Australian philosopher Damon Young recently published an opinion piece on the ABC website headed “Prayer is delusional but its power can be real”. In it, he attacks people of all religions who use prayer to take vengeance on their enemies and points to the failure of medical studies to prove that intercessory prayer changes health outcomes, other than calming the person doing the praying and producing effects like reduced blood pressure in that person.
While some of those who commented on the piece charge him with being anti-religion, I find myself agreeing with most of what he says, but probably for very different reasons.
Of course there are numerous Bible verses about asking for things from God, but these need to be read and interpreted in the context of the overall Gospel message. In Old Testament times, people had not yet experienced the fullness of the love of God as expressed in the Incarnation of the Logos in Jesus, so they had some reason to be anxious about their lives. Not so for us Christians! The Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection should mean that we can never doubt the extent to which the love of God will stretch to take care of us (if one ever could really doubt that any way).
So the Christian message about the relationship between God the Provider and our personal needs is this: “Do not worry” (Matthew 6:31). Christ came to teach us divine, aghape love, to make that love the overriding principle of our lives, to make us “beings of love”. And divine love cares not for its own first, but for others. Love draws us out of our selves and transforms us into little images of the God of Love Himself. I cannot emphasise enough how central this transformation is to the Gospel message.
Where can selfish requests for personal needs fit into that picture? Quite simply, they have no place. Rather than worrying about our own petty needs (in comparison with God’s big picture of things), we should be striving to forget about ourselves, to replace that selfish focus with a focus on loving God and loving our neighbour. That is not to say that the Christian must therefore endure a horrible life where her own needs are never met! It is rather to say that if God is real, then we can trust Him to provide for our needs, even without us asking Him to.
“For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” Matthew 6:32.
Our prayers can never tell God something He doesn’t already know, nor can we move Him to love us more than He already does. Our prayers will not remind a forgetful God to help us, nor prod a careless God to pay more attention to us. At best, supplicatory prayer is a way to share our needs with God, for our benefit (a problem shared is a problem halved) not to change what God is to do about them. After all, we constantly ask that “Thy will be done”, not our own. And St Gregory’s liturgy reminds us that God is He who gives us “more than we ask or understand”.
But to use God as a cosmic “slot machine” is to abuse His friendship: slot in your prayer, and get your fulfilment in the tray at the bottom! Is that really what God is for us? This suggests that the selfish need is more important to us than God Himself. We care more about the present than we do about the Giver of the present. What if He doesn’t do what we ask of Him? Do we not then have the right to feel badly treated? Do we not then have a case against God? But then, where is our love for God? And what is worse, this is utter madness! Who are we to know better than God? And it betrays a lack of faith in God, suggests that somehow He has failed in His duty towards us, as if He were a common human being like any one of us. This is certainly not the God of the Bible I know, nor the God I experience in real daily life.
God asks us to surrender everything if we wish to be His followers. This is a very high price to pay, and that is why He describes it as a narrow gate. I often wonder how many Church-going Christians have really surrendered to God in this way, and how many come to Church mostly because they find it convenient to have that “Friend in high places”. To be Christian is to accept with joy the possibility of having nothing. For the true Christian, Christ is all we will ever need, ever truly desire. Everything else: wealth and health and all those worldly things are just unnecessary extras. Sometimes God gives them to us much as a father occasionally gives his children lollies. But both the father and the children know that you do not live on lollies. It is the Bread that comes down from heaven that is essential for your spiritual nourishment and flourishing.
So although I am a Christian who believes in and practices prayer, I have to agree with Young and say that I too am deeply disturbed by those who use prayer as a means for achieving selfish ends. This is the very antithesis of true Christianity. The goal of true Christianity is to lose the selfishness inherent in us all and become beings of genuine love, not to beef up our selfishness by imagining that our Friend in high places will mould the universe to our own will.
3 Replies to “Cosmic Slot Machine Views of God”
Thanks Fr. Ant for this refocusing on the meaning and purpose of prayer.
To quote C. S. Lewis who quotes Pascal: “God,” said Pascal, “instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.”
I found this in an article I read for Lewis years ago titled “The Efﬁcacy of Prayer” which for me has always been one of the most helpful explanations for petitionary prayer.
From there I also quote: “Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.”
here is a link to the full article http://www.scribd.com/doc/29832112/Efficacy-of-Prayer-C-S-Lewis
Always awaiting your next article,
“Pray” for me
Father this is in depth thought with a lot of main points ; i read it twice just to figure some points .I believe prayer is a true belief with immense power’ true our lord knows all our needs and told us seek kindom of heaven first and the rest of earthly needs will be added but HE likes to hear us through our hearts and not lips , thanking him ,asking him strength in our faith ,hope and love with entire surrendering to his will as HE taught us in the bible how to pray “our father …”which covers surrendering to his will ,forgivnes of sins and protection from evil ; HE said knowck and will be opened ,ask will be given etc.; if we look at the other side of the coin asking the lord about earthly stuff ,makes sense of the view of the writer and such earthly needs will be added and more without asking ; hope i am in the heart of the matter and not off point ,God Bless .By the way the new Deacons Website in the blog is a great idea as our children and grand children in bad need for it in English. Also the transmission through the blog the prayers of holy passion week directly was so great ; hope the same to be done in the Arabic Mass to be transmitted every week for those elderly and sick who are unable to attend the church ; i am sorry i believe i am asking too much ,great service father ,God Bless.
Many, many years ago I came across a prayer booklet in hospital prayer room that had a series of prayers and poems in it. One of the prayers/poems within contained the following line:
“God does not owe you an explanation, but He always has a reason”
This has been something that has stuck with me ever since and has come to mind whenever I would go through anything in which I would God “why?” And in my own experience, the “why?” is always answered, even if it is months or years later. God always reveals to you the reason why he left you to go through what you went through and the reason or purpose of the outcome.
Prayer for material things or circumstances, I believe, is the easiest way to teach somebody to pray. When we are children we are taught to pray this way. As children when we pray, we pray for things we want; a new toy for Christmas, success in an exam, or the new pair of shoes that everybody else at school is wearing.
This soon develops into praying with thanksgiving; thanking God for giving us those things we had prayed for. Growing from that, we begin to pray with thanksgiving for those things we acknowledge God has provided without us asking, like food. “Bless us oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which of thy bounty we are about to receive. And make us ever-mindful of those in need” is a prayer we are commonly taught to pray as children before we eat.
It is not until we learn to pray for our material needs and then learn to pray with thanksgiving that we can begin to use our prayer to pray for others; which I believe is the ultimate form of prayer. If I trust that when I pray God will provide for me, if I trust that God will provide for me even without me asking, then and only then will I be able to pray for my neighbour also, without feeling the need to pray for my own selfish needs.
The Liturgy we pray every day is prayed in this way. We begin by thanking God for “every condition, concerning every condition, and in every condition”. We then proceed to pray a series of litanies, each of which is a prayer for someone or something else. Firstly we pray for the Church as a whole and it’s oneness, then for the Patriarch and the fathers, the congregations, the safety of the world, the crops which provide the world with sustenance, the widows and orphans, the leaders of our land and it’s armed forces, and finally for the repose of the departed. The Liturgy itself teaches us to simply thank God for the circumstances we are in whatever they may be, and then to concentrate on prayer for others.
Personally I don’t believe that prayer for one’s own selfish material needs is a bad thing because we must first learn to pray this way, it is the first stage in the appreciation and practice of proper prayer.
That’s my own humble opinion anyway.
“Many people say they do not know how to pray. Pray in whatever way you like, so long as you pray. You can pray the way your mother taught you, by using a prayer book, or simply in thought; it is all the same” HH Pope John Paul II