I’ve been spending some time in prayer recently. No, it’s not because I’ve suddenly gotten better about my “prayer life” or because I’m growing spiritually (I hope I am, but I’m not sure there’s a direct correllation). I’m praying because sucky things are happening to people I love, and since I always tell people “I’m praying for you!” I figured I’d better do it.
And here’s the thing: I don’t understand prayer. At all.
I pray a fair bit anyway, but I’ll admit it’s sometimes perfunctory. I have things to pray for — the usual things. I’m raising two kids, trying to keep them safe and not mess them up too badly. I have (slightly) aging parents and a (rather more) aging great-aunt, who are prone to all the obvious perils of getting older. I teach at-risk youth who are usually in some crisis or another. And I want world peace, and hunger to end, so I pray for all that.
But occasionally something comes up that’s a real crisis situation, and then my praying kicks into high gear. Unfortunately, so does my relentless analytical brain.
I have friends whose faith is so much stronger and simpler than mine, and they say “I’m praying for you!” and I know they mean it. They say things like “Prayer changes things!” and they seem confident in that, and I wish I could be that way, but I’m not. I play around with different ways of trying to understand prayer, and none of them fits properly.
1. The “Prayer Changes Things!” approach.
This is the approach of my friends who seem strong in faith. They quote Bible verses about prayer, including the really audacious ones like “Whatever you ask in My name, you will receive!” and seem to take them at face value. They start prayer chains. They are prayer warriors, and they really believe that if you ask God in faith, He will come through.
Some Christians — the “prosperity gospel” or “name it and claim it!” people — take this to extremes, as if God is a waiter who will fill their orders if they just make things clear enough. Most of the rest of us are “If it be Thy will” Christians, hedging our bets by giving God an out in case He doesn’t come through. That’s the first obvious problem with this attitude to prayer — we have all seen examples where it doesn’t “work,” where we pray as hard as we can and terrible things happen anyway. How do we go on believing in prayer then?
Apart from that, there are huge theological problems with this approach to prayer. Yes, it agrees with the plain sense of some Scripture verses. But what kind of God does it give us? One who is capable of intervening, but chooses to intervene sometimes and not others? But why? Or is God bound to change His will if enough people pray hard enough? If so, doesn’t that make us, the pray-ers, into gods? Or is God absolutely sovereign, working out His own will and purpose in all things? In which case, why pray at all?
2. The “Prayer Changes Me” approach.
Some great person whom I can’t bother to look up right now said something like, “I do not pray in hopes of changing God; I pray in hopes of changing myself.” (Actually, I did look it up later, and similar quotes are attributed to a lot of people).
OK, I can see there are places where this makes sense. Like if I’m praying for some poor person to have food, hopefully in the act of praying I’ll have a moment of enlightenment, go “Oh, DUH!” and buy them a meal. If I’m praying about a situation where I can help at all by my action, my choices, my love and concern, then the act of praying will change me enough that I will do something about it.
Problems with this approach? First of all, it leaves God out entirely. You don’t have to be praying to the Christian God for this to work; you don’t even have to be praying to any god at all. You could just be doing some nice meditative exercise — you could be doing yoga with an intention for the good of that person or situation — and the same effect of change in yourself would occur. Which is fine, but is that really all prayer is — an opportunity to sit down and think things through more clearly?
The other problem, of course, is that the situations I pray most fervently about are those where I have no control. The two current situations that have driven me to pray are 1) a good friend, younger than I am, has a particularly nasty and virulent kind of cancer, and 2) another good friend is pregnant with twins and is in hospital in very premature labour, while the doctors try to do everything to slow down labour in hopes of saving one or both babies.
Now, praying for these friends may make me more aware and more concerned about their situations, more likely to express that concern if there’s anything I can do to help. But there’s not a single damn thing in the universe I can do to cure cancer, or to make those babies be born healthy. It’s my own impotence, my own powerlessness, that makes me want to reach out to a God bigger and more powerful than I am.
3. The “Good Vibrations” approach.
I have a group of wonderful women friends who are very diverse in terms of religious beliefs, ranging from the somewhat-conservative evangelical (that’s me) through the “spiritual-but-not-religious,” to the neo-pagan, to the atheist, with some other points on the continuum in between. We are very supportive of each other in good times and bad, and when one of us, or someone we care about, has a need, we always bring it to each other and say that we are sending out “good vibes.” Obviously this means something different to each of us, and I know that I and at least one or two others in the group simply mean “I will pray for you,” but out of respect for those who don’t believe in God or prayer, we don’t phrase it that way.
It does connect, though, to a currently-popular idea that while there may be no personal God manipulating events, there is some kind of energy field out there that we can tap into through prayer, or through ritual, through intentions or lighting candles or casting benign spells. The ritual doesn’t matter, in this theory; what matters is your desire to pull down some of that good energy to bless someone.
I can’t argue with this theory or say it’s wrong. It could be true. But it’s so vague as to be almost useless to me, and although it removes the issue of a personal God deciding who to save and who not to save, it actually has some of the same problems as the “Prayer Changes Things!” approach. If all we need is enough Christians praying, or enough happy New Agers sending out good vibes, how exactly does it work? If we get 1000 people praying, will my friend be less likely to die of cancer? If we get 2000 people praying (or vibing), would he be two times less likely? What’s the critical mass here? How many prayers, or good vibes, or chants, do I need to save one of my friend’s twins? How about both? Once again, if you analyze it too much, it all falls apart. (Or it does for me anyway).
The other problem I have with “good vibes” alone is that by taking God out of the equation, you smooth over some theological problems, but you also remove the element that matters most to me: the belief that there is actually Someone out there who loves me and cares about what I’m going through, what my friends are going through. Who weeps when I weep, who holds me when things are dark and scary.
If you were hoping I’d wrap this up with option #4, the satisfying conclusion I’ve arrived at, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I got nothin’. I have this need and desire to pray, this conviction that I should, and absolutely no idea why, how, or if prayer works. Maybe if there’s a “right” answer, it’s some combination of options #1,2 and 3 that I can’t quite figure out or predict.
Years ago some young people I was working with brought up this very problem in a small group, and we thrashed it out. Shortly after that I went to a youth ministry event and happened to have a quiet chat with some very high-profile youth leadership person. Sadly I cannot now remember who that person was, although I want to say it was Mike Yaconelli. That seems delusional though — did I really have this conversation with Mike Yaconelli? Maybe, maybe not. Suffice it to say that this wise person who may or may not have been Mike Yaconelli listened to me talk about what my youth group kids were wondering about prayer, and confessing my own doubts, and said something along the lines of “You know, I don’t really understand it either. I just cling to the fact that Jesus told us to pray, and so we do it, even if we don’t really know why.”
Twenty-plus years on, I have no better answer than the answer of maybe-Mike-Yaconelli. I recently read Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, in which she talks about apophatic theology. No, that’s not apathetic theology, the theology of not caring one way or the other — it’s the theology of negation, of saying that we can only know what God is not, never what He is. I think maybe there’s room in my life for a little apophathy (but never apathy). And that’s the approach I’m trying to take now to prayer.
I don’t know what prayer is. I know more about what it isn’t. I don’t know how it works, though I might have some guesses about how it doesn’t work. But I believe in prayer, on a gut level that I absolutely cannot explain. So I choose to treat it as a holy mystery. I do it, believing that it’s important and it matters even though I cannot hope to explain why. Jesus told me to pray in His Name, and I do it. I ignore the voices who say it’s pointless to do something if you don’t understand how it works or can’t even guarantee it works at all, because they are forcing the deepest spiritual truths to try to conform to the laws of science. I believe there are things beyond the laws of science, and they are deep and mysterious. “There is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness,” said the poet Henry Vaughan, and when I pray, I immerse myself in that darkness, and it dazzles me.
So if you tell me what’s going on in your life and I say I’m praying for you, I mean it. You need to be aware you are not talking to a prayer warrior, or anyone who is likely to get a “Prayer Changes Things!” bumper sticker or a praying hands tattoo anytime soon. I don’t understand a thing about prayer and if you think someone needs to have a certain quotient of faith for their prayers to work, then you might want to ask someone other than me. I am praying my way through mystery and doubt and fear and hope.
God bless us all, however He does that thing.