Thursday, January 31, 2008


Prayer is a curious thing. It's a central element of the Christian faith (and of most organized religions), yet its results are highly subjective. If you believe that it works, you will accept that God is responding to your prayers even if you never get what you're asking for; if you believe it's nothing more than wishful thinking, you're unlikely to be swayed by any evidence that suggests otherwise.

Perhaps part of the problem is the assumption that most people (believers and non-believers) have about the nature of prayer. A visitor to your average evangelical church on any given Sunday is likely to come away with the impression that prayer consists of buttering God up so that he'll give us what we want.

Frank Schaeffer, I think, nails it on the head. Perhaps he's being a bit cynical, but I have to admit that I've had very similar thoughts when it comes to a lot of the prayers I've sat through over the years, especially in charismatic settings.

All of the basic precepts were right there in my parents' prayers. Now God knew what he was supposed to be doing - predestining each individual to be saved or lost and doing this from before creation - so we could relax. Prayer was a way to remind God not to let his attention wander or forget that we, and we only, really understood what he was supposed to be doing. So we prayed at him, too. The logic of those prayers, if one was reading between the lines, was something like this:

"Dear Heavenly Father, in Your Word You say that when two or three are gathered together, You will be in the midst of them. Well, we're gathered here, so do what we're telling You to do because we have You over a barrel and can quote Your own book back at you! And in case You're thinking of weaseling out of this deal, we claim Your promises, and because You can't break any of those since You wrote it all in the Bible, You'll do what we say, and You'll do it NOW! Amen!" ...

Theologically speaking, we believed in an absolutely powerful omnipotent and sovereign Lord. But in practice, our God had to be begged and encouraged to carry out the simplest tasks, for instance to keep moving the hearts of the local Swiss authorities to renew our residency permits.

How exactly was this supposed to work? God was in charge, but he wouldn't do anything for us unless we believed he would do it. But if he didn't do anything, what reason was there to believe?

We lacked the faith to pray effectively and make God do stuff. So we prayed for the faith to make God give us faith to make him do stuff. But getting enough faith was the biggest problem, so we prayed for the faith we needed to pray for faith. But how much faith did it take to pray to have enough faith to pray for faith? And if God knew you wanted faith, why didn't he just give it to you? It was like spending all your time calling directory information for phone numbers that you aren't allowed to call unless you can guess the number right without asking.

-Crazy For God, pages 150-152

One encouraging trend in the church today is a growing emphasis on the discipline of listening (including meditation) as part of the prayer process. While there's sufficient precedent in the Bible to suggest that there is value in continuing to talk to God, our all-too human tendency is to dominate the conversation. Does God need to be reminded of his promises? Perhaps we need periodic reminders, but how much of our prayer time should we spend on self-reassurances?

Not that I'm very good at being still enough to listen to God, but it's something I'm trying to improve at. Even if prayer is primarily for our benefit, talking to God very easily becomes talking at God, and then things just get silly.


Mark said...

Have you read "The Inner Compass" by Silf or any books that provide an overview of Ignatian spritual practice? I think you'll find some interesting parallels to your thoughts.

Craig L. Adams said...

Prayer is way too often conceived of as "getting God to do stuff." This is clearly the wrong approach. Prayer is worship & conversation & dialogue.

Pardon the links if you can, but I recently posted some thoughts on prayer myself:

The Essence of Prayer (mostly a quote from an old, old book).

A Morning Prayer

(BTW, I'm glad I found your blog again. I was reading you for a while, and then I lost track & now I sorta "found" you again.)

Eugene said...


I haven't read about Ignatian practice, but thanks for the recommendation.


Glad you found me again, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

David said...

So if listening to God is prayer, and I buy someone lunch, either on the street or a friend, as a result of that listening to God, does that then make the act of purchasing a meal prayer? Does listening mean there is such a distinct difference between the sacred and the mundane?