What Color is Your Prayerachute?

jim-corwin-woman-praying-with-money-rosaryI 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.

8 replies

  1. Thoughtful words. I am reminded of the little saying that goes: I want to ask God why hunger/violence/injustice persists in our world, but I am afraid God will ask me the same thing.

  2. Yes, Christian leaders need to teach prayer and lead people to a deeper knowledge, understanding and commitment to green prayer. At the same time, we must underscore WHO leads us to greater maturity, understanding, wisdom, discernment and bearers of spiritual fruit. We can and must teach, but in our teaching we must be obsessive pointers to the One who offers the transformation. A minor point, perhaps. But in my experience, leaders are mistaken for the ones who transform, enlighten, etc. We merely point.

  3. At the risk of being labeled an “immature” Christian and “unelightened” I sense a danger here – One could say that we have evolved past the angst ridden prayers of the psalms and therefore we are more spiritually mature than many of the people of the Old Testament.

    I get what you are trying to say about compassion, justice, etc. but it almost seems too much like modern thought around the turn of the 20th century – we are getting better and better and if we try real hard then humanity can make the world a better place.

    Maybe I’m not making sense, But I believe that our emotional response must be a part of our ongoing conversation with God. Begin by praying as we are and move to praying as we ought.

    Thanks for making me uncomfortable today LOL. I always take the time to read your words because they do make me ponder.

  4. Though I do not justify a prayer of “pour down your wrath, God, upon xyz..” I do think that on an emotional level we react like those who composed the Psalms, and we do desire retribution for wrongdoing – either against ourselves or others. To limit our first emotional reaction to a situation as our only prayer, tells how mature we are. To get to the “green” level, though for me “green prayer” is not “pluralistic,” does show some spiritual maturity. Maybe it is in the process of understanding our emotional reaction and seeking God’s will that we become able to pray a “green prayer.”

  5. My personal experience is that the color of my prayers depend on my understanding of God. After what I have experienced and where I have been led the last few years,no matter what I verbalize, mostly my prayer is wordless. I have become speechless as I have moved from a muddled understanding of who God is and what He has done and is currently doing based more on instinct than any clear comprehensive teaching to one best described by M. Craig Barnes in “When God Interrupts: Finding New Life in Unwanted Change”:

    “To live with the sacred God of creation means we conduct our lives with a God who does not explain himself to us. It means that we worship a God who is often mysterious–too mysterious to fit our formulas for better living. It means that God is not our best friend, our secret lover or our good luck charm. He is God.

    “When we stumble into the place where Jesus is, we are always astonished. Salvation never occurs as we expect. Ironically, it s usually our expectations that keep us from seeing Jesus…Don’t expect Jesus to save us by teaching us to depend on the things we are afraid of losing. He loves us too much to let our health, marriage, or work, [or doing church] become the savior o our lives. He will abandon every crusade that searches for salvation from anything or anyone other than God. So He delays, he watches as we race down dead-end streets, He lets our mission du jour crash and burn.

    “….The challenge to people of faith is to learn how to follow. Central to that task is giving up the expectation of knowing where we are going.”

    Starr Meade puts it a little more succinctly in “Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds”:

    “God sees every single thing that happens in his creation. And He is always at work to rule everything so that it all works together to accomplish His purpose. Because we are made in God’s mage., we make plans too, like God doe. Our plans are often thwarted, however. Not God’s. Whatever God plans always happens exactly as he planned it would. His wisdom and power are great enough to make it so!”

    Bottom line, a tiny understanding of God elicits tiny self-centered prayers. My experience is The UMC has not done a good job of presenting a large, creative God “who still upholds and rules [His creation] by His eternal counsel and providence..” (Heidelberg Catechism)

  6. Our prayers are not only a healing balm for us in our time of need and suffering, Christians must have faith that our prayers are a healing balm to the nations. Let us offer our prayers on behalf of all leaders around the world, especially for those who oppress and terrorize their own people and people around the world (1Timothy 2:1-4).

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