Prayer Doesn’t Work (The Way We Want It To)

It was 2005 when my life was irrevocably changed by an encounter with what I understood to be God. I spent countless hours reading the Bible as well as other books about the Bible and Christianity because of that experience. I have seriously questioned and refined my theology and eventually both deconstructed and reconstructed. Because of my belief I have learned about philosophy and theology and I believe I am better off because of it. I had originally found fulfillment in Christianity but I eventually realized that I was missing something.

Prayer.

Prayer is weird if you stop to think about it. In mainstream Christianity we are supposed to believe in a personal God that hears us and answer our prayers. We are told that this God is everywhere, all powerful and full of love. We are to believe that this God hears our prayers and intercedes on our behalf. Is that strange or is it just me?

Maybe I simply don’t understand that particular idea of God due to my pseudo-secular upbringing. It took a long time for me to be even moderately comfortable with the idea of prayer.

I think my problem was that, generally, I didn’t know what to expect from prayer. Christians are all over the map on what, where, when and why (and sometimes to whom) we pray. Finding the true purpose of prayer may just be impossible. For me, this is the major reason why I find it hard to embrace prayer as a spiritual practice in everyday life.

Prayer is Not Magic

A major source of contention for me is the idea of praying for specific things, or what is known as petitionary prayer. As if the God of the Universe is a genie that grants wishes to us as long as we have enough faith. I know that people have biblical examples of this type of prayer, but I just don’t see consistent evidence for it in everyday life. People pray for all sorts of things and never receive what they have asked for and some that never pray receive exactly what they desire. The way God answers prayers is seemingly arbitrary. A common answer to this criticism is that God does answer all prayers informed by his omniscience: sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes it is no and sometimes it is wait. The problem with this rebuttal is that yes, no and wait are logically the only outcomes available. If you take God out of the equation then yes, no and wait are still the only available results.

I find it problematic to pray for petty and ultimately inconsequential things when I am aware of the poverty, violence and hunger that exists in the world. How am I to pray for a good parking spot when there is a little girl sold into sex slavery? Why should God care about providing a means for my laziness only to turn a blind eye to the massive amount of suffering elsewhere? How am I to thank God for a gluttonous thanksgiving meal when so many of his other children go without food? Why doesn’t He provide for them too?

I concede that petitionary prayers may provide comfort for people that are hurting. During a dark period of life praying for help can provide solace, I get that. I suppose my real problem is declarative prayer, prayer that is intended to cause God to act. Declarative prayer assumes that we have some control over God. Declarative prayer also doesn’t work because God doesn’t intervene in a predictable way and we don’t have an acceptable explanation why. Teaching that God will (or wants to if you’re faithful) intervene is traumatic and manipulative because there isn’t enough evidence to support that claim.

Years ago, my wife and I decided to have children. We already knew that we might have a hard time conceiving due to health complications, but we wanted to try anyway. It was potentially discouraging, but we had as much faith as we could muster that we would eventually have children. We had been quoted Bible verses and received prophecy that it would happen. We believed it.

And I prayed. It was weird for me but the thought of having children quelled my discomfort. I didn’t know how to pray or what exactly to pray for but I prayed often and with purpose. I prayed with faith.

But it didn’t help.

Quite a lot of time had passed and we were still not seeing the promise. We were discouraged and thought about abandoning it all, but somehow we managed to hang on to a faint glimmer of hope. Eventually, we found out that my wife was pregnant and we were elated. This was the promise that we were waiting for, the prophecies made sense and scripture seemed to speak directly to our situation. It was wonderful and things finally made sense.

But then we miscarried. That beautiful baby that was the fulfillment of God’s gift to us, the child that we were promised, was no longer with us. Life no longer made sense. God seemed distant and scripture was confusing again. If you asked me then I would have told you bluntly that the prophecies were wrong. This was the hardest period in my life and God wasn’t providing the respite that I had heard about.

I somehow made it out of that period without losing God completely but my beliefs and theology changed. An insistence on faith healing within my local church community created a major problem in my belief system. It is likely the major reason why I don’t identify with much of mainstream Christianity anymore. Eventually, my wife became pregnant again. This time we were joyful, but apprehensive. We didn’t know what the future held but we hoped for the best. At this point I couldn’t rely on Bible verses to cheer me up and the promises espoused by others were hollow and vague, if not disingenuous. So, we waited. I didn’t pray, I couldn’t.

Then, one day, there was blood. I thought the nightmare was happening again. I became detached in an effort to distance myself from the pain. I don’t remember praying. My faith certainly wasn’t manifesting in prayers that hurled mountains into the sea. This time it ended differently though. The bleeding stopped and my wife eventually gave birth to a healthy baby. I wondered why our prayers didn’t work. Why didn’t our faith manifest healing for the first pregnancy. Why was there a healing for the second pregnancy when I had less faith? If healing had a direct correlation to faith I was left wondering whose faith actually contributes to the efficacy of healing. It wasn’t mine.

The New Testament certainly sets a precedent for healing, but the origin of the required faith is ambiguous. Sometimes the healing is attributed to the faith of someone else (the Centurion in Matthew 8), the person being healed (the bleeding woman in Matthew 9), Jesus himself (The man with leprosy in Matthew 8), and sometimes Jesus heals people that didn’t even ask for it (Peter’s mother-in-law in Matthew 8). I am left unsure about the exact requirements of faith healing.

What are We to Pray For?

When Jesus’ disciples asked Him how to pray he responded:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

So what should I pray for? If I don’t trust the certainty of petitionary prayer then what is left? I have taken to thanking God for virtues like love, justice, hope and faith. Instead of asking Him for specific things, I thank him that this depraved world still somehow includes good. I thank him that through these virtues his kingdom will come.

God and Humans are somehow inexplicably linked. It is through humanity that we receive our daily bread. People are actually fed when we share our abundance and forgive their debts.

Prayer is meant to change us, not God. It is through prayer that we ask to be forgiven and find the strength to forgive. It is where we find the courage to flee from evil and embrace goodness. Prayer can bring solace but it can’t directly change the world. Praying has the power to change us so that we may change the world. Thoughts and prayers can’t fix an epidemic of school shootings but education focused on minimizing gun fetishization in society might help. Common sense gun control might help. Social programs intended to help young men address their insecurities and rage might help. Faith without works is dead and actions speak louder than words.

I don’t have an answer for suffering, don’t believe anyone that claims they do. I wouldn’t minimize the pain that people feel by attempting to answer the problem of pain. I can only look to the cross as an example of God’s co-suffering with us, with an appreciation that meta-narratives like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control exist. But, this involves accepting the responsibility that it is up to us to make sure that these ideas are distributed among all God’s people. This is part of the gospel message that Jesus wanted his disciples to spread by telling them to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”

Here is my proposal: stop assuming our words cause God to act, as if His hands are tied otherwise. Instead, understand that our prayers only tell us what we already know: that the words we speak should coerce us to bring about goodness and banish evil. Prayers should not be limp virtue-signalling nor should they be used as a way to blame the victims of toxic faith healing theology. Prayer is necessarily limited to a personal experience and we need to embrace our own responsibility in the world-changing power of prayer if we chose to pray.