By Adalynn Siemens
Before I write a single word, I wanted to point out (and this point will be stated again at the end) that Prayer is complicated, and simple, and personal — all at the same time. I would never try to boil prayer down to “This is right,” and “This is wrong” for everyone. This is more solely my individual train-of-thought on the subject matter.
Over my younger years, my average prayer life consisted of one of three major event categories:
(1) Making wishes (I once thought the reason none of my prayers came true, was simply because I was being selfish and only wishing for things that were for myself. I remember one day as a very young child, wishing on my knees to “god” (whomever I thought that was at the time), for a hammer. For my father, of course… when said hammer did not appear next to my bed in the morning, I schluffed off the thought of God for another few months before making any more genie-like attempts to contact him)
(2) Making “bets” or “deals” with God (“I will be the most perfect of all children ever in existence, perfectly groomed and well-behaved, and I will never again argue with my mother [oh, young naivety], if you will just help me pass this damn math test!”), or –
(3) Something along the lines of a “Spiritual-sign guessing-game” (For instance: “God, if I walk into that grocery store, and there are no cupcakes? Well, obviously you don’t want me to eat them. But, if there are cupcakes, I’ll take that as a sign to help myself.”).
Yeah, don’t get me wrong… I’m not proud of any of that. I mean, sure… the first two are probably “normal” stages of child-hood; however, you have to understand something: I probably committed #3 as lately as just this past weekend! Right, as I was saying: Not proud.
Today though: I actively and personally attempt to view prayer as less of a “wish list” to God, and more of a communication with God. I pray to talk with God, but rarely have I ever asked anything astronomical of Him. Perhaps I’ve petitioned for things like strength and wisdom in difficult situations… but at the very least, keeping it simple, and almost always relating back to myself.
This isn’t because I’m a selfish individual, but simply because I believe everyone needs to take care of themselves and their own first and foremost. Each person’s relationship with God is perfectly unique and in need of individual attention from the person in question. My prayer life toward others, however, has indeed been starkly different from the average Christian. This most likely rests on the fact that I simply do not believe our God is up there poised and waiting to solve all our problems at the first sign of a “Help me, Jesus”.
I think people praying over absolutely every single situation expecting a divine result of some kind, especially the tiny stuff, is somewhat… strange. No offense to anyone intended, of course. I admit fully that I do not have any personal experience with praying for every little thing, and therefor I do not fully understand it from my perspective.
At any rate, I know it’s hard for more traditional Christians to understand how someone can think of prayer in this manner, but for me? This thought-pattern makes sense to me on a lot of levels.
I don’t believe God babysits us or treats us (or our lives) as puppets. I believe we are charged to take care of our own lives 99% of the time, and only in very rare circumstances will God ever intervene directly. I believe God can guide us, bring us great strength, lead us to wisdom, fortify us against negativity, help us deal with pain and suffering, and so on… but I do not believe He is going to help you find the watch you lost last week, rip a tumor out of your body, or bring a deceased relative back from the dead.
When I see someone asking for prayers, my automatic reaction is “Prayer is fine but, what can I do to help you? And what can you do to help yourself?” — By saying ‘I’ll pray for you,’ I truly feel really, really dumb, as if my entire intellect has been shuffled away in a single statement. The world is a logical place, even under God. Especially under God. If God intends to intervene, He’s going to do it regardless and independent of any requests or petitions. An old motto of mine used to be “God is not dumb,” and it still holds true: God is smart. Much smarter than you or I.
Does this mean prayer is useless?
No! Of course not. Prayer is a marvelous thing. You need prayer, in fact. Well, not “need” perhaps but, you should have it. Our relationships with God are two-way streets, and prayer is our directly line of communication back to God when returning that communication.
Prayer may not literally move a mountain, but it can bring much peace, serenity, and comfort into the lives of ourselves and the lives of others. Many religions use a variety of meditation practices for a similar purpose; prayer is not so different. It has the ability to center and focuses the mind, to level off your emotions, and even to center/focus your physical self as well. These effects have the potential to have active benefits in both the sender and the recipient of prayer.
All with the added bonus of fostering regular and healthy communication with God.
Prayer is also knowledge, guidance, strength and support, or asking questions. God is capable of bestowing upon us a number of gifts and strengths that would still give us the freedom of choice, and yet give us the advantage of His wisdom for our lives.
Prayer is good! But, there are many things that prayer is not.
Coincidence does exist.
One thing that bothers me about prayer, would be the idea that the more people you have praying, the “better your chances” of a good outcome.
While I don’t mean to be cruel or rude, I have to point out that if someone is dead? They are dead. If someone is dying, they are dying. If there is a bad situation, the likelihood of the hand of God coming down and randomly changing that? Is actually quite slim. This rests quite heavily on the fact that I don’t believe every last little spec of dust blowing in the wind is a miracle from God; in fact, I consider it a bit of an insult to the terms “miracle” and “God” to really degrade the whole concept to such mediocrity.
While I may not attribute every last event or happening to God Himself, this doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to God’s presence and creation. Don’t get me wrong: God is in everything, His hand is in everything, I not only “get” that concept, but I believe it to be true. More accurately, what I mean by the above is when a person is in a near-miss situation with a car, God didn’t necessarily step out of left field and spare that person’s life.
It was simply a coincidence.
I don’t think if you lose your finger instead of your arm, that this was a miracle from God — you still lost your finger! Who, exactly, was responsible for that? God as well? No… of course not. We only attribute the good things to God. But, that makes no logical sense. God is only around for the good, and suspiciously absent for the bad?
I think the world is logical, full of science and fact. I also believe the world is full of coincidence. It is also, however, full of God — but not in the way most people seem to believe that it is, not from my vantage point at any rate. People often ask why bad things happen to good people, or worse: Why do good things happen to bad people? The answers aren’t contradictory to the nature of a Divine Creator, but instead actually support His existence (just in a way no one seems to want to acknowledge):
A perfect being who bestows upon creation the gift of free will, will not now turn around and take it away.
Whether you like it or not, the hand of God coming down to Earth to stop a car from striking you dead-center, would in fact be interference in the natural course of Humanity’s freedom. This would contradict the perfect nature of God, and would proceed to beg the question: Either free-will does not exist… or God is not perfect (and therefor does not exist, in all honesty).
Now, I for one am a huge fan of free will. But I suppose each individual will have to answer that question for him or herself.
Do this, Get that
A combination of all that I have written above, is probably the exact reason I struggle hard with “religion” (as opposed to faith). At least the kind of religion that seems to suggest that our actions influence God, something I will never believe is true in the same sense as my religious counterparts.
I do adore some parts of religion, and contrary to popular belief, I do have personal religion as well. It’s just so different than most people’s religion seems to be. I spent a lot of time just now talking in a manner that will have most readers questioning whether I am a Christian at all, but what I say to you now is simply this: I adore God. I love the Lord, and sometimes that becomes lost in the analytical mumbo-jumbo. I also love religion as well, religion as to honor God in faith; but that is the limit I place upon the terminology “religion”.
But I won’t lie in saying that I find most people’s concept of prayer to be more akin to witchcraft than to Christianity — not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m just making a point (please spare me angry letters from the angry Wiccan, Witch, and Neo-Pagan community). What I see is akin to the following ritual: Do like this, pray/say like that, light a candle, and get a result. For those who don’t understand the definition of the term “Witchcraft,” I’ll lay it out for you now:Witchcraft is working with the energies and forces around you to produce a result, often involving deity as well as prayer.
It’s strikingly similar. But it’s not Christianity.
“Wish-Lists,” Demands, and Fair Play
I also don’t like what most people ask of God. Some people (many who claim to be superbly intelligent when it comes to God and “His ways”) I have often seen praying for a specific outcome… but, is the problem with this scenario not immediately evident? That’s like a professional sports team praying for victory. Do you really think God plays favorites? Placing bets, perhaps? How can you ask God to “choose a side” of any human-based interest, activity, event, or occurrence, when He so clearly loves all of creation equally?
Therefore, the only appropriate forms of prayer are as follows:
1) Prayer of fairness, accuracy in judgment from officials, good weather, inner strength, personal stamina, “do my best,” and so on. Things that influence one of two things: Yourself as a person [ie: the ability to access your full potential in stamina, to focus your mind, the determination of will, etc], or Everyone [ie: good weather, which would be beneficial to everyone equally in order to perform at the top of his or her game]. Both of these, however, still tread in the “praying for intervention” area, but to a much lesser extent. Even I acknowledge that perhaps there is a possibility for God to work with these prayers.
This is because no one’s free will is really imposed upon in the above scenarios. If all you are involving is yourself, your free-will is perfectly respected through your request for intervention. If it involves everyone, no one is put at a disadvantage if there is intervention.
2) The form of prayer that I can easily support: One of guidance. How do I perform my best? What are the best choices to make? Where do I go, what can I do, what is most beneficial and what will be most negative in assisting me on my journey to be in top form today? These questions don’t necessarily involve physical intervention, but instead bestow a knowledge one can choose to accept or ignore.
But, to do what most people do (to pray that another team loses [and praying for a win is basically the same thing) just seems… almost wrong, a bit vile. It’s like asking God to strike another down… you just don’t do that in my opinion.
I’ve watched numerous individuals pray that things either do or do not happen, be it for themselves or others. This goes so far as outcomes in the positive for themselves that would potentially put others at some kind of disadvantage or short-coming. That is hard for me to swallow and only continues to confound the entire process. Especially for people proclaiming theological and/or ethical and/or moral superiority (which presses my buttons, I’ll admit — and it happens more often than I’d like to bear witness). I suppose the clincher of the entire focus becomes: What if you were “meant to be” in that negative situation? What if that situation is beneficial to the other person, in which case what right do you have to even try to pray your way out of it?
Due to all these factors, and many more, this culminates into the basis of why I feel God does not interfere in our lives as often as people want to believe. God is perfect, and that means God is perfectly fair. To interfere in one person’s life, rather than another … to swing the favor toward one person rather than another… is unfair, and therefor not of God by the forces of logic and reason (things He also gave to us, by the way), and religion.
Prayer as social action.
Prayer is also useful to us as social beings. We often show care and love for each other by saying “I’ll pray for you,” and we show God as well that we are loving of each other in a deeper way by doing so. Even if it doesn’t necessarily change the course of history… it’s still an important social / human connection.
Does God ever intervene in action to prayer?
I believe He does… but very, very rarely. I also believe for this to occur, it must strictly involve one person, and one person only, who has asked for that action. This is because of the whole “free will” conundrum and how precariously our lives sometimes impact the lives of others.
It is very rare that in our daily lives changing something about the course of our actions (even small ones) would not affect someone else, even in a small way. As a result, I think the instances of “divine intervention” are incredibly rare, the circumstances will only be known by God, and would be miracles in the truest of forms.
Also, if all people potentially affected are all praying for the same action… this would obviously not be any kind of violation of free will.
A Case Study
Somewhere in mid-2009, I observed a conversation on one of my many internet forums, this one Christian-only in nature. A middle-aged strongly-convicted Christian woman is talking about a situation at her workplace. She explains that her physical position in the office (where she sits) is about to be relocated to a different area, in order to accommodate someone in the new location who requires her assistance. She also mentions that the woman in question is somewhat hard to deal with, perhaps “hateful” isn’t too strong a word to use in this situation. As the story continues, she states her clear intentions of the afternoon conversation: She would like us to pray that the move does not happen. She does not want to be relocated to be this person’s personal assistant.
Pop quiz: What’s wrong with the above scenario?
Humanity has an innate nature to be self-centered, also called “selfish”. These two terms are considered negative and unwanted, but in reality they are simply factual pieces of the puzzle that is life. We do tend to think of ourselves first, and that’s not necessarily a horrible conundrum. If we don’t care for ourselves, we would indeed be useless to the rest of the world anyway. So in that sense, I don’t consider it unusual or even wrong that someone would want prayers for the outcome of a particular situation to shift in his or her favor.
The pop-quiz begs to differ though: There is something wrong here. What if that other individual, the hateful woman who needs / wants assistance, should be praying a prayer of her own? What if she’s praying that it does happen? What does this mean for the infra-structure of prayer? Does a battle-to-the-death ensue between prayer requests? Shall we go with “Who does God like best”? How about who has prayed the most over his or her life-time? Who sinned more? Who wins? Who gets it? Who’s prayer comes out on top?
This exciting battle-royale is insane. There is honestly no “right” answer here, and the only logical conclusion to come out of this situation?
While the concept of prayers for the positive outcomes of self-centered events is normal, it still does not help to make any practical sense of the situation. God doesn’t play favorites. Perfection demands fairness. Works do not equal faith (forget about how many kittens your rescued from trees, or your 5 different university degrees — not helpin’ the case any). Praying for your own good fortune becomes a lost point, especially when you consider the horribly unselfish nature of the following: What if this person really, truly needs you to be there for her? Should you not self-sacrifice for that? Or, worse… what if God wants you to be there, even if you don’t.
There is a plethora of problems in the pray-for-self-outcome scenario that make it completely unfathomable that this could be the only nature of prayer. If God can’t choose sides, how in the world can I?
But still, based on the above scenario, we may choose to pray for this person’s situation based on a love, respect, or other human emotion we feel for the individual and/or her situation. This isn’t wrong and showing love for our fellow man truly is of God; however, I do believe we must be realistic of the situation at hand. Unrealistic expectations can lead to demoralizing spirits and a loss of faith when expectations are not met.
For me, prayer boils down to four main points:
The focus of prayer should be God-centered, rather than human-centered (What do you want, what do you have to give me? Rather than here’s what I want, here’s what I want you to give me). A prayer-like mindset that is out to demand an outcome from God, rather than leave yourself open for His guidance (in whatever way He doles it out to you, and whatever the message may be) in your own personal life and the lives of others, doesn’t strike me as productive.
The focus of prayer in most situations should also be centered on knowledge or wisdom or guidance, rather than direct action. If direct action is to occur, it must only be with regard to yourself, unless the request-for-action can be relatively seen as not impeding on another person’s right-to-free-will. Otherwise, you really are setting yourself up for disappointment at best.
The focus of prayer toward others should be based (in addition to the above) on love and social connection for each other, rather than demands of God.
And finally.. the focus of prayer on a regular daily basis should be talking with God, on a regular basis, to maintain communication which is of central importance to any relationship, including one with God.
I started out the section stating something that remains true after everything I’ve written: Prayer is complicated, and simple, and personal — all at the same time. At the end of the day, prayer is an amazing tool for our personal relationships with our Creator.
But we do have to recognize it’s limitations.