What is Prayer For?

Praying-HandsI sat in worship, praying the congregational prayer as written in the bulletin:

gracious God, protect those who serve you as agents of light, and strike down all those who serve as agents of darkness…”

I stumbled over the words as if I struck my shin on a misplaced table.  In pain I thought, “who are these that serve the agents of darkness?  Strike them down?  Hurt them?  Is this what we should be praying?”

How do we, as United Methodists, understand prayer?  Is it a Christian wish list where we put our preferences before God?  Is it a desire to be one with the Almighty?  Is it a superstitious practice where we hope to shape the divine will to our own?  Is it a sacred union with the Christ?  What exactly do we think will happen when we pray?

I think of interviews I have conducted with people who have left the faith.  It is not uncommon to hear something similar to the following:

I prayed to God for help, and didn’t get what I asked for, therefore I decided God doesn’t exist.

These answers make me believe that some feel that God is just waiting to hear from us to know what to do.  It reflects a very conditional relationship where people believe only if God will serve them.  While I would like to dismiss this as irrational and unbelievably naive, I have to admit that many long time believers feel the same way.  My own mother, shortly before her death, confided in me a deep disappointment with God.  My mother smoked unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes for thirty years, but felt that God was unfairly punishing her with lung cancer when she was 78 years old.  She told me, “I pray for God’s healing, but he doesn’t do anything to help me.”  My mother, a lifelong church-goer, couldn’t fathom that God would not miraculously heal her of her affliction.

Recently, I heard a United Methodist pastor say to her congregation, “If you claim anything in Jesus’ name and have faith it will be done for you.  If you do not receive what you seek, it is not God that is to blame, but your own faith.”  What does this communicate to people?  Is God there only to give us our heart’s desire, regardless of our own responsibility?  It brought to mind a woman from a former church of mine who happily left a trail of tears in her wake by “helping” other people.  She fervently taught that anyone could have anything they wanted if the asked God and had enough faith.  She adopted a young couple with a terminally ill infant and told them that, “if they had enough faith” God would heal their daughter.  When the child died, she shrugged and left them with, “sorry, your faith just wasn’t strong enough.”

I visited a family whose matriarch was dying (she was in her eighties) and they asked me, point blank, “do you believe God wants her to be well?”  When I shared that she had led a long, fruitful life, and that it might be time for her to rest, the family forbid me from visiting their mother, so that my lack of faith could not taint God’s will.  (She died the next day.)

I meet people all the time who want prayer to be some form of mystical, magical incantation against the forces of natural law (a law that God put there in the first place).  There is an almost primal superstition to this sense of prayer.  Yes, it may be defended as biblical — another worldview that embraced the mystical and magical as “normal” — but we push it to an indefensible level.  Even among those who hold a magical belief in prayer, there is a flawed belief that if we don’t get what we want, it means that there is something wrong with God.

We all hold some very simple and naive views of prayer.  We pray that God won’t let it rain on our picnic, that the hurricane or tornado won’t hit us, or that the swine flu will pass us by.  There is a normal propensity to pray for what we want — selfishly and short-sightedly.  But we need to think through the implications.

I knew a wonderful man named Brice.  I visited him in his home near the end of his life, and he slept in a bed with the most remarkable and fantastic headboard I have ever seen.  Lions, tigers, hyenas, and elephants in brass covered this headboard, all in wild and ferocious relief.  Brice said to me, “Through the day I trust God to protect me, but at night I take no chances.  I trust my animals to keep me safe, and I haven’t had a nightmare in my entire life.”  For Brice, his “animals” protected him at night, but through the day God served this function.  However, when he lay dying he told me, “God let me down.”

How is it that adults hold onto such a childlike and immature sense of God’s role in their lives?  Why do so many feel that prayer is merely telling God what we want?  There is so much more to faith than that.  We need to help people mature in their faith as they mature in their years.

I met with a woman who embraced a sense of prayer that, for me, represents a mature and deeply faithful approach to prayer.  Having lost both feet and her sight to diabetes, she said, “I know that God is with me through all the difficulties, all the loss.  I know that I am beloved of God and that I face none of this alone.”  When I asked her what she would like to pray for, she said, “That others might know the comfort and hope that God alone can give.”  Even in her darkest days, her thoughts were on others.

Prayer is not our opportunity to tell God what to do.  It should not be an occasion for us to condemn God when we don’t get what we want.  Prayer is a gift — a privilege — where we can celebrate that God is with us, in the good and in the bad.  It is not some magic mumbo-jumbo whereby we make God serve our deepest desires.

And yet.  And yet.  I prayed daily with a young woman named Faith who suffered with cancer.  Her doctors gave her little hope, and I watched her waste away.  Every time I met her, we prayed for God’s healing mercy.  And she got better.  And her cancer went away.  We thanked God constantly for her healing, but we never lost sight of the fact that many others — every bit as faithful as Faith, and some more so — died from this tragic disease.

We pray because we need to.  We pray because we live in a world of disappointment and tragedy and we want to beat the odds.  We pray, because we believe.  What is prayer for?  It is for us.  It is to help us stay connected to God, and to admit that we really cannot do it all alone.  Whether we get what we want or not isn’t really the point.  Prayer may be the purest proof that we believe.  We believe in God.  We believe in miracles.  We believe that there is more to life than all that we know or think we know.

8 replies

  1. Great post. I’ve had many of these same experiences.

    My personal feeling is that the Methodist pastor you mentioned:

    Recently, I heard a United Methodist pastor say to her congregation, “If you claim anything in Jesus’ name and have faith it will be done for you. If you do not receive what you seek, it is not God that is to blame, but your own faith.”

    should get a visit from the DS or board of ordained ministry or some other person.

    You’ve posted and written a great deal about discipleship and accountability in the pews.

    Do you think we have a problem of poor oversight of what is taught and preached from the pulpit?

    • With the exception of a few special cases, I don’t think we have much of any accountability for what is taught and preached in our United Methodist churches. Poor preaching is one thing, poor theology is something else, and we do not have systemic checks and balances to raise questions about what gets proclaimed and why. I met an older pastor a couple years ago who told me that he often prayed that something bad would happen to the bishop and his district superintendent because he didn’t like them. God did answer the prayer — the older guy became a district superintendent. Such is the way of a humorous God and a broken system.

  2. I am reminded of a quote from Mary Oyer, “When I think of mission in this religious climate, I find, “Lord, have mercy” the most valuable text I can sing with honesty.” Of course, Kyrie is certainly a prayer, one that recognizes we all fall short of living as God intends.

    As a somewhat active member of UMW, I know the Women’s Division has provided many, many opportunities to learn more about prayer through study materials and Reponse magazine. I am puzzled that so few of our churches use these materials for spiritual growth.

    I also remember a talent show where a youth group dressed in fatigues “battled” the forces of evil. I remember another youth work camp where every night we had “Yea, God!” prayer time, no intercessory prayer or lament or frustrations, only positive stuff (despite a couple of kids who had to make trips to the emergency room).
    The UM church I am part of teaches that God is with us, no matter what happens in our lives, and that regular prayer changes us (not God) and brings our energies to work with God’s goodness. Our small congregation engages one other during joys and concerns, so that we come to better “share one another’s burdens.” We certainly need to be reminded to expand our horizons and see God’s people everywhere, as well as God’s spirit at work in places beyond our 4 walls. But without this time of sharing joys and concerns, our people would not feel that had “church” on Sunday.

    • Thanks for the reminder of the work the UMW does. There are many places where prayer is taught, supported, encouraged, and actively practiced — and many places where the Women’s Division resources are well employed. But in my experience, these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Prayer has become perfunctory for many, many United Methodists. I sat with some Bishops and Christian leaders from Dongbu, Korea and asked them about their prayer practices. Their faces lit up and they spoke enthusiastically and joyfully about praying together at 5:00 every morning with thousands of other Christians. They cannot imagine a church where prayer is not central to all we do. When I speak with American pastors and lay members about praying more often, their faces fall and they begin to talk about how busy they are. For me, this is a clear and obvious place to help people grow spiritually and center their work and ministry more deeply in faith formation and development.

  3. “Prayer may be the purest proof that we believe. ”

    I so believe this and live this as true. Since (as I’ve mentioned in another post) taking part in the prayer warrior ministry and making this my primary focus in my relationship with my God and my church…my faith has grown to monumental levels of confidence and peace with joy and every other gift from God.

    If I could change anything in the congregations religious lives it would be helping them develop a truly genuine lifestyle of prayer. This gift from God is our primary source for knowing and thereby loving our God.

  4. Hi Can i please have your permission to use this picture you have of the person praying on your June 13, 2009 post? Please i need a free picture with no copyright issues – it is just for my churches week of prayer banner? Thank you and God bless.

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