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.