Recently a friend sent me a link to a blog skeptical of the power of prayer. Some key comments taken from the blog are as follows:
Surely the divines can explain what distinguishes the moments when prayers do save someone from those when they don’t. Is it the targets of prayers that are distinguishable, or the people doing the praying? Perhaps someone could keep tabs and analyse the results, in the spirit of scientific inquiry. Or does God just have priorities wildly different from ours? But who can possibly imagine a reason why God wouldn’t respond to prayers to save an officer’s life, but would respond to the petitions that we are regularly told have produced a divine affirmative—to get someone out of debt, say, or to cure someone of illness?
I take it that believers do not ascribe such inconsistent results to capriciousness on God’s part, but rather to their own limited capacities to understand God’s ways: “Thy Will be done.” But why continue directing any psychic energy to a being so lacking in sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values. It will not do to say: “God does respond to our prayers, but in ways that we cannot fathom.” Saving a child from cancer and letting a child die from cancer cannot both be a sympathetic response to prayer; if we had wanted a stricken child to die in order to secure an earlier entry to heaven, we would have said so. And if premature death from cancer is such a boon, why doesn’t a loving God provide it to one and all?
It is humans who work with passion and commitment every day to try to save their fellows (and a range of other creatures) from suffering and sorrow. Emergency room medicine is constantly evolving to try to ensure that gun shot victims and people crushed by cars survive. Doctors and hospital staff work frantically throughout the night to try to revive a failing heart or a shattered brain. They do so out of love and compassion, while God, who could restart an exhausted heart in an instant, demurs. The only source of love on earth is human empathy. Transferring our own admirable traits onto a constructed deity just obscures the real human condition: we are all we have, but that is saying a lot.1
Is God "lacking in sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values"?
These are valid (and common) questions considering the assumptions the author of the blog is making about prayer. However, I believe that her primary assumption is mistaken. She writes as if the purpose of prayer is to instigate God’s action in our affairs. Even as a call to 911 stimulates the paramedics into predictable action, so our prayers should result in God acting according to our perceived needs. Because the act of prayer has uncertain results, God must lack “sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values.”
The assumption being made is that our life and relationships here on this earth are the supreme purpose of existence. Therefore, any Absolute being who is good would automatically, let alone requiring petitions, respond in order to fulfill that purpose. But from the Christian perspective, that assumption is incorrect. The supreme purpose of existence is our relationship to God. God is reality in the same way that God is love. Our life here is intended to be an expression of that reality as we work it out in the midst of the dangers and brokenness of this material world. Even as nature is an expression of God (his artwork), but is not God himself, so our lives on this earth are an expression of reality, but there is something (someone) behind all that we experience which gives meaning to our existence. That ultimate reality is encountered as we live in harmony with God. Jesus said, “People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).
The pain, the danger, the beauty, the development, and the uncertainty of life all play a role in providing the environment in which we can discover what truly makes life worthwhile. This is eternal (full, whole, perfect, fulfilled) life, to know God and Jesus Christ, the one he has sent (Jn 17:3).
Prayer … is a cry to the father in order to put all things into his hands
Prayer, then, is not a desperate attempt to save someone’s life (like a paramedic), or a tool to fix something broken (like CPR), rather it is a cry to the father in order to put all things into his hands. Prayer coordinates and harmonizes our immediate experience and struggle with the Ultimate Reality in the hope and expectation that he is the source of love who will make all things right, even if our desires of the moment are not met. What we ultimately say when we pray is “I trust you,” and what God ultimately says in his response is “trust me, I love you.” Whether, like Jesus, we pray for salvation in the garden and wind up on the cross (Luke 22:42), or we are frightened in the boat and cry out, “save me!” resulting in immediate calm (Luke 8:22-24), the point in both cases is the trust in what – or rather, whom – is ultimately true and real. The story never ends until it ends in God and if Jesus spoke the truth, then he is the God of life, not death (Luke 20:38).
There are two possibilities for ultimate reality: everything ends in darkness and death or everything ends in light and life. If the former is true, there is no point in prayer. If the latter is true, then prayer is the best response possible to any situation.
The author also writes that “the only source of love on earth is human empathy.” Not so. Human empathy is an essential expression of love, but its source lies elsewhere. We love because we have first been loved (1 Jn 4:19). We love because we have been given capacity to express and live out love (1 Jn 4:11). We love because we have been made for love. We love because we have been created in the image of love (Gen 1:26,27). We are “icons” of God, who is love. That is the source. The choice is not between a “constructed deity” or limiting love to a human invention. That is a false dichotomy. The reality is even better than we imagine: a God who loves us, not to a pain free and grief absent life, but to himself.
- 1 Mac Donald, Heather. The Conundrum of Prayer. posted June 5th, 2009 at http://secularright.org/wordpress/?p=2102. Accessed July 4, 2009.