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Doesn’t Prayer Scare You?

previously published on January 2007

Jesus prayed a lot, right? No doubt He also blatantly instructed us to do it. And as Christians whose goal it is to be Christ-like, shouldn’t I do it too? Although, there are plenty of things that Jesus did that I don’t do such as: walk ridiculous distances, never use toilet paper, speak Hebrew, wear leather sandals, get crucified, etc… The Son of God begged the Father to have that nasty cup to be taken away but He didn’t acquiesce. Jesus was tortured and died anyways.

Sit and ponder upon prayer for a minute, maybe even two. I think you’ll find that prayer is ridiculously frightening. Here’s the way I see it, God has a few options: He can always answer prayers, never answer prayers, or sometimes answer prayers. Those options scare me.

Bear with me as I begin with an oversimplification of Our Lord; imagine God was a vending machine. As long as you deposit the right amount of currency and enter the correct code, then out comes your chocolate bar or A+ on your exam. As long as you offer God your time and your thoughts (your cash), and as long as you ask for the “right” things, use the “right” words, kneel a certain way, close your eyes tightly, and hide in a particular closet (enter the correct code) you should get what you ask for. Matthew 7:7-8 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Atrociously simple, right? And what do I do when a vending machine eats my $1.25 and doesn’t give me my candy? I cry out to the heavens, screaming “Why ME!?!, Why God Almighty, why does this only happen to me!?!” I curse the machine and assault it with various body blows, trying to coax out my Sour Skittles. Then I quit praying because the machine doesn’t work the way I want it too. I have immediately descended to the level of an infantile imbecile for lack of instant gratification. A ridiculous scenario, nonetheless, how many times have you and I engaged in this behavior? On the flip side, imagine God always answers our prayers. This freaks me out even more. Say I pray for a 1999 Nissan Maxima GXE and BAM the Creator gives it to me. Great, it’s a pretty nice automobile. Say I pray for my grandfather to be healed of his Alzheimer’s and BAM he can remember my name. Fantastic! Say I pray for peace in the Middle East and BAM no more war on terrorism. Incredible! But what does that mean about our prayer habits? If prayer truly made a difference, how frightening would that be. Maybe we don’t pray as much as we could because we subconsciously understand the implications of effective praying. If my prayer can save a life, than why am I not praying constantly to save all lives? Consequently, if lives are not saved, is it yours and my fault for not praying? Every second I sleep or my thoughts drift, bad things happen. Is Katrina, the tsunami, 9/11, dead Iraqi and American soldiers, raped children, genocide, poverty, and hunger your fault? If only you had prayed for these constantly occurring tragedies would they not have happened? If you believe in a deity who always answers prayers, then yes, it’s our fault all the horrible things in this world happen because we didn’t pray about it. And you can’t convince me that praying for the alleviation of the above travesties is not in accordance to God’s will. Nor can you convince me that not enough people are praying the right way for those things, because then prayer would become a matter of quantity or quality and that brings up a whole slew of its own issues. So Yahweh probably doesn’t always answer prayers…

So here’s the next blasphemous analogy. If God is not a vending machine, then God is like a slot machine. You don’t know when, you don’t know how, you don’t even know why, but as long as you keep pulling on that slot arm, sometimes you’ll get paid. Sometimes just 20 nickels or if you’re really lucky, thousands upon thousands of quid, either way you’re happy to have given it a shot. Seldom do you see the masses of geriatric patrons in the rows of slot machines rising in anger against each unpaid pull. Seldom do you see masses of Christians rise up against The Holy One because their many prayers are not answered. So, are prayers answered because we prayed them, or does God just do His Will and we sometimes happen to pray about what He was going to do anyways? Consider that God answers some prayers because we actually went through the motions and did offer up the prayers; Hypothetically, out of 100 patients with cancer, if we pray for all of them maybe the Master Healer will cure 25 of them versus only 5 if we had not prayed. We would fall into the same scary trap of responsibility that was discussed earlier with a God that answers all prayers? If our prayers had power than with that power would come supernatural responsibility and consequences. I can’t handle that. It would once again be our fault if those 20 people did not cure of cancer because we did not pray for them. If you could have saved a few more lives from Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami, 9/11, the war, or crime victims shouldn’t you be praying your heart out non-stop? Moreover, what disturbing characteristic of God would that invoke? It implies that God doesn’t heal people He can, simply because we didn’t pray about it - a ludicrous proposition but chilling, nonetheless. Additionally, if God is going to be given credit for healing those cancer patients, we should be fair and give him credit for not healing the other patients. Here’s the other option. It doesn’t matter what we pray because God’s will be done regardless of how much we pray, how little we pray, or even what we pray about. Matthew 6:7-8 “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Matthew seems to be a bit contradictory here. If God knows what we need before we ask him, why are we even praying? Any prayer at this point would seem like ritualistic and meaningless babble.

Maybe looking at prayers as something that needs to be answered is simply the wrong paradigm. Maybe prayer is a form of open communication, where asking and receiving are not the focus of dialogue. If so, it’s my suspicion that most of you don’t hear the other side of the conversation. God continually bless you if you do hear His voice, but I must admit, I don’t hear a thing. It’s also my suspicion that some spiritual disciplines, for example prayer, are so rigidly embraced , because it is a concrete albeit obscure behavior in which one can attempt to commune with their Lord, a Lord whom most can not see, touch, hear, or feel. It’s probably more comforting to endure a ritual which only involves strict adherence to a sequence of actions and words, and believe that those behaviors are a form of communication with God, rather than try and grasp the reality that interfacing with our Higher Power is ill-defined and extremely abstract. Simply put, if it is supposed to be communication, it’s really poor communication because half of the conversation is missing. You can tell me that God responds to you through scripture and nature, but you can’t tell me that it is not frustrating and probably could be done easier by an omnipotent God. So if prayer is one-sided communication that doesn’t change God’s plans, is it then prayer psycho-babble self-talk therapy? Does God want us to pray because it holds some therapeutic value for the person offering up the prayer? Is it a form of brain washing making us complacent and more tolerant of the evils in our world (adding to the opiate-like nature of this religion…)? Perhaps, a way in which we become like-minded by the repetitive recitation of common norms and mores. Is it a mandatory ritual to earn brownie points towards salvation? The vending machine vs slot machine analogies are simple explanations of fixed ratio reinforcement vs variable ratio reinforcement. Psychologists have found that if you want a certain behavior to stick, if you want to keep someone doing a certain task without reward for a really long time than you positively reinforce that behavior every once in a while, on a variable schedule and that person would do it longer than if they were rewarded consistently, on a fixed schedule. Maybe God using psychotherapeutic tactics to ensure our continual prayers, but for what end? Cause He likes the sound of our whiny thoughts?

My favorite verses in the Bible tell me to “Be joyful, pray ceaselessly, and give thanks in all circumstances” because that is God’s will for me. Without the answer to all of the above questions why do I still habitually and willfully pray?

I’m not sure. That’s what terrifies me the most.

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