Various recent studies and articles note an upswing in the practice of prayer in American culture. Must be a good thing, right? More prayer, more devotion to God? More prayer, more kindness and compassion in the world? More prayer, more attention to God’s will? Not so much. The increase in prayer indicates an increase in petitionary prayer — people asking God for things. I have been “clipping” references to prayer from a wide variety of sources for the past couple years, and find some amazing, amusing, and downright bizarre stories. These come from newspapers, websites, magazines, and a couple personal stories.
a woman prayed weekly for over 10 years for God to let her win the lottery, and “He blessed me! He heard my prayers, and rewarded me for my faithful dedication.”
a young man abandoned a young woman he’d gotten pregnant. When found he tearfully confessed, “we prayed to God not to let <her> get pregnant, and he told us — he told both of us — it was okay.”
A gunman opening fire in a public square attributed his deadly accuracy to “I just kept praying, and God kept my hand steady.”
A woman placed an ad in a local paper offering to pray for good weather for a fee. By the time city officials stopped her, she had “earned” over $3,000 from local residents.
Popular evangelists — too many to reference — “teach” followers to pray for wealth, health, power, etc. Tapes and DVDs teaching various forms of “power prayer” are a hot industry — especially in a depressed economy.
A pro football player explained to a commentator, “I prayed God would let me catch the ball, and Jesus himself laid it in my hands!”
A woman testified to the efficacy of “praying for cake,” offering evidence that since she began praying for cake, she has received more cake than at any other time in her life. This woman was the main speaker at a national Christian woman’s gathering.
These are just a smattering of similar silly (and shocking) stories. But just how silly is the trend? Prayer as a spiritual discipline has not apparently changed much in a generation. Prayers of confession and celebration apparently are on the decline. Intercession has long been conditional on need — when things are bad, people pray more. The only clear increase in the type of prayer most people offer seems to be prayers of petition.
Politicians and ponzi-schemers alike have announced how important prayer is to them. One interesting take on prayer from those caught doing something wrong reflects a kind of twisted value: they prayed to God for guidance, and when God didn’t tell them that what they were doing was wrong, they took it as tacit agreement that God approved. How convenient.
What is perhaps most interesting are the number of people who are publicly willing to admit — nay, are actually proud to confess — that they only act after seeking God’s wise counsel. From presidents leading the country to war to financiers playing loose and fast with rules and regulations to the high school teacher who received God’s blessing on her relationship with a fourteen year old boy, prayer is now being used to validate personal decisions — right, wrong, good, bad or indifferent.
Where are people learning this form and function of prayer? How is prayer as a tool and means to personal gain becoming so popular? (Prayer of Jabez, anyone?) What kind of instruction and teaching about prayer are we offering in The United Methodist Church that challenges and addresses this selfish and ego-centric type of prayer.
The simple questions — what is prayer? what is prayer for? how should we pray? why should we pray? — are questions we often take for granted. As church leaders, we mistakenly assume that people in our churches already know the answers to such seemingly basic and simple questions. But there is pretty strong evidence — and it is growing — that this is not a valid assumption. Prayer isn’t as easy as breathing. People need to learn how to pray. And not just how to pray in order to get things from God.