I am still wrestling with a shock I had the other day. A person I know and respect was asked to pray for the situation in Syria. I consider this person to be a fair-minded, mature Christian committed to love, peace, harmony and justice. For this reason, I was shocked when he launched into a prayer calling for God to “rain down fire from heaven” to “smite” the “evil and godless leaders in Syria.” I confess my bias that I never believe in praying to God to do violence and to harm any human being — even those commonly viewed as “enemies” or “evil.” Violence begets violence, and I choose to follow a Lord of Love. The incident causes me to stop and reflect on my own understanding of and approach to prayer.
Sixteen years ago, I coached two young Vanderbilt students in a study of prayer. The essence of the study was a series of scenarios (in a lifeboat, facing serious illness, in the path of a hurricane, etc.) and how various people pray in such situations. The study included approximately 200 respondents, and their prayers divided into four categories: 21% were prayers for personal miraculous result, 28% for a more general miraculous intervention, 42% for rescue of the individual, and 9% for divine intervention and comfort for loved ones/others. An example: a ship sinks and you find yourself in a lifeboat with six other people. 21% prayed that God would send a miracle to save just them. 28% prayed that God would rescue everyone on the boat. 42% prayed that if God would save them, they would be better people (bargaining) or that God would empower them to survive until rescue. 9% prayed for God to comfort their loved ones and the families of the others in the lifeboat. The two researchers categorized these prayers as: pre-modern/ego-centric, pre-modern/ethnocentric, modern/egocentric, and modern/ethnocentric. My contribution to their research was to introduce them to the color scheme of spiral dynamics (red meme = individual, competitive, self-centered, magic/mythic; blue meme = tribal, provincial, protectionist, magic/mythic; orange meme = individual, competitive, ego-centric, rational; green meme = global, inclusive, ethnocentric, pluralistic) as a developmental model toward social maturity.
It is all too easy to assume we have “evolved” beyond the magic/mythic approach to prayer that calls upon God to provide a supernatural intervention that defies natural laws and preferences one person’s/group’s prayers over others, yet almost half of the prayers in the Vanderbilt study expected such a response, and 90% implied such an expectation. In our own lives, we may take a fundamentally rational, reasonable approach to prayer, yet when tragedy strikes we immediately ask God to play by our rules. “Do this for me” often extends to “do this for my loved ones” but the ground of prayer is to have God serve us. One step up on the maturity scale is the bargaining shift “God, if you do this for me, I will do this for you.” One more step takes us from the “do this for me” level to the “do this for others.” While not part of the Vanderbilt study, I believe the next shift takes us from the “do this” level to the “change me/help me/equip me”, then “guide me/teach me/empower me to do for others.” Few people exist at just one of these levels, but all emerge at different times, and over time we spend more and more time at the higher levels.
And, yes, “higher levels” is a valuative judgment. Praying “God’s will be done” is a healthier, more mature approach than “God, do my will.” Getting God to serve us is a less-developed state than seeking to serve God. If you disagree with these two statements, then this whole blog is probably meaningless. Yet, it raises a serious question: “If prayer is most commonly all about us, how is prayer helping us to become who God needs us to be?
Another perspective on all of this is Robert Wuthnow’s, The God Problem, a fascinating research project on the state of prayer in the United States in the 21st century. This study illuminates the different types and styles of prayer, and helps to both describe and define various approaches to prayer.
Using the spiral dynamics color scheme, we are living in a Christian culture engaging in predominantly four types of prayer. Red prayer asks God to do what the individual wants — it is “gimme” prayer: gimme health, gimme power, gimme justice, gimme wealth. It is a general abdication of personal responsibility. It doesn’t ask that God empower the individual to do for self, but it asks God to do it for us. Blue prayer asks God to take care of “us,” however we choose to define “us” — care for my family, my team, my tribe, my country, my race, my party. It disregards “them,” except to ask protection from, separation from, and punishment for. Orange prayer is for empowerment and strength, growth and development for the individual. Prayer is still about the individual becoming “more”. Orange prayer is rational prayer — not asking for the natural world to be displaced by supernatural intervention, but spiritual engagement to help us be more like God. Green prayer asks God to change us; to create more justice, more equity, more safety, more peace, more love, more kindness, and more compassion for all. It shifts responsibility from God to do for us to use to do for God and neighbor.
My point is simply this: red, blue, and orange prayer — as normal, natural and acceptable as they are — will not help us become the body of Christ. It is only at the green level and beyond that we will be fundamentally changed and prepared to be Christ’s incarnation and witness in the world. Clergy and laity leaders need to teach prayer and lead people to a deeper knowledge, understanding and commitment to green prayer. It doesn’t have to be an “either/or” issue — red, blue, and orange prayer are not “bad” prayer, but they are inadequate, and not what our world needs at the moment. Think green, pray green, and see what wondrous progress we can make as the church of Jesus Christ in the world.