Here is the thing. Prayer—at least as imagined or practiced by most people—is bogus. And when they stop to think about it, people get this. In a roundabout way, even Christians understand this. When asked about unanswered prayer they shuffle their feet, scratch their heads, and wring their hands. And eventually they come up with explanations for unanswered prayer that feature mystery, inscrutability, or their own lack of faith—answers designed more to justify prayer while getting God off the hook than they are designed to make sense.
Non-Christians, on the other hand, laugh. Facebook is full of their memes. A mouse praying, “And please don’t let the cat hurt me.”
Of course, some people believe their prayers have been answered, at least occasionally. So, they keep at it. It looks to me, however, that what is really happening here is intermittent reinforcement. You will remember all about this from your Psych 101 class. A desired behaviour can be cultivated in someone even if that behaviour is only infrequently rewarded. So, for example, a door-to-door salesperson may learn to put up with many disinterested potential clients, and even the occasional slammed door, so long as the salesperson makes at least the occasional sale. Or again, someone may play the slot machines—and even lose a lot over time—in the hope of a big win, especially if that person is rewarded in the meantime with occasional small wins.
Add in a few Bible texts that seem to suggest that if you pray long enough, with enough energy, and with great faith you will get what you want, and bingo, offering others your “thoughts and prayers,” becomes popular, low-risk pastime.
I will not argue that there is no place for prayer. When I was in seminary, I was taught that the model congregational prayer, for example, should include adoration, confession and thanksgiving along with supplication and intercession. The Psalmists’ most common type of prayer was actually lament—sad dirges about everything that goes wrong.
But people usually fast when it comes to confession or lamentation and choose for a steady diet of supplication and intercession instead. When it comes to prayer, if we’re not praying like soldiers in foxholes, we are usually praying like kids in a candy store. Most Christian prayer is mostly about getting what Christians want.
In a further defense of prayer, though, my wife reminded me this evening that prayer is more than just getting in a word in with God. Prayer can be emotionally satisfying. For example, prayer with another person can be a very, very intimate way of opening your hearts not only to God, but to each other. Prayer alone in your closet can be very cleansing or centering or promote self-examination. And any prayer can make one feel as if he or she is coming into the presence of God—a holy moment, possibly—even if we have no idea what God really thinks of our prayers.
I agree with her. Though praying for these reasons is not what most people aim for when they pray, and though these motivations for prayer are not often discussed in theologies of prayer, that does not mean they are not good reasons. They are.
Ultimately, though, the issue for me is that people only intermittently get what they want out of prayer, and then fool themselves into believing that next time they may be more fortunate, all the while rationalizing that such beliefs are somehow consistent with (their favorite) Biblical texts. For me, it looks like prayer is a beautiful idea, like a perpetual motion machine, that just can’t do what Christians usually ask of it.
And then, leaving prayer aside, I begin to ask the same questions about God in general. As a child, I memorized these words from the catechism. “Providence is the almighty and ever-present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and so rules them that . . . all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.”
Really? What good father does not heal his children when he can, does not bless them with plenty, or pluck them from tsunamis, or encourage them with success when he can? Even Jesus said, “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11).
Really? Where is this Father?
I don’t know, for sure. That is why I’ve turned to John Caputo’s ideas about “the weakness of God,” for answers, of late. You see, maybe the problem with prayer is not that we want good stuff, but that God just can’t deliver, regardless of what Jesus seems to suggest in Matthew 7.
But more on that Father in the next post.