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Saturday, March 26, 2005

A Question of Prayer

"When I pray, am I expecting to have a two way conversation or just me talking with pauses? I was involved in Christianity before and never really felt the power of prayer working. I felt then that I was just not good enough, a bit of an empty vessel."

I'm not sure what expectations you are holding, but I can relate to you how I understand prayer, religion, and God.

Harold Kushner, in his book Who Needs God, talked about how we tend to think that for religion to work, for our prayers to be answered, we should get what we ask for. "That is to say, we have confused God with Santa Claus," he writes. And isn't this quite right? For too long in my spiritual infancy I certainly treated God as a sort of cosmic supermarket and my prayers as a grocery list. Too many times I promised God that, if he would only do such-and-such, I would commit to this change in behavior or that course of action. Too often we think that prayer means giving God the list of things we want and assuring Him that we have been or will be good girls and boys and should we not then get them? And how many times do we run into disappointment? "When we pray sincerely and intensely for something," Kushner writes, "when we shower God with pleas and promises and still don't get what we prayed for, we are left wondering what went wrong. Is there something wrong with us? Were our prayers not fervent enough, our promised changes not enough of a sacrifice? Are we not good enough people for God to heed our prayers?"

He writes further:
There is nothing wrong with religion if we would only understand it properly, and neither is there anything so terrible about most of us that God should withhold from us the rewards of religion and prayer. What happens most of the time is that we are disappointed in religion because we are doing it wrong . . . God will not suffer Himself to be manipulated by our words or deeds. That is not religion. A century ago, Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, suggested that this was the difference between religion and magic. Religion, he said, is the attempt to serve God. Magic is the effort to manipulate God. When we turn to religion as a way of getting God to give us what we want—be it health, love, riches, or whatever—we run the risk of being disappointed, not because we are unworthy of being loved or being rich, and not because God is stubborn or spiteful or incapable of helping us, but because that is not what religion does . . . Once we get over the Santa Claus mentality, prayer can be that kind of discipline; not an inventory of what we lack but a series of reminders of what we have, and what we might so easily take for granted and forget to be grateful for.
When we come to God in prayer, it's not for his benefit or instruction. God does not need our prayers; indeed, I'm not sure God "needs" anything. Nor does God rely on us to inform him of something he was not previously aware of. Does it not seem, if we think our prayers are to inform God of our wishes or needs, that we are stripping him of his divine nature? For instance, what information can we bring to an omniscient God who knows our needs before we even ask him (Matt. 6:8), and isn't such a notion a tacit denial of omniscience at any rate? And does it not seem that praying to God about our wants is self-centered rather than God-centered? Whose will are we seeking when we do such a thing—ours, or his?

Let me say this about prayer. It is one of the most fundamental and intimate moments in the life of the spiritual person, and one that, perhaps unwittingly, reveals the most about how we perceive God, our relationship to him, and how we approach religion. Prayer is about experiencing the presence of God—often, it need not even involve words. Prayer is that intersection where the human meets the divine, the finite meets the infinite, where we drop the shackles of the mundane and material and reach beyond ourselves to become immersed in the singular sense of God. It is meditation expressed in forms; the cares, worries, and distractions of the everyday world are set aside for a time while the one praying comes to encounter God. I should also think that, in a more tangible sense, prayer is a sort of reminder about our priorities. It keeps God and his will at the forefront of our mind, lest we should forsake him and pursue our own desire and will—which is its own form of idolatry—and reminds us to rely on him, to submit to him and his will, because we all know how easy it is to think that we're fine on our own. And as Kushner noted, it's also about keeping mindful of our blessings; rather than coming to God about what we lack and feel we want or should have, we come to God overwhelmed with gratitude for all that we already do have, thankful for God's gracious blessings, for his providence and mercy, and even grateful for his chastisements and disciplines (cf. Heb. 12:5-11).