Prayer Puzzles

10 January 2022

I used to think prayer was simple: ‘Ask, and you will receive.’

Not anymore. Experience tells me it isn’t that simple at all: I often don’t get what I ask for, even when I’m pretty sure I have asked ‘in Jesus’ name’ and in line with what I reckon is the divine will.

I’m talking here, of course, about ‘petitionary prayer’: bringing requests to God. The New Testament writers, including Jesus himself, urge us to do that, and most of us do it regularly. ‘Lord, heal my child.’ ‘Let me get the job I was interviewed for.’ ‘Could you please temper my grandson’s autism.’ ‘Deal with that noisy neighbour who’s making our lives a misery.’ ‘Please stop Mum’s dementia from getting any worse.’

One problem, of course, is that answers to prayer are unverifiable. My child got better, yes, but would she have got better anyway, if I hadn’t prayed? After all, non-religious people often get things they long for. No-one can say for sure. Or if she didn’t get better, was it because I didn’t pray enough, or with sufficient faith (whatever that means)? So many unanswerable questions!

It’s not all bad, however. There have been a handful of occasions in my seventy years as a committed Christian where a prayer of mine has brought such a striking and immediate response that I will never doubt that God did it.[1] But the majority of the many thousands of my everyday requests remain in the grey area.

And a huge number have not been answered, in that I didn’t get what I asked for. Christians have come up with all sorts of clever ways of explaining that. ‘It was answered,’ they say; ‘it’s just that the answer was No.’ Which is not very satisfying at all. Yes, I trust my heavenly Father’s love, and I know that his perspective is far broader than my own little world, but it’s still frustrating and puzzling to hit yet another brick wall or ‘brass heavens’.

This has made me more selective these days about what requests I bring to God. And that, in turn, has made me explore other types of prayer. Praise and thanksgiving is one such type, and no Christian worth the name will be short on offering that to God, so no issue there. But what about ‘set prayers’?

I was raised to look down my nose at these, as examples of the ‘vain repetition’ that Jesus warned against. Even saying the Lord’s Prayer was frowned upon in my circles. ‘Proper prayer’, I was taught, would always be extempore and from the heart, led by the Spirit. What a sad mistake—as if only ‘off the cuff’ prayers are in those categories! I have come to see that the Lord’s Prayer and other liturgical prayers from the church’s long history have immense value. I have learnt quite a few by heart, to my enrichment, and use them daily.

Someone has wisely said, ‘When you can’t pray, say your prayers.’ I have been blessed in using the General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer, along with prayers from Phyllis Tickle’s devotional series The Divine Hours, and a variety of other sources. I find they keep my communion with God on sound lines and provide a security in that, in praying them, I am one with the countless believers who, down the centuries, have used them to channel the outpouring of their hearts to God.

And the benefits go further than that. Set prayers help shape our thinking and serve to form our character. When our thoughts and ‘talking to God’ are in danger of going off-piste into potentially dodgy territory, the boundaries of these ancient prayers keep us safe. They pull our focus back to the Lord himself, and away from selfish or misguided aspirations.

Along those lines, I am also finding ‘centering prayer’ helpful. This is a ‘contemplative’ practice used by Christians throughout the history of the church and revived in recent times by the Cistercian monk Thomas Keating.[2] It involves coming consciously into God’s presence for a period of, say, twenty minutes, not to ask for things, or even to praise him—in fact not with words at all—but just to ‘be’ before him. It is ‘centering’ in the sense that we pull right back from the chattering of our minds and imaginations to simply rest in his presence.

But back to petitionary prayer. Why does so much of it seem to bounce off the ceiling?

The ‘word of faith’ people put the blame squarely upon us, the pray-ers. We need to have more faith, they say. We should repeat relevant Bible verses till we go all glassy-eyed and ‘break through’ to God. I’m unconvinced, in spite of the fact that some of them are truly godly people. Their definition of ‘faith’ is, I think, open to question and their grip on reality sometimes painfully tenuous.

Others hold that God doesn’t give us what we ask for because he often can’t. His nature, they explain, is love, and love by definition ‘does not insist on its own way’ (1 Cor 13:5), so he needs the cooperation of human and other agencies in order to change things. That doesn’t go down well with Calvinistic types, but it is something to think about. It certainly goes a long way towards explaining all those unanswered petitions.[3]

So those are my prayer puzzles laid bare. Don’t worry about me, please. In raising these issues I’m not backsliding. The fact is, I pray a great deal more now than I ever did before. I ‘seek God’s face’ daily with determination. I love him and trust him wholeheartedly, and I hope you do, too.

And please don’t bombard me with Bible proof-texts on prayer—I’m familiar with them all. I’m just a learner doing my best to grapple with how they work out in practice, and I’ve still a long way to go. So I’ll wind up by echoing ‘one of his disciples [who] said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray…”’ (Luke 11:1).

 

  1. I relate one of these in my memoirs (p94-95), regarding being stuck with a group of youngsters on a dangerous mountain when darkness fell. Available here: https://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/index_htm_files/DM%20Memories.pdf
  2. A ‘how to’ leaflet on centering prayer is here: https://contemplativeoutreach.org.uk/leaflets/MethodLeaflet.pdf
  3. More on this in T.J. Oord’s book reviewed here: https://dmatthew34.wordpress.com/2020/07/25/god-cant/ Another book, by M.G. Karris relates the principles specifically to prayer and is reviewed here: https://dmatthew34.wordpress.com/2021/10/07/review-problems-with-prayer/

 

 


Review: Problems with prayer

7 October 2021

I have long felt uncomfortable with some aspects of ‘petitionary prayer’—asking God to do things ‘at a distance’ for people and situations around the world.

I used to avoid prayer meetings because they raised too many questions. Like, ‘If God is in control, as most Christians maintain, why does he so seldom step in to heal people and sort things out?’ And, ‘If God is love, why doesn’t he just fix things anyway, without making his action dependent on how many people pray?’

Nobody seemed able or willing to answer those questions. Indeed, some Christians clearly saw me as on the verge of backsliding just for raising them. At last—oh, happy day!—I have found a book that tackles these and related issues head on! It is

Divine Echoes: Reconciling Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God by Mark Gregory Karris (Quoir, 2018)

You may already have come across the idea of ‘the uncontrolling love of God’, popularised by theologian Thomas Jay Oord. Love is God’s essential nature (1 John 4:6), and love, by definition, does not control; it ‘does not insist on its own way’ (1 Cor 13:5). That is the central plank in the theodicy of ‘essential kenosis’. In this book, Mark Karris examines prayer in the light of it, and provides some deeply satisfying answers.

He patiently deconstructs the approach to petitionary prayer that is the norm among evangelical Christians, before proposing a reconstructed approach in line with the conviction that God is not ‘in control’ in the sense of causing of all that happens, or even ‘allowing’ things to happen. At the same time, he looks honestly at those Bible passages often used to support petitionary prayer (like Elijah’s prayer for drought in James chapter 5, and Peter’s release from prison in Acts 12), and shows them to be not as simple as we think.

He proposes ‘conspiring prayer’, in which we enter into a dialogue with God. We bring our requests. He hears them and, in response, suggests ways in which we ourselves can become at least part of the answer.

If you consider yourself a ‘praying Christian’, I’m tempted to say, ‘I dare you to read this book!’ It will, I think, make you even more of a praying Christian—but with a modified approach that makes more sense of how God’s love and God’s power interact. It has certainly been a big help to me, and I recommend it unreservedly.

[Here is a selection of quotations. The numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

My own experience of unanswered prayers became a haunting ghost of doubt that impelled me to examine more closely just what petitionary prayer on behalf of others really entails.  (175)

We are called to be Divine Echoes—people who intentionally set aside time to prayerfully listen, humbly opening themselves up to receive God’s wavelengths of love and creatively reverberate them out to the world around them.  (236)

While I knew that praying for oneself and for others in close community could be liberating, I began to question the validity of petitionary prayer for others who were not present, as well as for social issues, like poverty, racism, drug addiction, and violence.  (268)

I define the traditional understanding of the typical petitionary prayer as talking to God and asking God to love in a specific manner in which God was not doing so beforehand. For example, if I prayed, “God, please save my uncle Harold from his drug addiction,” I would be assuming that before I started praying, God was not already actively loving in the specific manner requested. In other words, God was not saving my uncle Harold from his drug addiction. I would be offering my petition in the hope that God might hear my prayer and lovingly save my uncle.  (376)

What exactly happens after the words leave my lips or after I speak them silently? Does God instantly hear them, or do they first move through the traffic of heaven where angels and demons are engaged in an epic battle? Some have suggested prayer releases and activates God’s power. Are prayers, then, like magical incantations? When a person prays for God to heal their ill dad, does that give God extra power, energy, or motivation to do so?  (455)

Does God increase his active love because a larger number of people pray? Does God say, “Well, just twenty of you prayed. If thirty of you had prayed, I would definitely have healed him”?  (469)

If an all-powerful God could single-handedly save and deliver loved ones but allows them to get into fatal accidents, become sick, get raped, or experience other tragedies because people did not pray for them, is that consistent with what a loving God would do?  (482)

It is important to remember that while biblical writers and saints of old believed petitionary prayer for others was powerful and brought about miraculous events, they were culturally conditioned. Their understanding was limited to the amount of revelation they could comprehend at their time in history. It is possible they did not think through the nuances, mechanics, and implications of petitionary prayer. They did not consider how other agencies were involved in moment-to-moment events—agencies like free will, lawlike regularities, randomness, and God’s uncontrolling, loving character. They engaged in an ancient social and sacred practice that came naturally and was modeled by generations of spiritual seekers before them.  (493)

One of the biggest conundrums with petitionary prayers for others is that they can unknowingly suggest a diminished view of God’s loving nature. In petitionary prayer, we are asking God to do our will with respect to our loved ones. We ask God to keep them safe, to heal them, to give them success, or to save them from an eternity without him. We want these things for those close to us because we love them. But if God loves them too, and his love far exceeds our love, does he not want these things for them too?  (580)

If our image of God is that of an autocrat, we believe God can do whatever God wants whenever God wants and however God wants to do it. Therefore, we don’t consider human agency and free will in the prayer equation.  (627)

If, on the one hand, God routinely intervenes in people’s lives without specific prayers for them and, on the other, chooses to remain passive and do nothing simply because people haven’t prayed, the logical conclusion is that God is a cruel utilitarian, prioritizing the faith of some over the health of others, rather than a benevolent Father to all.  (702)

The onus is on those who are trying to prove that petitionary prayer is empirically effective. Unfortunately, they have not effectively done so. Second, it would be impossible to scientifically prove whether prayer is solely responsible for any given outcome because there are too many variables.  (891)

If people believe that praying to God in a certain manner, at a certain volume, and with certain words will convince God to single-handedly root out prejudice, reduce hate crimes, solve the problem of homelessness, heal drug addicts, stop people from committing arson, stop rapes from occurring, and so on, they are engaging in magical thinking and superstition of the worst kind.  (930)

How many times throughout our lives have we prayed fervently for those suffering and in distress, placing all the responsibility on God to answer our prayers while those for whom we prayed suffered needlessly because we took no responsibility to be part of God’s answer to our prayer?  (982)

Some prayers in the Bible may be considered petitions, but a closer examination shows they would be more accurately described as wishes. Wishes are not typically addressed to God and do not have an expectation that God will intervene and actively love in a greater measure in someone’s life. They are simply a way of expressing inner longings.  (1027)

If God chose to stop the rain [in answer to Elijah’s prayer], God was simultaneously choosing to ignore other faithful people’s desperate prayers for rain.  (1164)

Why is it that God is able to instantly and supernaturally send angels to break people out of prison without being seen, and yet he is unable (or unwilling) to perform miraculous acts of that nature more frequently? Why doesn’t God send angels more often to prevent people, including young children, from being raped? Since God can instantly flick open a massive iron gate, why doesn’t he use his power to flick a psychopathic gunman in the head before a mass murder?  (1263)

[Re Daniel 10]   While God does use angels to deliver messages on occasion, God is an omnipresent being who can, and does, promptly answer prayers, speak to us, and show us visions. I would think a proper theology of prayer—especially one developed under the New Covenant—would not have us worrying about whether our mail will get stuck in transit due to the heavenly postal workers’ fighting with each other.  (1363)

Forming a theology of petitionary prayer for others based on Scripture requires that we work through some hermeneutical issues. It requires that we separate wishes from prayers. It requires that we separate myth, legend, and metaphorical and symbolic literature from objective history. It requires that we separate event descriptions (this is what happened) from biblical prescriptions (this is what you should do).  (1435)

Recently, I spoke to a professor and well-known speaker on the topic of prayer. He quoted John Wesley, who said, “God does nothing except in response to believing prayer.” I asked him why atheists in, say, predominantly atheistic countries like China or Denmark experience the same “miracles” as praying Christians experience. Why are they shocked to find their cancer has unexpectedly gone into remission? Why do they receive money as a gift at the last minute to pay rent? Why do they find true love, recover from addictions, find great parking spots, reconcile with estranged family members, and recover from depression? In other words, if “God does nothing except in response to believing prayer,” then why do atheists experience many of the things Christians pray for, except without the prayer?  (1471)

God does not step into time and intervene on occasion only when we pray fervently for him to do so. He is always close, always moving, always on mission, always loving, calling, challenging, encouraging, comforting, and convicting, moment to moment.  (1496)

Many Christians believe God can control but chooses not to. We have already seen how this view of God is problematic because a God who can unilaterally stop evil but who instead exercises “self-restraint” is a God who may be morally culpable.  (1561)

For many, humans having agency and free will to make choices in the world makes sense. Bad things happen because people choose to do terrible things. But randomness and lawlike regularities are seldom discussed. Understanding their interaction in everyday events helps us to understand further the complexities involved in human suffering. Understanding God’s inability to control randomness and lawlike regularities helps us understand why some tragic events occur.  (1573)

We often pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). It doesn’t make sense to pray for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done if God’s reign is already everywhere and his will is always done on earth.  (1598)

One of the pitfalls of the traditional model of petitionary prayer is that it tends to ask God to love or change others without taking into consideration other dynamics and agencies, such as a person’s free will. Conspiring prayer, however, takes free will and a coherent theodicy into perspective.  (1647)

A person without faith or openness to God’s presence limits what God can do in their lives. If a person pushes God away, then no matter how much one may pray for them, God is kept from loving more fully. James reminds his audience that a person who doubts “should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (1:7). It is not that God doesn’t want to give gifts and blessings to that person, but God has an open-door policy. God’s love does not control and only enters fully when people willfully open their door to him; God doesn’t force doors open.  (1672)

Despite his power, even Jesus was limited. Mark 6:5–6 states, “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” Can you imagine? Jesus, the all-powerful, mighty God, met people he couldn’t heal? It certainly had nothing to do with Jesus’s desire or power.  (1685)

God always performs the most loving acts possible in every moment in every nook and cranny of existence. God can be trusted completely because he would never purposefully or maliciously harm any person, especially not for some grand Machiavellian purpose. This way of thinking about God, alongside an understanding of God’s relationship to human free will and other agencies, is a grand proclamation. Keeping God’s faithful and uncontrolling love in mind radically changes how we think about prayer.  (1697)

If prayer changes God and increases God’s energetic force of love toward people and circumstances, why didn’t the cumulative force of millions of Jews and other believers in God who prayed and cried out to God for mercy keep them from being tortured and executed in the Holocaust?  (1826)

Some would prefer to treat prayer as a ‘drive-thru window’ where they can place their order quickly and one-sidedly, without much engagement with the other party, rather than as an intimate meal in which both parties set the table and cook the food together.  (1905)

God invites us to create sacred spaces where we can be silent and practice the art of listening. A typical prayer meeting consists of people singing a few praise songs, stating their prayer requests, praying them to God, and returning home. There ought to be a time in that mix where the congregation turns down the guitar amps, shuts off the projector, zips their lips, quiets their hearts, and listens for what God might have to share. This old Quaker tradition is needed all the more in our high-tech age, regardless of denomination.  (1991)

I propose we Christians get rid of the phrase “God allows.” If we did, I suspect fewer people would be confused about God’s role or, worse still, would blame God for the horrific events that occur. Eliminating “God allows” could remove an unnecessary cognitive and emotional obstacle that prevents many from having a loving and grateful connection with their Creator.  (2027)

Mother Teresa eventually made the switch from traditional petitionary prayer to conspiring prayer. She is quoted as saying: “I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”  (2076)

This “God-is-in-control-of-everything” theology lulls Christians into becoming passive observers and siren-induced sleepwalkers. It can potentially cause people to lackadaisically go about their life and throw up an occasional prayer because, ultimately, “God is in control.” Meanwhile, greed, oppression, poverty, sexual violence, murder, genocide, and other systemic injustices increase. It is theology gone wrong.  (2115)

 


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