I’ve prayed my whole life. Sometimes with real dedication and discipline, but more often casually and in passing. I’ve read books and articles about prayer. I’ve studied what scripture says about prayer. I’ve heard countless sermons and supposed explanations regarding prayer.
I still don’t understand prayer.
Not all prayer, though. Some kinds of prayer I very much grasp and believe in wholeheartedly. C.S. Lewis (I think) said that prayer doesn’t change God, it changes you. I believe that. Prayers of gratitude, reflection, empathy, worship, acceptance, surrender–prayers that move focus from self to a higher reality, other people, a bigger perspective–all of those prayers do wonders. Those prayers calm anxiety, encourage love for others, reduce narcissism, spawn creative thinking. They can even provide a kind of divine inspiration for solving a problem.
Simple meditation, whether Christian or not, also does these wonders, both according to my own experience and according to science. One of my favorite meditations I’ve done is “Breathe in grace, breathe out love.” Not only is this meditation plus deep breathing a physical and psychological balm, it encapsulates my core belief, that grace for oneself produces love for others. Although I can’t say I am a rigorous practitioner, I believe living a life of this kind of prayer and meditation would do wonders for me with regular practice.
The prayer I don’t understand is the kind that seeks outcomes. I don’t get it, and to be honest, I don’t believe in it. Sorry, but it’s true.
I grew up in a missionary family. Missionaries trade in prayer requests. I’m not saying it’s not sincere, but I also know that sending out prayer requests and asking people to pray is a way of engaging followers and sustaining support, financial and otherwise. I do think those in such ministry really believe, and have even experienced, what they consider changed outcomes on account of prayer. A convert to Christ. A safe journey. A healed child. A repaired car. Sometimes their stories have an undeniably supernatural quality to them.
But I have trouble believing. I don’t think our prayers change the mind of God or alter the future. I don’t see how that is possible, given what I believe of God and the universe. And believing in that is cruel in a way, to those who don’t have their prayers answered. Did they not have enough faith? Did God just see fit to do something else? They would say that God just had another plan. But didn’t he have that plan to begin with?
I also wonder if this kind of prayer doesn’t remove responsibility from us to DO something. Maybe WE are the answer to the prayer. Maybe WE need to solve someone’s problems. Or even our own. Maybe WE are God’s love to others. Maybe WE need to move a few mountains. Easier to just say, “I’m praying for you.”
It’s hard to study the impact of prayer scientifically, but the few studies on it there have been have shown no impact, at least on medical outcomes. There is some evidence to suggest that patients who are surrounded by love and community fare better, however. Prayer as an expression of love and support, Yes, I do believe in that.
I have a friend from childhood, my age, with terminal cancer. And, yes, I have prayed and prayed for her and her family. But I don’t ask God to heal her. I believe she will either be healed or not, regardless of my prayers or those of anyone else. My prayers for her look more like a intensive focus on her in my mind and heart. I hold her there with all the love I can muster, and I try to push it across the ocean and through the ripple of atomic particles to her, that maybe she will know she is not alone, that she is surrounded by friends, that she is loved. And I hope and believe this will give her strength and courage to endure what she must, regardless of the outcome. I hope she will know that her life has meaning to many. I hope the love she feels will remind her of God’s love for her and his presence with her, though she may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, or perhaps though she find herself on a path that will bring her longer life.
That is the kind of prayer I am capable of, with the meager faith that I have. I hope it’s enough for her. I’m truly sorry if it’s not.
But to be honest, I am not going to pray for your car to get fixed. If I know of a mechanic in your town, I’ll share that information with you. I’m not going to pray you find an affordable apartment. I’ll try to help you find one, or maybe even send you a check, if I am able. If you are afraid, I’ll hold you in my heart and focus my mind on you. I’ll try to walk with you so you aren’t alone.
I wonder if there aren’t a lot of other Christians out there who also struggle with prayer, and particularly with the outcomes-based culture of prayer. I wonder what percentage of people who reply to a Facebook appeal with “Praying!” or “I’ll pray for you!” actually follow through. Or if they do, who actually believe it will make a difference. Maybe I’m terribly cynical to think it’s low.
But I don’t mind being the one to put myself out there as a person of little faith, with regards to prayer or hell or any number of evangelical shibboleths. I’m tired of faking it. I’m tired of cultures that demand we all fake it til we make it. Or if we can’t, cultures that demand we get the hell out with our heresies.
I believe if faith is to survive the modern age, it must be honest. It must create room for doubt and questions and truth-telling. That’s the only kind of faith I can possibly sustain. That’s the only kind of faith I have any interest in. I’m more than happy to get the hell out, if that is what folks want. I’m happy to have found a community that actually doesn’t demand this. I’ll stay as long as they’ll have me.
Love to all.