Giving Up Magical Thinking

I learned to pray from my parents, not that I remember it. I don’t remember my first prayer any more than I remember my first word. I assume I learned to pray the same way I learned to speak – by listening and imitating. My parents no doubt instructed me to repeat their words, showed me how to begin and end, and taught by example what goes between the bookends of a prayer. I learned to thank God for blessings and to ask for things I needed.

While I’ve always known the importance expressing gratitude in prayers, I’ve sometimes felt that thanking God was a preamble to the real business of prayer – asking for what I need. All my life I have given God lists of things I wanted and needed. I’ve prayed for myself and for people I love. Occasionally I’ve even prayed for my enemies. I’ve prayed for my kids, for employment, for health, and for a testimony. Sometimes those prayers were answered. Or rather, sometimes events unfolded in ways led me to attribute outcomes to God’s intervention. But I no longer believe I can ask for a specific outcome in prayer, and no longer attribute life events, good or bad, to God’s direct intervention in my life. If that sounds cynical, let me explain.

Some years ago I was a graduate student working on biology research that was not going anywhere. I’d started out with a promising research project, but after several years of working on it, useful results were not in sight. I felt frustrated, but I had faith. Faith that perseverance in the laboratory was going to pay off, and faith that God would help me with my work. So I kept at it for a few more years, but my research was still not giving me the results I needed to graduate. Seven years into my doctoral training I found myself an exhausted new mother who was commuting 40 miles round trip every day, facing tension in my marriage, running low on money, and getting very little support from my thesis adviser. I badly needed to be done with graduate school. So I wrote a letter requesting a master’s degree so that I could quit school but still receive a degree. My husband and thesis committee chair talked me out of quitting, however, so I resolved to finish the Ph.D. I felt I desperately needed God’s help to get it done.

I fasted and prayed that my research would produce results. I worked as hard as I could in the lab and believed that if my efforts weren’t enough, that God would make up the difference. I fully expected God to help me with some kind of miracle. But it never came. After an additional year of working in the lab, my project had failed. My thesis committee decided to let me graduate on the results of a backup project that was not impressive, but passable. My poor publication record and poor relationship with my adviser made it impossible for me to continue a career in science.

In the end I got the diploma, but it was a pyrrhic victory. My faith in God had not weathered the strain of finishing my Ph.D. at all well. God had not answered my prayers, which either meant that he didn’t exist or that my understanding of things was very wrong. I was familiar with the rationalization that God always answers prayers, it’s just that sometimes the answer is no, but this argument was cold comfort. It also seemed like a tautology. God can never fail us if silence and miracles are equal answers to prayer. During my worst moments, my feelings of abandonment caused me to doubt God’s existence. The idea that God doesn’t exist was too hopeless for me to accept for very long, however, so rather that giving up belief, my doubt became anger. I was angry with God for leaving me alone when I needed help – so angry that I quit praying for a while. I’m not proud of the fact that I gave God the silent treatment because it shows how petulant I can be, but my feelings of disappointment and loneliness were overwhelming, and I simply couldn’t see the point of praying at that time.

After some time I resumed praying, but I still had to grapple with the fact that God hadn’t answered my prayers. Perhaps it was self-centered to believe that they’d be answered. But my religious education had been replete with the idea that God answers prayers. What was wrong with my expectations about prayer?

With a little hindsight, I can see that I was indulging in magical thinking regarding my research. I believed I had a connection with God such that asking for what I needed would result in God intervening in the physical world. I fully expected that prayer would result in God taking action to intervene in my life, as if prayer were part of an equation: Prayer + Faith + Fasting = Desired Result, with God acting as the catalyst. I could not have been more wrong. God’s power is not a reagent I can take off the shelf and use at will.

Praying for God’s intervention is a risky endeavor. If you really believe God will intervene, it can devastate you when he doesn’t. All my life I had prayed for things I wanted and needed. Please bless me to get well, to drive home safely, to have a good day. And when I was praying for things of small importance, I didn’t pay too much attention to whether or not those prayers were answered. But in praying for something that really mattered, the lack of an answer was a real shock. My experience with unanswered prayers has made me wary of asking God for many things. Asking for something intangible like patience or inner peace feels safe and proper to me, but asking for God’s intervention in my physical world no longer does. Perhaps I am afraid I’ll be disappointed again; perhaps I simply lack faith. But I suspect that my faith is not the issue. Rather, lived experience tells me that wars will rage, children will die of cancer, criminals will go unpunished, graduate student research will go awry, and God will let it all happen in spite of our pleading for him to intervene.

For much of my life I’ve engaged in magical thinking; I believed that if I asked for something righteous in prayer, having faith that it would happen, my request would set metaphysical gears in motion and the divine vending machine would spit out an answer for me. And even after realizing the error in this kind of thinking, I still find myself believing that my thoughts and prayers may actually affect the world around me. Whether it is habit or hope, I still sometimes find myself asking God to intervene in my life. I just can’t stop myself, although my prayers have changed significantly.

I am not sure if I should stop praying for material help altogether. But I am sure that God is not going to intervene in my life just because I ask. Even if I ask in faith. Even if I’m asking for a good thing. Even if I’m praying unselfishly for someone else. And even if someone is suffering. Christ has said he will heal our wounds, but he will not prevent us from being wounded. And if God is going to stop short of solving problems for me, I think I should stop asking him to solve them. Believing that he will is magical thinking, and I am trying to give that up.

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17 Responses

  1. I will admit that, to this day, I do not understand why a migraine I had on my daughter’s birthday (and I a single mother with no family nearby) could not be abated by drugs, complete faith, righteous desires, and a priesthood blessing. I ended up in the emergency room the next day. End of story.

    However, there have been other times when a burden was lifted just enough, following my lonely, solitary prayer, to enable me to continue on. The burden was not removed, but it was palpably lifted just the amount required to allow me to continue. My faith has been anchored by those experiences.

    But, it is difficult to reconcile both types of experiences. I have thought on this disconnect through the years. I don’t have the answer.

    I think there is value in your perspective. I think we are expected to take more responsibility for ourselves and for others, in actions and decisions and outcomes, than we sometimes do–even when we believe we already are taking that responsibility fully.

    Additionally, in reflecting on your words, I have been thinking about another post that has had a big impact on how I think about prayer: Collective Prayer, 20 Years Later on Modern Mormon Men Perhaps our prayers for others (and ourselves) help us be more attuned to searching for what course of action we should be taking, to problem solving. Whether that is an outcome of psychological processes set in motion by the process of prayer (i.e., by giving mental room and committing even a modicum of thought to the concern) or prompting/inspiration, I appreciate this perspective, and it has made me want to be more of a “doer” than just a “pray-er.”

    Clearly, from your post, you did everything you could. I am just explaining how I think your perspective on the possible realities of the limits of “magical thinking” can still exist in conjunction with faith, prayer, and asking.

    I am sorry for your experience. My migraine and its effects were short-lived. Your PhD experience and its aftermath has been much more extensive. If my small experience has given me pause even to this day, I can see how your experience has caused you to reevaluate prayer.

    Thank you for writing about such a difficult subject.

    Kate @ BJJ, Law, and Living

  2. EFH says:

    Great post. I have been thinking on this for the past decade too. I do think that we sell prayer as the formula that cures all…and when it doesn’t work, we also add faith to the equation….and when it still doesn’t work, we think it is because we are not righteous enough. And so on and so forth.

    I have come to realized, like you, that God doesn’t intervene in the physical world. He doesn’t control our actions or those of others. The prayer for me is simply the soul humbling in front of the divine and tuning with it as much as possible. The reality will not change per se but we might feel stronger to keep going or to find a renowned purpose in our situation. It is a matter of perception than anything else.

    You said it well: Christ will heal our wounds but will not prevent us from getting wounded.

  3. Em says:

    I’m really sorry for your experience. I have felt very differently about my PhD work — that it has only been possible because of intervention through prayer. I think a big part of that is the nature of the field. As a historian, what I needed help with was clarity to see things from a different angle, or a good idea of how to analyze what I was looking at. I didn’t need a specific outcome to laboratory work like the sciences, where “it didn’t work” isn’t compelling enough for a doctorate. “This is different from planned” is perfectly acceptable and fruitful grounds for work in history. I do feel that every scrap of good writing I had came after tears and prayers for help in being the best writer I could be, but again what I’m talking about is intervention in my heart and mind not in the external evidence.

    I have also struggled with what you describe in many ways. I feel that my prayers are often answered in things that seem small, but the big things, the external things seem haphazard. The simple formula “God answers prayers” takes a lot more thought and engagement as an adult.

  4. mraynes says:

    This post hits close to home for me. I have a joke with my family and friends that if we want something to happen I need to pray for the opposite thing. It’s my attempt to make light of something that is actually pretty painful in my life–either God doesn’t talk to me or the exact opposite of what I want or ask for happens. It’s hard to talk about the betrayal I feel from God and the things I have been taught my whole life because we do not have a place for this kind of experience in our tradition. Your thinking on this matter is more or less where I’ve ended up but it’s hard to square that with the loving God that we talk about at church who takes a personal interest in your life. I don’t really have much to add but your experience and thinking on this matter helps me. Thank you.

    • Michelle says:

      Me too. It seems that my whole adult life has been one obstacle after another. I pray for smooth sailing and all I get are rough seas. I’m not whining or complaining about it. I simply don’t get what I pray for. I have a good friend that seems to never face this kind of adversity. Everything always seems to work out. Not long ago she needed to earn some extra money for some unforeseen expenses, she prayed about it and the very next day someone approached her out of the blue and offered a job she could do from home on her computer. It used to make me angry that everything seemed to work out for her that way. But I realized that I wouldn’t be the strong person I am today of I hadn’t overcome what’s been put in my path.

  5. Suzette says:

    Praying is indeed a risky business. I believe it takes a lifetime of practiced prayer to understand how God works in our lives.

    I appreciate your experiences and thoughts. It helps me on my own journey.

  6. Ziff says:

    I really appreciate this post, Emily. I’m sorry your graduate school experience turned out so badly, both for the research and for your faith.

    “Prayer + Faith + Fasting = Desired Result, with God acting as the catalyst. I could not have been more wrong. God’s power is not a reagent I can take off the shelf and use at will.”

    I think this is so very true. But it goes against the grain of so much of Mormonism that I’ve learned. We like to reduce everything to a formula and then try to apply that formula over and over again. I was a missionary during the era of the purple Missionary Guide, and every bit of it was a formula. Testify to help others feel the Spirit–identify it for them–ask them to commit to doing stuff. There’s really no room for a God (or Spirit) with any agency in there. Just a divine automaton, really.

  7. Big L says:

    Thank you for articulating this. I’m at the no prayer stage. For various reasons, I have a good deal of uncertainty about whether or what God is. My current leaning is towards some sort of divinity existing in this world, I feel it sometimes in my daily living, but I don’t feel it in prayer. I think that might be because when I do pray, it comes out just like it used to, so it feels like I’m talking to someone I don’t believe in. I love the notion EFH mentioned above that prayer is simply tuning our hearts with the divine. No magic required. I think that’s a form of prayer that I might be ready to engage.

  8. Bethany says:

    Thank you so much! I grew up in a home where everything was linked to prayer and every outcome was an answer to a prayer (especially finding a good sale). I have always felt like my prayers are heard, and have always felt peace and comfort after prayer. I have a harder time feeling like specific prayers are answered or not answered. Your article has helped me connect with something that feels very true. Prayer is an opportunity to connect with my Heavenly Parents, to be taught, to be humbled, to be comforted, to be grateful. I think wanting God to intervene in the physical world is my attempt to give up some of my responsibility to act, change adapt and learn from life and it’s hardships/joy. I will be approaching prayer differently, and also how I deal and grow from trials.

  9. Bookish says:

    I do not receive answers to prayers as a rule. I can count on one hand the number of times I feel like I’ve gotten any response at all. I feel like I’m screaming into the void and being ignored. Sadly I’ve learned that I must rely on myself and not God, because he just doesn’t come through for me.

  10. Steve says:

    It seems you are the verge of an answer. While recognizing “Prayer + Faith + Fasting = Desired” is simply not how prayer, nor God works; yet something still seems to be driving you that “even after realizing the error in this kind of thinking, I still find myself believing that my thoughts and prayers may actually affect the world around me. Whether it is habit or hope, I still sometimes find myself asking God to intervene in my life. I just can’t stop myself…”

    I could be misreading your thoughts, but it sounds like there’s still something inside of you saying that even though the formula doesn’t work, perhaps there is still some way in which prayer can be efficacious to the point that God will indeed intervene in my life.

    If it so, I think your feeling deep down is right. And I believe it has something to do with the will of God and discovering it, and the idea that all blessings are predicated on obedience to certain laws or conditions which at times may include prayer.

    I agree there is no need to believe in magic, and certainly not the often accepted and flawed formula, but it is my experience that prayer is indeed one of the grand keys in opening up the windows and drawing forth the blessings heaven and in discovering if and what else we might have to do to obtain those blessings.

    I hope for those who have lost faith in prayer, maybe due to failed experiences with a similar formula to the one found in the OP, that you might reconsider experimenting on new formulas–ones that do not violate fundamental laws of agency–to see if prayer might yet bear fruit in your life. It is my experience that it can.

  11. Emily U says:

    Thank you all for your thoughtful responses, each one has touched my heart. Clearly I’m not the only one whose prayers are not answered in straightforward ways! And not the only one who feels pain while trying to figure out what prayer is about. I think Suzette is right that it takes a lifetime (or more) of prayer to understand how God works in our lives, and I also understand the feelings of Big L and Bookish that it can feel pointless.

    I love Mary Oliver’s poetry about prayer. In one title she says, “The Real Prayers Are Not the Words, But the Attention that Comes First.” I like that. And from her poem, “The Summer Day”

    I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
    I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
    into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
    how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
    which is what I have been doing all day.
    Tell me, what else should I have done?

    And “Praying”

    It doesn’t have to be
    the blue iris, it could be
    weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
    small stones; just
    pay attention, then patch

    a few words together and don’t try
    to make them elaborate, this isn’t
    a contest but the doorway

    into thanks, and a silence in which
    another voice may speak.

    EFH and Bethany – I really like both your thoughts on what prayer is, and I think they’re very much in agreement with Mary Oliver’s gentle advice to pay attention.

    Kate, Em, and Steve – thank you for sharing experiences and thoughts on prayer making a difference for you. I believe your experiences are real, and stories like yours help me have faith.

    Mraynes and Michelle – all I can really say is that I hear you. It is very hard to square this with the loving, personal, intervening God people talk about at Church. Recently a woman I sat next to in Relief Society told me she feels God saying, “I’m going to do something nice for her today.” And I couldn’t even respond, it was so foreign to how I experience life.

    Ziff – is that what they call(ed) the “Commitment Pattern?” Do you know if missionaries still use that term? I can understand missionaries needing some kind of script, but turning it into a formula for conversion? I can’t imagine that worked out too well. It really does assume God and people are automatons.

  12. Cori says:

    I’ve lurked for a while here, but this made me come out of hiding:
    “God can never fail us if silence and miracles are equal answers to prayer.”
    This is what I’ve tried to explain to my husband regarding my doubts! There is always an explanation in the church why things are. It makes me crazy.

  13. Bethany West says:

    I feel like I could have written this, just with a different soul-crushing obstacle.
    I have learned (1) that agency being what it is, God just can’t change most things to do with people and what goes on with them, and (2) that His part was mostly done when He set everything in motion a zillion years ago.
    Alas, I don’t get things from God beyond the occasional inspiration. The realization that God doesn’t do tangible things for me was quite a tough one, but has caused me to be much more mindful of my prayers (after I eased back into saying them). There’s a lot more thanks, and no asking for safe trips/donuts.
    I don’t understand how people can trust God and depend on Him for everything. I suspect that different people relate to God different ways, and if I try to depend on God for everything like that, I will just have my heart broken again.

  14. MB says:

    We celebrate Eve’s decision to move us out of a a world where life was easier, more beautiful, safer and had no sorrow into a world where failure, death, sin, strife, tragedy, struggle, weakness, mistakes, poor choices and evil would test us to our very limits and lead us to understanding that, though dim at first, would bloom into glory over the eons to come.

    And then, ironically, we think prayers to God are our answer to making our lives easier, more beautiful, safer and less sorrowful. And we don’t understand why God doesn’t answer our prayers to make it so.

    Prayer is an expression of desire and perspective and an opportunity for attuning to the divine. You are right. When we hope or believe it holds the magic answer to our troubles we are at an elementary and incomplete understanding. The reality of prayer is much deeper, more refined, and more cosmic in unity. And that takes some of us significant wrenching and soul searching and God reaching before we understand it.

  15. elephantlov says:

    Thanks for sharing. I second many of the responses with an additional thought. C.S. Lewis refers to the predicament of prayerin one of his works and sums it up as follows: There are two kinds of faith with prayer- faith in Christ in general as Savior, advocate, comforter, etc. and faith in a desired outcome, experience etc. The Bible clearly encourages us to have or do both and thus the cononundrum. After reading that, I looked up all citations and variations of “ask and ye shall receive” in the whole standard works. Only in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and covenants are their qualifiers to the second kind of faith- such as ” if it be expedient unto you “according to the will of the Lord” “ask not to consume it upon your lusts” etc. Another noteworthy and overlooked of illumination of restored scripture to ancient patterns and promises. So we are encouraged to ask for whatsoever thing we stand in need but according to the Lord’s will and timing. In the end it seems like how we ask and get responses from our own parents. We may wish for magical answers but they want us to decide, use our heads, grow by experience, and sometimes give us what we asked for simply because they love us, we trust them, and/or they asked. What looks inconsistent to us in our prayer lives might fit better in this paradigm from the parent’s perspective of being both anxious to bless but mindful of growth opportunities.

    From a non-scriptural standpoint, I read about a study that was done on prayer- basically one group of people with medical issues had another group of people asked to pray for them without them knowing. The other group did not. The outcome was about 25% better for those who had others praying for them. I apologize for not having a citations for these points but they could easily be found googling. Congrats on the degree and hard work!

  1. January 13, 2016

    […] Confession: I had one of the faith crises I alluded to in my comment.  I’ve written about it here.  My crisis wasn’t exactly about obedience, it was more about praying and fasting with all […]

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