Guest post: Selfish Prayer

My fiance had a few things she wanted to discuss about Evangelical culture, so I will be offering her space on this blog to add her thoughts and experiences as well. The following post is about the common mythologies of prayer.

I have a problem with prayer: it is selfish.

Prayer is by nature self-centered. I am not saying that that’s a bad thing, per se, but it is only useful when used for the self. It has power to help you find peace, or to center yourself, or to try to figure things out. It can bestow perspective and clarify the mind and relieve stress. Interestingly, brain scans have shown that prayer and Buddhist meditation work in very similar ways, and help the brain to maintain itself and connect with the world.

I am of the general opinion that we may connect with a higher power when practicing these things. I will not completely discount those who say God has spoken to them during these times. I do think that there should be a healthy dose of skepticism when dealing with any such experience or retelling of an experience, however, as thinking or claiming to hear from God is dangerous. More often than not, I have found a peculiar correlation between what someone wants to hear from God and what they claim to hear from God.

There are some limitations I believe prayer has, that many people don’t seem to realize, along with a few things it can do:

  • It cannot change the world. People changing the world can change the world.
  • It can’t solve world hunger. Donating food and money to food banks, or legislating that the government takes care of the people can. (Not getting into politics here, just stating that that would indeed feed hungry people.)
  • It cannot change weather to bring rain or make it leave, etc. The physical laws of this world can. Even as a Christian I believed that God had put in place the physical world and mostly left it alone, because he had created an intricate machine that would work on its own.
  • It cannot change a person’s mind. Only they can. You cannot pray for a politician to change his mind or for someone you know to be ‘brought to Christ,’ and expect it to actually happen. That would be a violation of free-will, which is the foundation of Christianity. We were given free-will so that we might know what it is to sin and what it is to be redeemed. Therefore, God cannot or will not change anyone’s mind. It follows that you cannot change someone’s mind by praying for them. You cannot make them choose what you want or leave the ‘lifestyle’ they’re in. If you could do so by prayer, then you would be manipulating them into your will. If you pray for God to ‘show them the way’ then do not be surprised when the prayed-for person does not ‘find the way.’ Think instead that either God won’t manipulate people like that, or he does not agree that your way is the correct one.
  • It cannot save a life. Doctors and rescue workers can. Prayer can help the pray-er by calming and de-stressing them, but there has never been any evidence that a prayed-for person recovers any faster from ailment than one who is not prayed for. See the natural laws thing with the praying to change the weather paragraph. Medical science has advanced a long way, and sometimes can work ‘miracles,’ but it is the resilience of the human body and mind and the skilled people and medicines and machines that save lives.
  • Prayer can also make a person complacent. “Why donate money or time when I can pray for the person? God can help them better than I can.” This I liken to the facebook ‘slacktivism’ that has people change their profile picture or repost a sentence to supposedly end violence or child abuse or whatever it is. It is so, so much easier to send up a nice thought than it is to do something, or to sacrifice something.
  • It can allow you to start believing God spoke to you. That only you know what is true. It’s easy to feel feedback from ‘God’ while praying. The funny thing is that it’s very often either what your conscience is saying, or simply something you want to be right, anyway. While it could be God, it is far, far more likely that it is your brain practicing its powerful sway over you. It is also entirely possible to have multiple people, all saying God spoke to them, and all saying different things. This is impossible if there is one true God: either some are lying, or they all truly believe that they heard God’s will. Related to that is that prayer leads to a lot of confirmation bias. You want something, you pray for it, it happens, your prayer must have worked. You tend to forget all the times that it didn’t work, or explain them away by God saying no. You tend to recieve the answers you want, or expect, when you ask for guidance.

So prayer has a lot of limitations and downfalls. There is another part of it that is problematic: the saying “I’m praying for you.” By itself, there is nothing wrong with this phrase. I had a Bible study teacher once say “we may not know if prayer works, but praying is how we know we care.” That is true. While I don’t believe it actually does anything supernatural to help someone else, praying about something is a way to show you care. Saying that you’re praying is a nice sentiment and expresses sympathy, if it’s done in a caring manner at the right time and with the right tone.

It is often joked about in the south, how you can say anything bad about a person, and if you follow it with “bless his heart,” it makes it okay. Suddenly you weren’t mean or hurtful. In southern culture, you are not allowed to be angry or impolite, or to express dislike in any way besides passive-aggressive measures. Similarly, anger and related emotions are practically taboo in Christianity. They have to be tamped down and only released with the select passive-aggressive words.

Telling someone “I’m praying for you,” becomes annoying or downright hurtful when they know that it really means “I don’t like what you did. Only God can save you now,” or “I’m praying for God to make you straight so we can love you again.” “This person did these awful things, but see how I am better than him? I can pray for him!”
I like how Jesus says we should pray in closets, in secret, so that no one knows. I heard in Sunday school how in those times the Pharisees would go around praying loudly so that everyone could know how holy they are. These days, I often see posts on facebook asking for prayers, with twenty people replying saying “praying for you!” Or posts saying “Praying for so-n-so.” “Praying for America.”

I have heard that some believe in power in the number of prayers, which is their explanation for why they post that they are praying for someone. This either gets into a weird ‘spiritual warfare’ area (which has its own problems, to be discussed elsewhere), or makes God one of those attention-whore parents who posts pictures of their kids holding a ‘If we get two-thousand likes Mom says we will go to Disneyland!’

The only other reason for trumpeting your prayer life to the public is because you want the attention, the kudos, the feeling of being superior. Christianity is like all other cultures, and in each culture there are status symbols. Unfortunately, actually following Jesus and helping the needy and praying privately are difficult to turn into status symbols, so then it becomes who prays the most/loudest, or who has a fish on their car, or how many ‘souls you saved.’

Now, onto the spiritual warfare. When I was younger, I read a book by Frank E. Peretti. I don’t remember which one, but that doesn’t matter, because after reading the summary of another book by him, I realized they were all the same:

Bad things start happening in town. Bad things are due to demons. Angels come to fight demons, can’t until local Christian population starts praying hard enough and with enough people that they are given power-ups and can drive out the demons.

This is what I believe people mean when they talk about spiritual warfare: there is always a fight going on over souls between heaven and hell, and prayer helps the good guys win.

I concede that if you believe in God and heaven and angels, it follows that there is a hell with demons and Satan. An interesting side-note is that Satan wasn’t always the super-bad-guy he’s portrayed as now, but seemed to have more of the role of a being who tests the faithfulness of God’s people. He only appears in a few texts, and not usually is directly named. The idea of spiritual warfare is problematic: it is not biblically-founded, besides the mentions of casting out demons. Prayer never was a big role in it, that I can recall. In any case, much of what is now used as a biblical basis for it was more metaphor than instruction, like Paul’s ‘armor of God’, or the entirety of the book of Revelation.

I can give that we don’t know what else may be out there, in another dimension or what have you. Perhaps there are angels and demons battling. The problem comes when a person claims that someone else is experiencing ‘spiritual warfare,’ or demons, or what have you, and then uses that to completely invalidate that person’s own viewpoint and memories. Telling someone that their experiences are invalid because they were besot by demons is demeaning and almost laughable if it wasn’t so infuriating. Believing that if only you had prayed harder and the demons would have left must be a horrible burden, but it also must be nice to have an easy excuse for any bad in the world: demons did it.

If God expected people to pray in order to bolster his forces, he probably should have said so. Otherwise we are just writing our own fanfiction of the Bible to make ourselves feel more important than we likely are. Yes, it is written that we casted out demons and did miracles. Never does it say that was done with prayer alone. Not even in the story of Peter being freed from prison is it clear that prayer was the cause of the angel’s arrival. Even if we do implicate prayer in that miracle, that is the only instance (that I am aware of), and it is not theologically sound to base an entire doctrine off of anything that is only mentioned once in the Bible.
Prayer is a healthy activity, a useful tool, and a calming exercise for the brain. It is also an easy route to feel better about yourself for not doing anything, a tool for abuse, and a badge of honor. It can harm as much as it heals, and it is promised to do much more than it does. As with much Christianity, if what you prayed for didn’t happen, you weren’t praying hard enough or your faith wasn’t strong.

Links to the brain scan research:
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104310443

http://www.andrewnewberg.com/research/

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4 responses

  1. Ah, but the Bible does have examples where prayer–which is merely conversing with God–is desired by God. Maybe not prayer alone, but God encourages it. The famous verse which conservatives love to quote is one example. “If my people who are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and heal their land” is the gist of what is said. In the epistle of James, the sick are encouraged to go to church leaders and be anointed with oil and be prayed for. They will be healed and if they’ve sinned, they will be forgiven. When the disciples of Jesus could not cast out a demon, Jesus tells them that only prayer and fasting can accomplish it. St Paul admonishes us to pray without ceasing. Again, in James, we are told the the effectual prayer of a righteous man “availeth much”. We have Jesus giving us the Lord’s prayer when the disciples asked him to teach them how to pray. He did not tell them that prayer is a useless endeavor. Prayer is not condemned at all in the Bible–in fact, only the intentions of the one who is praying is clarified. Selfishness and pride are rebuked, but not heartfelt prayer for others. I agree that one should not advertise his praying. But that prayer moves the hand of God is indeed shown in the Bible.

    1. “If my people who are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and heal their land” I would interpret this verse as prayer being an inward-facing thing. The more-important part here, to me, is that they turned from their “wicked ways,” and the prayer is just the sign that they were turning back towards God, not that the prayer was what healed the land.

      I am not really speaking about whether or not prayer is condemned in the Bible; I know it is not. Perhaps I was mistaken in the prayer casting out demons part, so maybe there is a biblical basis for the spiritual warfare thing. It’s still an idea that will often lead to abuse, marginalization, dismissal (of people, not spirits), and/or complacency.

      I am saying that there is no real-life proof of prayer doing anything besides clarifying the mind and calming the spirit, and a little bit of placebo effect. It may be shown in the Bible to have sway over God, but this either has changed in modern times, or it was a mistaken perspective of those who wrote the Bible, because praying doesn’t have any outward effect today. This can be seen in the numerous deaths from relying on faith healers, especially snake handlers, or in how there is no discernible difference in cancer patients who are being prayed for versus those who are not.

      1. While many who are prayed for do not survive, that’s true, you cannot say with certainty that those who are healed are never helped by prayer, either. I often think about these kinds of things after a natural disaster. Why would one person who prays for safety be killed while another survives? What about the many atheists who survive? I don’t think prayer is a guarantee or a panacea, but I believe God wants our friendship, which involves conversing, that’s all. I don’t tend to take an absolutist position on too many things. In the end, I agree with you that prayer ought to either be private, or only done with those who support you in praying in the first place. I agree that a very quick way to insult a non religious person is to tell them that “i’ll pray for you”. Although, for me, it wouldn’t matter if a person not of my religious persuasion told me they were going to intercede for me with good thoughts, or with prayers to another type of deity, or whatever. I accept goodwill from wherever it comes. Good discussion, by the way. I appreciate your thoughts. It’s good to hear other views.

      2. I agree; for the most part, I don’t mind people saying they have me in their prayers. If I’m having a bad time lately and someone says ‘I’m praying for you’ it’s fine. It’s only when the intention behind the prayer itself offensive that I mind: if they are praying for my obviously unsaved soul or for me to change my mind about something, or if someone prays in lieu of actually doing something to help. Otherwise it’s a nice thought and I appreciate it.

        It is safest to either do it in private or with those of a like mind, as you say. Thanks for your input; I like hearing different ideas!

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