Prayer is both a thing and a concept with which I have struggled for quite some time now. Probably like you, I have had my share of answered prayers, and also my share of unanswered ones. And this I think naturally leads one to consider the actual efficacy and legitimacy of prayer. If we observe that prayer is only inconsistenty answered at best, then how can we not say that perhaps it is the mere cause and effect machinations of normal reality and is nothing of prayer? I would think this not only reasonable but obvious. If prayer only inconsistently effects change as we may observe it, then it’s logical to assume that what’s really going on has nothing to do with prayer at all, but is merely a matter of probability.
For example, I have chosen to fly on airplanes dozens of times, and I’ve prayed for each flight, and all have landed safely. However, to call this an example of “answered prayer” is, in fact, quite a stretch of logic since statistics clearly show that the percentage of flights that crash is so very low relative to how many flights have taken place in history. This makes “safe flight” much more likely a function of human engineering favorably manipulating the probability of a safe outcome rather than divine intervention. The safety of the flights may have something to do with answered prayer, but how can one really know? The only way to know even mildly is if one observed that all his prayers were answered all the time…and even this would be logically subjective, but at least it would make a strong circumstantial case. Logically subjective perhaps, unless we are speaking strictly of the miraculous, but certainly compelling.
My thinking on the matter of prayer has evolved through several iterations. I went through the neophyte version of God-as-genie when I was a kid…but not quite so disrespectful as that sounds. My prayers as a young person were never overtly irrational…I prayed to be ignored by bullies at school—or, as I like to refer to them: the bastard spawn of the mass dysfunctional family wreckage which hallmarks the worst generation in history: the Baby Boomers—to recover from illness, to do well on exams. That sort of thing. I remember God being quite gracious back then, but this is perhaps just the positive memories of childhood rising to the top. Maybe God answered my prayers, but as I had no rational working definition of God back then (most Christians don’t, in fact) I really couldn’t say.
During my fifteen years as a neo-Calvinist in the cult of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) I brushed up against the congnitive dissonance of prayer as it relates to object and abject divine determinism. This view of prayer makes it merely ritualistic, signifying nothing of any real efficacy, since all things are up to God anyway, so it goes, and he has already decided what to do with everyone, from birth unto hell or heaven, whichever you happen to get. You’ll never really know until the day God disposes of you into one or the other eternal receptical.
Is that just a peach of a belief? And yet this is where most Christains today tread water with respect to prayer…in this arrant folly of reason. And don’t let them tell you they don’t actually believe this. If you are BORN evil, which is precisely orthodox when it coms to the Christian interpretation of man’s nature, then you are entirely insufficient to any good thing, and this includes knowing the difference between good and evil. And since this knowledge is the root of ethics (how man values what he knows), and ethics is inexorably tied to epistemology (how man knows what he knows), then the eradication of man’s moral compass by the doctrine of “original sin” completely wrecks man’s ability to know anything at all. Thus, God must necessarily determine man to his eventual eternal destiny, regardless if he be “saved” or not, because man, once you tease out the doctrine to its logical conclusion, is utterly mindless. You may go to church and follow all the commandments and abstain from all worldly temptations and throw out your television and excoriate the idea of modern technology as merely the devil’s distraction, but to think that you can know you are saved…that somehow you, who is rotten to core from birth, can know the mind of God and what his grand plan is for you is something that in a different time would have gotten you burned at the stake.
And thus you see the implicit evil behind the notion of prayer as merely a ritual we do because God commands it: salvation is not a thing the church can offer. It’s a lie. No one knows where they will end up, be they found in church on Sunday or in a whore house. The advertisement that there is actual salvation to be gained in the church is the greatest bait-and-switch scam ever perpetrated upon man.
This abysmal version of prayer never really took hold in me. I always found it terribly specious..and while I paid lip service to it, not wanting to cause a stir (SGM doesn’t take doctrinal disagreement with much levity…regardless of the degree, it’s pretty much stomped out with ferocity), I used to despise it when people would pray for me and top it off with “if it be thy will, Lord”. Because that presupposed that God had already decided what should happen to me, and that what I wanted and intended was besides the point. And this is the crux of what I want to talk about in this article. The notion that what I desire for my life through prayer is infinitely subordinated to an outside will, even God’s, doesn’t sit well with me. Not because I crave control, or lust sinfully and selfishly after what is God’s power alone, but because it is at root utterly irrational. If God has predetermined for me my experiences, and possesses the ultimate veto on all my choices, and shall tell me whether or not my prayers contain any merit whatsoever, then what is the point of prayer? What is the point of my having any ideas at all about anything? God will do what God will do…my very existence then becomes entirely meaningless. My mind is an illusion of a mind which cannot actually exist because it’s infinitely irrelevant. And this is a contradiction in terms. And I may not know everything about God, but I know this: He cannot be God if his very existence is utterly incompatible to my own, or vice versa, and if what he asks of his children contradicts itself, thus rendering the very words he uses to communicate himself and his intentions utterly meaningless.
But even more superficial than all of that…I mean, we can get into the root philosophical contradictions, and that’s its own brand of fun, but we can put it in more pedestrian terms: Would you continue to ask favors of someone who has told you to freely ask him favors if you never knew whether or not your favors would be granted; if there were all these stipulations about what could be asked for and when and how and that it really wasn’t going to be up to you and that you couldn’t be trusted to know what you really wanted or needed, and therefore the asking of favors became this tedious and exasperating task of self-examination and naval gazing and groveling and bemoaning your own infinite existential inadequacy and ignorance, and then when confronted with a desperate circumstance like a child with a terminal illness or the loss of a career or a sexual assault you found yourself groveling and prostrating yourself before this giver-of-favors, wailing and begging him to just this once give you relief; and then to forgive you for thinking what YOU want actually matters? In other words, you are told to ask favors, but then told that you don’t possess the intrinsic wisdom or foresight to know which favors should be asked for. So favor-asking becomes this giant farce…a facade of love. Because the giver of favors is going to do whatever he’s going to do whether you ask for it or not.
Needless to say, most of us, if presented with such a clearly ludicrous waste of time would pass on it, and many of us wouldn’t hesitate to scold the snake oil salesman for his wicked deception. Nevertheless, this is what prayer has become. It is nothing more than the dance of a medicine man around the fire of primitive, polytheistic superstition.
So what, at root, is the error? Okay. Wait for it. And prepare to be scandalized.
We ask instead of tell. We politely request instead of demand an answer to our prayers, which I submit as children of God, with all the responsibilities and complexities and challenges that this implies, is our divine birthright.
Now hold on. Let me explain (in part two). This is not without its reason; it comes with much understanding and responsibility. I promise, it is not a return to the genie in the bottle.
End (Part ONE)