|"The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. James 5:16" Image source.|
I don't really get what the purpose of prayer is. Specifically, the type of prayer where we ask God to do things.
So if I ask God to do something- for example, I'm traveling somewhere and I want to have a safe flight- does that mean there is a greater probability that it will happen? Does prayer actually have an effect on the real world?
I think, after a defensive "yes of course prayer works!", a lot of Christians would answer by saying that you don't just pray for whatever random stuff and then there's automatically a greater chance that God will make it happen- no, you have to pray for something that's "in God's will." And then there's a lot of discussion over how we figure out what "God's will" is.
Alright, so how does this work? I can imagine a few different scenarios:
- I pray for something and (if it passes the "God's will" filter) then there's an increased chance that it will happen.
- Prayer can't change the probability of something happening, but if I'm able to listen to God well enough, then I will get some idea of what "God's will" is, and then I'll pray for those things, and they will happen. So it's not like prayer caused them to happen, but more like people who are closer to God have some ability to predict the future.
That's not fair, and I don't believe in a God who would give some people an advantage over others just because they knew how to pray, and others didn't.
Certainly in real life, in practical situations, people who are lucky (or privileged) enough to have access to information and opportunities get to use them and have more success than people who don't. In a practical sense, of course it has to be that way. But that's an example of an inequality that should be addressed. Ideally, everyone should have access to opportunities for success. That's part of the kingdom of God, yes?
So I can't imagine God setting up a system where people who had the right information about God and prayer are able to access a power that can have real effects in the real world, and people who don't believe in God or pray the "wrong" way do not. God is not limited in ways that our physical world is- there's no reason God would have to limit that power only to people who had access to information on how to use it.
Let's look at situation 2. In this case, if you pray for something that is "God's will" and is therefore going to happen anyway, then it happens. If it wasn't going to happen anyway, then the prayer has no effect. I don't have a problem with the "fairness" of this scenario, because your prayer does nothing either way.
But all this talk of being "in God's will" is highly theoretical stuff that Christians talk about when answering deep questions about prayer and why Mark 11:24 doesn't mean what it explicitly says. But in day-to-day life, they don't think that way. In my experience, Christians just pray for tons of stuff, whatever they want, whatever they think is a good thing. Help us have a good day. Heal this person who has a minor cold. Heal this person who has a serious disease. Help me be less selfish. Comfort the family of this person who died. Help me get my work done faster so I'll have more spare time. Help me find a new job. Help me find a house for a good price. Help the people in this poor country to hear about Jesus and get saved. They're not stopping to consider "is this God's will or not?" before every request. They're assuming that their prayers will make these things more likely to happen. (Or maybe they're not thinking about prayer causing something to be more likely- they're just doing it all out of habit.)
In situation 1, people who know how to pray have an unfair advantage, and I can't accept that. In situation 2, prayer has no effect on the real world- so... what's the point?
Situation 1 could maybe be fixed if we say that God could allow other thoughts/emotions to influence the real world in the same way that prayer does. For people who don't believe in God but "send positive thoughts" when their friends are having a problem, God could count those as a prayer. (Also, groans that words cannot express would count as prayer.) In this way, everyone would have the same chance to influence real events in the world, based on their strong desires and hopes.
(But then you have to ask the question, Do we want everyone's "strong desires and hopes" to be able to *somehow supernaturally* influence the real world? That sounds ... risky. Maybe we need to bring "God's will" back into this. Prayer is not a democracy- it should be biased towards requests which further the kingdom of God. In other words, requests about things like justice and equality. Things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Which have absolutely no relation to whether the pray-er is Christian or not.)
Alternatively, we could say the benefits of prayer are purely psychological and have nothing to do with God acting on your request to intervene in another part of the world. Maybe prayer makes people feel more positive, hopeful, close to God, etc. (In this case, I'm fine with people who pray receiving these benefits "unfairly", because it's just a practical consequence in the physical world, not something that God is actively causing.)
Under this paradigm, the point of prayer isn't to ask God to do stuff. You should only make prayer requests about things that are related to your own psychology and what you have control over. Maybe you pray that you want to become more patient, and because you're focusing on it and it's important to you, over time you do become more patient. Only requests along those lines would make sense.
(I've heard Christians say "Prayer doesn't change God, it changes us." That's pretty much what I'm proposing here. But the average Christian doesn't actually believe that, because they pray for whatever random stuff they want or they think is good, even though those things are out of their control, would require God to intervene, and having nothing to do with "changing us.")
Additionally, in this line of reasoning, most of our prayers shouldn't be about making requests. If it's about improving our own personality/ emotions/ feelings of closeness to God/ etc, we should focus more on being thankful, thinking of the good things in our lives, thinking about God's love, considering how to treat others well, etc.
So the point is, the idea of prayer- or at least, prayer causing real changes in the real world outside of my own life- doesn't make sense to me.
I titled this post "What I Want From Christians." What I want is to be able to talk about these kind of topics with Christians, and have them get it.
Actually, there's a lot of stuff in this post which would be totally okay to say in church. I've heard it preached in church before. The red flag areas are where I mentioned "sending positive thoughts" (that sounds way too "New Age-y") and the idea that it's not right for Christians who know how to pray "correctly" to have an advantage over others (because of course Christians have an advantage, haven't you read all those books about how it's impossible to have a good life/marriage/career/family unless it's centered on Jesus?).
Most of this we could talk about in a theoretical sense, but when it's time to get in groups of four and pray for each other, if I don't want to pray, they'll act like something's wrong with me. And if I don't want to share any prayer requests, because my strongest desire at that point in time is "I hope I can find Christians who actually accept me" (yeah I'm not saying that out loud), that's also treated as super-odd. (People have actually fabricated prayer requests for me based on previous small talk. "Oh, so you said you're starting a new job? Let's pray for that.")
I don't get the point of prayer, so I don't pray much. When I do pray, it's usually along the lines of "So... God... are you really a God of love, or not?"
I want to be able to talk about this honestly with Christians. I want to find Christians who believe the "it's not fair to non-Christians" bit is a legitimate concern. I want to find Christians who tell me it's okay if I don't want to pray.
Maybe they don't agree with me- maybe they see it from a different perspective, so they don't have the same objections I do. But I at least want them to say "yes, these are reasonable things to be concerned about, and I totally understand that you don't feel comfortable praying because you don't have answers to these questions."
I mean, I want to pray. There must be something to it, since the bible says so many times that we should pray. I have faith that prayer matters and is a very good thing. But how? And what is it supposed to be exactly? And what's the goal?
That's what I want from Christians- I want them to recognize that these are legitimate questions, and that if I don't like any of your answers, then it's okay for me not to pray. (Not only "okay", but the most emotionally healthy and non-legalistic thing to do.)
And "what's the point of prayer" is just the tip of the iceberg. I have tons of issues I really really want to talk to other Christians about- but only if they take me seriously and don't treat me like I'm just a clueless new Christian who needs to be taught the right answers. [And if you leave a comment on my blog that treats me like a clueless new Christian who needs to be taught the right answers, I will laugh at you so much.]
That's what I want from Christians.