Thoughts on Prayer #2 : What Is Prayer For?
As a child (I’ve been contrary my entire life) I often thought that there was little point in praying. On the one hand, I was taught that God knows everything, including what we need and want. Prayer was supposed to be an expression of faith allowing God to give us what we pray for. But since God knew better then we did, often we would not get what we wanted or felt we needed because God knew better and the answer was “No.” So if God knew better then I did, and if my prayers made no difference in what happened to me, what was the point?
This is the way I remember prayer being taught, and is still the way I see prayer being taught. We are told that God answers prayers, but sometimes the answer is no. I really struggle with this explanation of God; a God who listens to prayers (if we have enough faith and if we’re doing it right), but who doesn’t react to what we say. For most of my life I felt like I was flipping a coin or asking Santa Claus for a present when I prayed. I was asking the supreme being to help me, but I had no control over the outcome. I just had to send my letter out into space and hope that on Christmas morning what I needed was under the tree. This created a God I couldn’t communicate with and didn’t like all that much.
This problem was exacerbated by the concept of “Thy will be done.” We are taught to incorporate the idea of “Thy will be done’ in our prayers, which claims to explain why we don’t always get what we pray for. I’ve seen this destroy faith; people pray for loved ones to be healed, or to find a job, or for children and their prayers are not answered. The idea that God hears and answers all prayers sends the message that God does not want a loved one to live, or want you to be employed, or want you to have children. The worst example I can think of for this is a prayer for safety, followed by an act of violence, like a rape or mugging. I pray for safely and am met with violence. Since God’s will is the answer to our prayers, He must have wanted this violence to happen to me; He might have even been responsible for it. That is not a God I can believe in.
My analysis may seem simplistic, partially because I”m trying to to go on forever (fail, sorry), and partially because my mind works a certain way. I find that the pattern that has been set up pushes me away from God, because it creates for me an arbitrary God who does not listen to what we feel we need, and who may be responsible for terrible things happening. If my prayers do nothing to change what happens to me, and if they make me feel desperate and hopeless, why on earth should I keep praying?
A few weeks ago, I found an answer that works for me. Prayer was described not as petitioning God to change things, but as a way of communicating with someone so you do not feel alone. I read a story of a man whose wife was ill. He felt useless because he could not help her. He was advised to pray, but didn’t see the point for similar reasons as I’ve described above. But when he took the advice, he felt that in being able to express his fear he was able to be there for his wife, because he did not feel that he was dealing with the pain alone. We pray because we feel joy or sorrow or anger and God is there to share it, to let us know that someone understands us. God is not responsible for the horrible things that happen to us; life just runs that way. But God knows our pain, and weeps or rejoices with us in a way that no one else can.
I realize that this interpretation will not be helpful to everyone, that many find comfort in seeing God’s hand in the good things that happen to them. I don’t wish to harm that view; find God wherever you can! But I have found great comfort, great relief, and a new relationship with God in the idea that God does not “answer” prayers in the since of giving us, or not giving us, what we are asking for. God answers prayers by listening, by being present, by helping us know we are not alone. As someone who often feels misunderstood, voiceless and powerless, the fact that there is someone who weeps, rages or rejoices with me is life-altering. To feel that someone shares my anger has given me the courage to act to change things I see as wrong. It has given me hope in times when I feel that nothing will change. This courage and hope has given my life a meaning I never thought I would find.