It has been 11 years since my life was irrevocably changed by an encounter with God. I’ve spent countless hours reading the Bible as well as other books about the bible and Christianity. I have seriously questioned and refined my theology. I have waded into philosophy and religion and I believe I am better because of all of it. Still, I am led to believe that my walk with Jesus is missing something.
Prayer is weird. It really is, if you think about it. We believe in a relational God, a God that hears us and answers our prayers. 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 just don't understand how relational God can be due to my pseudo-secular upbringing. Or, maybe I just have a supreme lack of confidence due to a nasty case of social anxiety. Either way, I just can’t get used to prayer.
I think my problem is that we, as Christians, don't know what to expect from prayer. Christians are all over the map on what prayer means, and when we should do it. For me, this is the major reason why I find it hard to embrace prayer as a spiritual practice.
PRAYER IS NOT MAGIC
You see, I have a hard time praying for specific things. As if the God of everything is a genie that grants me wishes as long as I have enough faith. I know that people have biblical examples of this type of prayer, but I just don’t see the evidence for it. 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. It’s just so random.
Not only that, I also find it insufferable 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 in another part of the world? Why should God care about providing a means for my laziness and 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 any food? Doesn’t He provide for them too?
My problem is declarative prayer, prayer that is intended to cause God to act. It just doesn’t commonly happen; God doesn’t seem to intervene in a predictable way and we don't have a good way to explain that.
Years ago, my wife and I decided to have children. We already knew that we might have a hard time conceiving due to health problems, but we wanted to try anyway. It was potentially discouraging, but we had faith (as much as we could muster) that we would eventually bear 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 and I almost never did it when other people were around. I didn’t know how to pray or what exactly to pray for but I prayed all the time, and with purpose. I prayed with all the faith that I had.
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.
And then it happened. We found out that we had a child. We were elated. This was the promise that we were waiting for, the prophecies made sense and scripture seemed to be speak directly to our situation. It was wonderful, things finally made sense.
But then our baby died. That beautiful baby that was the fulfilment of God’s gift to us. The child that we were promised was no longer with us. Things no longer made sense. God seemed distant and scripture was confusing. If you asked me then, the prophecies were simply wrong. This was the hardest period in my life and God wasn’t providing the respite that I had heard everyone talk about.
I somehow made it out of that period without losing God. Sure, I was changed but I didn't lose my faith completely. Later, 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.
Then, one day, there was blood. I thought it was all happening again. I became detached in an effort to distance myself from the pain. I don’t remember praying. If, out of desperation, I did pray I definitely didn't have enough faith to effect a change in my circumstances. I wasn’t hurling mountains into the sea, that’s for sure.
This time it ended differently though. The bleeding stopped and my wife eventually gave birth to a healthy little boy.
Maybe I am too cynical but I wonder why our prayers didn’t work. Why didn't our faith effect healing the first time and why did healing occur the second time when I had less faith? As well, I am left wondering whose faith contributes to the efficacy healing anyway.
The New Testament certainly has 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).
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? If I don’t trust the certainty of declarative prayer what is left? When I’m alone, or tucking my son into bed I have taken to thanking God for virtues like love, justice, hope and faith. Instead of asking and thanking Him for specific things, I thank him that this depraved world, the one that we have screwed up still somehow includes these good concepts. I thank Him that through these virtues His kingdom will come.
I thank him for these virtues while understanding that we are His hands and feet to bring about good on earth. I firmly believe that, for whatever reason, God has chosen to partner with humans. Thus, it is through humanity that we receive our daily bread; people are fed when we share our abundance.
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.
I do all of this with the understanding that I don’t have an answer for suffering. I can't, with a broad stroke, minimize the pain that everyone feels. 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. God could act without our prayers. Instead, He has chosen to partner with us to accomplish His goals. Our prayers only tell us what we should already know: that the words we speak should coerce us to bring about goodness and banish evil. We need to embrace our responsibility in God’s plan.
I write about my story. The story about how I became a pro-life (womb to grave) liberal, confident arminian, reluctant charismatic, cautious progressive creationist, tentative conditionalist, utterly wretched without Christ, corporate complementarian (individually egalitarian), clueless pre-millenialist, and most importantly, a follower of Christ. I am a blue collar tradesman, I don't have any seminary or official religious training. I am a victim of post-modern society probably due to my secular upbringing. I am married to a wonderful woman and have a son with another child on the way. They are the very best of me.
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