harvard, Duke University , and the Mayo Clinic; they uniformly fail. One which appeared to have some positive results was later found to have authors involved in fraudulent behaviour.
If we are rational people, who really seek the truth, we need to listen to this. Truly discipled and disciplined theology, listens not only to scripture and tradition, but also reason; especially when Christians are among those who accept the veracity of such experimentation.
Prayer is important. Scripture tells us, "Pray without ceasing." My own physical and mental health, and my effectiveness at work, correlates with my practice of prayer. As the prayer practice drops off, I get more tired, less peaceful, less efficient and effective, and eventually, sick.
So why, in a series of reflections about prayer, would I begin with such a strong apparent denial about the efficacy of prayer?
Note first of all that I have NOT been talking about efficacy. I have talked about causing God to act. The two are different.
In much of the church in recent decades, prayer has seemed to be about this asking. Instead of believing six impossible things before breakfast, it has seemed that we were supposed to ask for six impossible things before breakfast!
In the church of my growing up, psalms were said antiphonally each Sunday, followed by a sung Gloria. This is called praying! I do the same thing each morning and evening (at my best) from the prayer book. But somehow it was never communicated to me that this was prayer. It's only in recent times that I have realised how much my early Methodist heritage mirrored the morning and evening prayers which now nurture me.
I learned in children's Sunday School that there were five kinds of prayer, counting them off on my fingers; Praise, Thanksgiving, Confession, Intercession, and Petition. Somehow asking prayer (Intercession and Petition) was the area that stuck as "real." I suppose it made a certain kind of sense. Later, Confession gained reality, as I began to understand my limitations and shortcomings. But even confession was subsumed under asking. Perhaps we asked for forgiveness, not appreciating how much confession involves repentance, an activity on our part.
Just a moment ago, I had a mental blank about "the last finger"; petition. I typed "Five kinds of prayer fingers" into Google, and right clicked "Open in New Tab" on a couple of the links it returned. In church we learned that petition was the last/least finger, but this morning, the first page to download and open began the list with Petition.
Maybe our defensiveness in a changing world meant we tried to be faithful by still asking God for things, in the face of our fears that it didn't work, instead of asking ourselves if we needed to change our theology. This is important. God remains the same, but theology, the way we talk about God, the way we understand and appreciate God and how we respond to God, changes. I didn't learn that distinction until much later. Instead I heard lots about being faithful and praying, and how God does answer prayers , and rationales for why God wants us to pray, and enjoys our praying, "even though God does not really need us to pray."
We would have been scandalised if someone suggested that such prayer did not cause God to act- although I'm sure most of us wondered! We were in denial.
To summarise: I begin with this apparent denial, because if we are to pray, it only makes sense to pray in a way which works, and which is rational. It does not make sense for me to embark on something I know does not "work."
What do we say about the experience of those who say their prayer has been answered? David Myers' book outlines our human predisposition to "find order in random events, to interpret outcomes guided by our preconceptions, and to search for and recall instances that confirm our beliefs..." Coincidence does not mean cause.
Is "asking prayer" therefore a pointless exercise? I think not. To begin, if we are praying from a healthy spiritual and theological base, we will be praying "in line with God's will." We will not be asking for things we do not need. Intercession and petition will be a reflection of the cry of God's own heart for us.
Consider our prayer for a friend. A deep, honest, com-passionate prayer, can open us to things that we ourselves can do for our friend. Indeed, our very care and concern can be a healing and comforting agency to them. I remember hard times when I knew people to be praying for me. The love did things, despite the fact that I had no expectation of God enacting the particulars because these people asked. We gather around the communion table at Greenacres, often beginning the rite with prayers for others and members of the congregation. The care and the love is palpable. In leading the prayers I mention names and situations, but the efficacy is the love and acceptance of each other as we stand closely together.
Secondly, asking prayer has something to do with our own feelings and struggles. Rev Judith Meyer once gave me permission to post a remarkable sermon on prayer. You can find it at One Man's Web, and it is still on the website of her congregation at that time.
Speaking about "asking prayer" she says,
I don't pray often.
But when I do,
it's because I'm desperate.
I want to tell you about this,
because sometimes these prayers,
desperate though they may have been,
have changed my life.
Not because they were answered
in any obvious way.
Not because the universe offered me any signs
to confirm that I was going in the right direction.
Not because of anything outside myself, actually -
but because of something inside,
something that allowed me to open up,
or to change,
or to move on
in ways I desperately needed to do.
I have prayed for sleep.
I have prayed for forgiveness.
I have prayed when I've had it with my perfectionism
and need help with acceptance.
I have prayed for healing.
I have prayed for people I know who are suffering.
I have prayed by hospital bedsides
when there is nothing left to say.
And I have prayed
when I feel cut off from the spirit of life,
when I feel trapped,
no longer in touch with my own true self.
Our story for the children this morning
was a mystical narrative in which the Maasai Man
sings to the spirits of the animals caged in the zoo.
They get a glimmering of something
that reminds them of who they really are,
and they don't feel sad and trapped anymore.
When they remember their own true selves,
they feel free.
Prayer is like the song of the Maasai man.
It can rekindle the awareness of who we really are,
and remind us of the spirit within.
We can turn to it when we feel trapped too,
held back by our own limitations and weaknesses,
or frustrated by the constraints our lives have imposed on us,
or when we have nowhere else to turn.
The best advice anyone ever gave me about prayer was this:
just ask for what you want.
not because you will receive,
but because there is hope and healing
in naming what you want.
There is hope and healing in the truth,
whatever the outcome you seek.
A little later she says:
Prayer is primitive and fundamental.
It is the naked recognition of who we are
and what we want.
Prayer is speaking the truth to ourselves,
not always an easy thing to do.
We express ourselves in our most vulnerable state.
Third, when I pray and ask, it is not simply asking. It is an acceptance of and trust in providence. In this most foolish of activities, I trust, and remind myself that I trust, that the creation is in some sense providential. God is for the good.
These are difficult things for us to grasp and be comfortable with.
We have a long tradition which often understood that God would act at our behest. There was a time in history when it did not seem unreasonable that God would act at our request. We need to be honest with ourselves and re-learn our reality.
We currently live alongside a noisy reactionary tradition which makes getting God to do things an act of faith and good disciple ship. It forgets the dangers:
Where an emphasis is placed on "signs and wonders" as indicators of God's reality and presence, there will always be a temptation to force God to perform. In desperation, one might even manufacture something. Technically, demanding God provide a sign is to step out of the Christian faith, and into the realm of magic. It essentially says that saying the right words, or doing the correct rituals, will manipulate reality....
... If you work magic by putting God to the test, there is a necessary corollary. Other people have to "work their credulity" to accept the magic. A world view needs to be created and fostered, which suspends the "common sense" which has been freed from so much supersTiton by the scientific method. By definition, this suspending of common sense, in the face of valid scientific critique, is a denial of reality. It must then, be abusive. We know that if we bang our heads against a wall, or cross the road without looking, reality will not be denied. ( Link)
As a society we are impoverished about the meaning of religious ritual and devotion. Even religious people are sufficiently impoverished that it seems interceding for others and asking for ourselves can only be understood in a literal sense.
If we are to pray, we need to become clear what we are doing, and what we are not doing.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.