There are times when Christians drive me absolutely nuts. One way this happens is when I hear well-meaning and sincere Christians confuse faith and superstition, relying on prayer as a magical talisman or incantation. I listened to a United Methodist colleague share recently that he no longer prays because it never makes any difference. He told of a time when he was getting a cold and he prayed fervently that he not get sick, but got sick anyway. “I have better things to do with my time,” he concluded. Well, duh! Prayer isn’t our opportunity to tell God what to do or to corrupt it as a selfish want list. This irrational magical thinking does nothing more than give Christianity a bad name. We don’t need any help looking less enlightened than we already do to a growing educated and informed segment of our society. Ignorance, self-centeredness, judgmentalism, and narrow-mindedness are the four most prevalent reasons younger non-Christians give for avoiding the church (and the faith). When we promote a mythical-magical, pre-rational (irrational?) faith, we do ourselves no good. For example —
A weepy woman pastor wails on about how Down Syndrome babies are a gift from God. She explains that this affliction is a blessing to test parents capacity to love. That Down Syndrome children are the happiest and most carefree of all His children. She explains that Down Syndrome children are the earthly equivalent of cherubs, and that anyone with a Down Syndrome child is doubly blessed and will be richly rewarded in heaven — where their Down Syndrome children will be restored to full health (though why God would want to tamper with their perfection and blessedness is beyond me…). This lunatic actually invited mothers to pray with her that they might experience the blessing of having a child with Down Syndrome. Now, I don’t know what this lady’s brokenness is, and she may sincerely think she is offering a message of hope to families with a Down Syndrome child, but I do not for one moment believe that it is “God’s will” that a child or a family endure torments and heartache — especially as a test! OMG!
And then there is the crying couple who discovered that their son, missing for months in Afghanistan, was released and is coming home. “Our prayers brought our Son home safely from Afghanistan,” said the father. Mom added, “Jesus saw the love in our hearts and rewarded our faith. He gave us our baby back!” Touching, sentimental, and as the commentator said, “a powerful testimony to the power of prayer!” So, what about the hundreds of praying parents who receive word that their son of daughter is dead — killed in a senseless war while back home faithful people ask God’s protection and grace? When you link the answer to prayer to one’s level of faithfulness, what are you implying about all those who don’t get their heart’s desire? Is one person’s faith qualitatively different from hundreds of others? When ten people pray for rain and ten people pray for sun, is it an automatic proof who God prefers when it does one or the other? When one town prays the hurricane won’t hit them, is it an indictment of lack of faith on the town it does hit? When a terrorist prays that the bullet they fire will hit with deadly accuracy and it hits and kills the young person praying fervently that they will not be hurt, does that mean the terrorist’s version of God is stronger than our version? Prayer indeed is a comfort in time of distress and tragedy, but it is not some magical incantation that makes us somehow exempt from the uncertainties of life that plague everyone else.
The willingness to ascribe a supernatural cause to the unpleasantness of real life is widespread and has a long history. I sat on an airplane with a thirty-something woman who told me that her “cancer occurred because I let Satan into my life.” She went onto say that “cancer isn’t really a disease, but an outward manifestation of what you really are. If you are a truly good person, you don’t get cancer. Cancer is the darkness of sin when it takes over your life.” There are so many things wrong with this worldview I don’t even know where to begin. Every person who has ever had cancer got it because they are evil? All the people who avoid it are good? The key to beating cancer is to be good? Where did she get this crazy idea from? “My pastor,” she told me. “She had cancer at a time when she was living in sin. She renounced sin, prayed to God for forgiveness, and IMMEDIATELY,” she reported breathlessly, “her cancer went into remission! I’m not there yet, but I am really trying to be good.”
Oh, yeah, and this guy — “My wealth came when I gave my life to Jesus and learned true prayer!” he enthuses. “I began to pray holding money in my hands so that what I had would attract more! The very first time I prayed this way, I held a ten-dollar bill. That same day, I found a ten-dollar bill in a parking lot. Now I have a dedicated prayer space in both my home and my office, and whenever I pray, I place my wallet — my cash, and credit cards, and check book — on the altar. God has yet to refuse to bless me!” Take that Joel Osteen! Even he isn’t this blatant. The “Prosperity Gospel” has all kinds of problems — too many to list here — but once again the implications are troubling: good people get, bad people do not. If you are wealthy, you are blessed of God. If you are poor, or merely middle-class, you possess a sub-standard relationship with God. Shame on you…
I feel sad when I encounter these kinds of “simple faith.” I emphasize the simple, because they reflect a non-critical, non-rational, almost hysteric clinging to magic, where God is little more than a grand genie in the sky waiting to serve our every whim. Many studies into people’s understanding and practice of prayer indicate that these are not isolated examples. Millions of Christians hold this children’s Sunday school understanding of prayer. They might hold Harry Potter in contempt, but they practice no less a Hogswartian approach to prayer as magical incantation than poor Harry and friends.
Readers of this blog know that I regularly raise the questions, “What is prayer?” and “What is prayer for?” I truly believe these are not rhetorical or simple questions. Prayer was a staple of the primitive and pre-modern roots of our faith, where myth, magic, and mystery ruled human understanding. But times have changed. Our spiritual understandings and practices cannot stay mired in archaic and unenlightened times. I believe there is great power and benefit in prayer, but not as a metaphysical means to manipulate the physical. I do believe in spirit and essence and energy, but not so much in magic and occult machinations.
Even our critics often denounce us — not because we believe in magic, but because our magic doesn’t work for them. I remember reading an essay by Steven Weinberg, “A Designer Universe?”, where the main argument was there cannot be a God because of all the bad things that happen. Abdicating all human responsibility for evil and illness, the essay basically says that a God that won’t do what we want him to is no good at all. Only a God that responds to our every whim and absolves us of all responsibility for our actions is worthy of our belief. Yeah, good luck with that…
Christianity in a consumeristic society is bound to be a compromised package at best. We are a culture that wants all the benefits but with the fewest costs. We want an easy faith that will take care of us, but that demands little. Prayer as a discipline? Not a big seller. Prayer as metaphysical mail-order, no money down, no monthly payments? Now you’re talking!
Categories: Congregational Life, Critical Thinking, prayer, spiritual practices
I’m most suprised that people don’t understand healing in the way that described it in John 9. Jesus explains the healing of the blind man as something that would only benefit the blind man. The healing was to manifest the power of God. When we pray what we are asking for is not so much our own healing but rather that God’s power seen working in us. Who he choses to show his power through is up to him!
Thanks again, Dan.
My boys (ages 17 and 13) are huge fans of the TV series, House. House fairly snarls at prayer as typically practiced… and not without reason. It’s not just because he’s a committed anti-theist. It’s because he knows prayer doesn’t tend to help his patients… at least not as they seem to want to believe it can.
I see prayer not as a means to get what I want, but as a discipline of my and our priesthood, the priesthood into which all disciples of Jesus are ordained at baptism. To be able to exercise this ministry well was one of the reasons the early catechumenate normally took three years.
Is there room in this ministry to ask for what I want, too? Yes… but I probably can’t begin to name that well until I have offered confession, thanksgiving, and intercession for the church and thw world. Intercession isn’t babbling on or even asking much. It’s holding others before the loving gaze of God and entrusting them to God’s care.
Another quote, this from Barsanuphius who enlightened Dorotheus of Gaza in a moment of doubt, when Dorotheus was thinking of leaving the monastery: “Like the anchor of a ship, so will the prayer of those who are here with you be for you.” From these difficulties a strong attraction for the common life would be born, and the assurance that the prayer of others can support a vocation for one’s entire lifetime.
[modified from http://www.taize.fr/en_article5234.html%5D
A community is a multitude of anchors for one another. Prayer, in this context, is a religious response similar to other responses of bringing a meal, offering a hug, and advocating with and for those who anchor us and are themselves in need of anchoring.
A prosperity gospel that cares for the prosperity of another would be an advance toward simply caring without the modifier.
This quote came across my desk today. How appropriate.
Prayer is aligning ourselves with the purposes of God. -E. Stanley Jones
Want to add my amen…and agree with Rob on the challenge we face in the local church.
I have always tried to teach and preach to my congregation that prayer is more about us than God. Prayer as discipline – that’s the real key. Sometimes, I wish we just abandoned the word “prayer” and talked about exercises or practices of our faith. Too many people hear the word prayer and immediately think it’s all about getting God to do stuff for them.
Part of the problem is that our theology stopped at Sunday School too…. If we still think of God as an old man up in the sky pulling all the strings, then we will still be inclined to try to get his attention on our behalf.
Amen! … and a stirring critique. The challenge, though, is to frame an argument FOR responsible prayer that’s just as stirring as this critique and that’s even more stirring than the call to work magic. The magical thinkers have all the psychological cards while those who know the boring reality of prayerful, responsible, living have a hard sell. It’s always more tempting to buy the diet pill or the crazy diet book than it is to simply eat healthy food and exercise.
I got to the end of your article and wondered, “where’s the positive program?” I know that prophets are excused from pointing out the positive, maybe it’s not your job, but it is surely my job as a regular congregational pastor. I need more stories of regular believers who pray well that I can hold up as examples.
but again …. Amen!
For me, the positive answer is the hard one. We have a rich tradition and history of prayer from which we have walked away. Prayer as spiritual discipline and formative communal process have given way to personal, privatized “me and my buddy God” pablum. Prayer as affective union with God is all but lost. Prayerful discernment as a pathway to understanding God’s will is all too rare. Prayer as silent waiting is counter cultural. Prayer is as much a communal and corporate practice as it is for individuals. All of these are valid and important aspects of prayer, and all of them have taken a back seat to petitionary prayer. It doesn’t have to be either/or. It would just be nice to see petitonary and intercessory prayer balanced with thanksgiving, adoration, supplication, confession, and submission.