by Greg Singleton
December 3, 2013
PRAYER, HUH! WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
(With Apologies to Edwin Starr for the Paraphrase)
Q. I don’t want to be a downer or a doubter, but I don’t honestly know what good prayer does. We pray for peace and it doesn’t come. We pray for an end to violence in the streets but the killing continues. Am I missing something?
I must confess that I tried to ignore this question. Don’t take that the wrong way. I think it is a good question—in fact it is one that I ask with great frequency, and have asked it for many decades. I must also confess that I have not yet come up with a satisfactory answer. I can only share my inconclusive and murky thoughts on this knotty problem.
I have been told many times that God always answers prayers, but not necessarily in the way we expect or want. Perhaps you have also been told that as well. I frankly don’t find that helpful at all. Let’s use the two examples you have provided. According to the “God always answers” theory, God’s answer to a plea for the end to war is more war and the answer to the prayer for a cessation of violence in the streets is more violence. This certainly raises questions about the nature of God.
I have also been told that the only petitions that make sense are variations on the “thy will be done” portion of the Lord’s Prayer. I find that less than convincing. Given the traditional characteristics we ascribe to God (all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, and ever-present), God’s will is inevitable whether we pray for it or not. As a child I was in a congregation accustomed to very long prayers on Sunday mornings—sometimes longer than the sermon—in which the minister had to fill God in on details about those for whom we prayed, as if God didn’t know about it already. I found that hard to square with the “not a sparrow falls” passages of scripture. I was well on my way to being a skeptic.
Yet, I continue to pray, but it rarely takes the form of words. I place my concerns before God with no particular request. In a sense, I am simply acknowledging my awareness of a problem, or a wrong, or a need. I meditate following prayer and often emerge from that process with a sense of direction about what I need to do. Thus, the subtext of both my prayer and meditation is a variation on the prayer attributed (most likely erroneously) to St. Francis of Assisi beginning, “Lord, make me an instrument. . .”
In short, prayer is reminding myself that God has, through the prophets and in the person of Jesus the Christ, given me a vision of a world of justice, peace and love. Along with the weekly gathering for Word and Sacrament, prayer reminds me that through Baptism I have been made part of the Body of Christ and I have received a commission to live and proclaim the Gospel. I desperately need this kind of prayer life because I tend to slip back into my self-centered ways without these reminders.
Seen from this perspective, prayer is not an attempt to direct, instruct, inform or micro-manage God. Indeed, a God who can be directed, instructed, informed or micro-managed is no God at all but simply a projection of our individual egos onto a cosmic servant.
This isn’t much of an answer to the question. Actually, it is not an answer at all. It is an honest response from a fellow pilgrim who shares the questioner’s problem with intercessory prayer. And I must of course add that I could be 180 degrees wrong about this.
Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.