Like many Christians, I have reflected on prayer over the years, though in fleeting spurts: what it means and what to expect when we pray. But my thoughts on the subject were heightened when my son, then in his early teens, interpreted an “answer” that seemed the opposite of what he had prayed for. And with that non-answer answer, a slow crisis of faith started, which remains unresolved a decade later.
My friend was dying from cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the bile ducts. The rapid progression of the disease—he would be dead within 31 days of diagnosis—provided no gentle emotional easing between the stages of Kubler-Ross’ grief/loss cycle. Instead, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—does one ever get to acceptance?—tumbled over each other in no neatly discernible order. And we, who loved him, attempted to navigate the out-of-control health crisis that was turning our world upside down.
Bryan was a behind-the-scenes, low-key religious man, who was the undisputed guardian of our family faith. It was he who, every night, even before they could read, corralled our household young to a date with Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories. After each story, they read a parallel biblical passage and topped the evening off with prayers. So, when the end seemed near, and his doctors said there was nothing else they could offer, Bryan himself, with loved ones in tow, continued to believe that if we prayed hard enough and besought God for healing, God would make him whole. At his anointing, the preacher encouraged us to keep praying, affirming that the power of prayer would make the difference.
In the end, my son’s uncle died at age 55. And when he did, something seemed to give inside the youth he had nurtured. Since his death, his nephew’s once promising relationship with God has faltered and congealed into weariness. He was 14 years old when Bryan died. And in hindsight, what then seemed like an innocuous statement in an essay he wrote at the time hints at his despair: “I prayed so hard and so often when my uncle got cancer that God would cure him. My uncle had assured me when he told me Bible stories, that God answers our prayers if we are earnest and if we believed. I was earnest. And I believed. But he died. Now I wonder whether I was earnest enough or believed less.”
Before we get any further, a disclaimer about what this essay is not about: anti-prayer. Nor is it a denial of prayer’s efficacy. Scripture seems to assume a communal understanding of prayer and therefore spends little time defining it. The emphasis, when the subject comes up in the Bible, is an admonition to get on with it. Paul, in 1 Thess 5:17, implores us to “pray without ceasing,” in much the same way as 1 Chronicles 16:11, whose author encourages us to “seek his presence continually.” Additionally, the gospel writers Matthew (6:9-13) and Luke (11:2-4) have Jesus himself not only endorsing the concept of prayer, but in a rare move going beyond the normal insistence on prayer to giving us an example of how to do it. So rather than decrying prayers as such, I hope in this essay to explore our understanding of issues surrounding the concept, such as our objectives when we pray. Do we, or should we, know how to pray or what to pray for? And does God even mind? Do our prayers “change” or influence God’s behavior or intentions? Does God answer partisan prayers?
For the Christian, the many rationales for praying could be summed up in two ways: 1) an avenue to praise or express appreciation to God; and 2) a medium to bring our petitions to him. Ellen White’s definition, which views prayer as “the opening of the heart to God as to a friend” (Steps to Christ, p. 93) enables us to show appreciation for the joy of friendship while making it easy, at the same time, to share our worries and petitions for relief. Ellen White invites us to envision a relationship with God not as father, with its many constrained associations and uneven power dynamics, but as a friend. Friendly relationships involve choice and come with volitional ability to enter or withdraw from it as one feels.
If we conceive of God as a friend figure, we can afford to show our vulnerabilities and even irreverence, as when Job raised both voice and fists at God, thinking God was being unfair to him: “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” (7:11) So when we bring our petitions to God and open ourselves to him, cocooned by his friendship, we do so knowing he, in the spirit of friendship, will not “judge” us. We petition God simply to unburden or offload from the sagging heaviness of our hearts. And in so doing, lessen them. In this sense, the Swedish proverb “Sorrow shared is sorrow halved” has it right.
Supplications to God should be grounded in profundity, not as empty habit. Going to a friendly God to seek relief when life itself smothers is not selfish, and should not be maligned as such. There are those who advocate that prayer should be heavy on praise and thankfulness, and light on asking for favors. No! Because there are only so many ways of thanking and praising God before the adoration devolves into predictable ritual and habit. When we thank God out of habit, it might be because we secretly fear he would harm us if we do not keep up appearances. But asking God for help is different. If one lives long enough, it becomes apparent that life is heavy lifting, and seeking relief is as much a necessity as a sacred duty.
As we try to understand the concept—the why of praying—appreciation and burden sharing is the easy part. A more problematic question is why we should pray at all if God knows us inside and out, and can easily discern our thoughts and motivations. When we pray, do we communicate anything to God that he does not already know? Or does God want us to pray to clear our own heads, so to speak? If so, is it not confusing when the same scripture, which urges us to pray, also tells us we have no idea what to pray for? And that we need the Holy Spirit’s help to do it right: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). The writer of Romans seems to imply that there is a correct way to pray, and we are not equipped for it, which is why the Spirit needs to take over.
And even after the Spirit intercedes on our behalf, we don’t know if our amended prayers break through or are accepted. This was my 14-year-old’s predicament when he followed the biblical injunction to pray, not “selfishly” for himself, but on behalf of someone he loved. What is he to make of it when the object of his fervent prayers dies anyway? How should he understand or interpret the death? Thus, his anguished self-doubt: did his prayers lack earnestness or was his belief inadequate? Still, regardless of the response or lack thereof to our prayers, the consensus in Christian communities pushes us to be thankful always and in all situations. We pray for healing, but the person dies. Our retort is that the person died because healing was not God’s will. The proper Christian duty, we’re advised is such situations, is to be thankful to God that our prayers were not answered the way we had hoped. And daring to ask why we had to pray in the first place is deemed disrespectful and improper. How dare mere mortals question God?
When I was in my late teens, one of the most popular parts of the Sabbath service in my local church was “Time to Thank God for Answered Prayers.” The event was strategically tied to the tithe and offering promotion just when the offering plates were being passed around. The promoter would invite the congregants to the platform to share stories of answered prayers. It usually started subdued but quickly gathered speed and vocal intensity as the parishioners outdid one another recounting how God recently answered their prayers. High on the list of answered prayers were healings, financial resuscitation, pregnancies, rescue from vehicular accident, etc.
I recall one day, during a particularly fevered testimony session, observing a young member who had recently lost her husband despite the entire church’s prolonged fasting and praying on his behalf for healing. She got out of her seat and headed outside. It dawned on me then how hard it must have felt sitting through a storm of feel-good thanksgiving, when her prayers for her now-dead husband seemingly went unanswered.
As if losing a loved one despite dedicated prayers aimed at forestalling it is not traumatizing enough, when death occurs, some “well-meaning” self-appointed “defenders” of God always manage to make the situation worse. The clichés are endless: “God knows best.” “Maybe this is God’s way of preserving him for eternity.” “You should be open for the lesson God is trying to teach.” I get it that these speculations about God’s intentions, when the opposite of what we pray for happens, are the nervous impulses of well-meaning believers who are as clueless as everyone else. But at such times, it seems to me, the prudent thing to do is be present but say little.
Then there is the question of partisanship when we pray. Is God swayed by the prayers of the faithful? While the jury may be out on that question, it seems that praying for those we’re familiar with is one of the most popular practices in religious communities that pray. We routinely petition God for protection for loved ones in our immediate circle, beginning with family, clan, tribe, and—when the occasion calls for it—patriotic nationalism. In times of strife or uncertainty our prayers harden and become insular. We witness this behavior especially during conflict, where it is not uncommon to have the same faith community petitioning the same God to effect outcomes that are contradictory but predicated on preserving close affiliations. For example, in 1982 during the Falklands war between the United Kingdom and Argentina, Christians in the two countries prayed to the same God for protection and ultimate victory, not as God wills, but for their side.
What is God supposed to do with such partisan prayers? Arbitrate or ignore them? Are they even appropriate? The distressing part is that, regardless of the fervor we put forth in pleading our case, and the unspoken justifications of why we should be favored, sometimes, more often than we care to acknowledge, the “wrong” side wins. Or the opposite of what we prayed for happens. Then what? We are admonished to do the unnatural, amid tragedy: thank God anyway.
And what should we make of the commoditization of prayer? Throughout history, entrepreneurial preachers have viewed prayers as pure gold. From as far back as the Catholic indulgences, when for a fee priests prayed for loved ones stuck in purgatory, unscrupulous clerics have exploited parishioners’ belief in prayers and used it for profit. And over the years, these gold-diggers have perfected their craft, so that in contemporary times, a prosperity gospel preacher can point to a few rich people in the pews as validation that God adds wealth to believing Christians, if they give more. It matters not that many of their congregants have given their last mites and remained as impoverished as ever.
Prayer serves an important psycho-social need for the faith community and has been the source of spiritual sustenance for as long as there has been religion. It is possible that at some point in its evolution, faith communities had a better sense of the nuances and parameters of prayer that are now lost to us. And with that loss, prayer has become a cliché of empty slogans, as evidenced by the repetition of the phrase “thoughts and prayers” whenever a senseless massacre takes place. We must relearn the basics of prayer, if there are basics to learn, so that 14-year-olds who take prayer seriously should not have to lose their faith over misdirected expectations when seeking divine help.
In closing I would note that diagnosing the problem is the easy part, which has been done for millennia. What is not so easy is remediation. That is, providing answers, answers that could include how not to always expect what we pray for to happen. Unlike treating known diseases with best practice guidelines, prayer (is an “enigma” that) does not lend itself to empirical or verifiable methods leading to “cures.” Still, to prevent it from sinking deeper into meaningless ritual, or worse, an activity that could potentially lead unsuspecting young Christians out of faith, our community should work at achieving a reasonably transparent set of understandings and expectations of prayer. My own modest attempt will be the subject of a future essay.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
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