Originally posted Feb. 2, 2013, at the altar ego. Republished with permission of the author.
I know it’s a blunt title, but I’m fed up with this shallow idea of what prayer means largely going unchallenged by Christians and Christianity.
And by “shallow,” I mean the way we look at prayer as an opportunity to ask for things (and often stupid things — for our team to win a game, for example). When we do this, we set up prayer as a meaningless spiritual exercise that deals with a wishy-washy God whose actions depend solely on our prayers.
First off, prayer is a conversation, a chance to listen as much as talk. The earliest Christians — and their Jewish ancestors in the faith — understood prayer as a discipline, a deep, almost primordial way to see that our story is caught up with God’s epic story.
Notice that it’s not to “make sure” that our story is caught up in God’s story — it’s to see that this is already the case.
I know it’s said in jest, but if I hear one more time how much I must be “praying for the 49ers” to win Super Bowl XLVII tomorrow, I think I’m going to pray for God to smite something. (That was a joke, PS.)
Prayer is not asking a divine Santa Claus for what we want. And the sooner we stop treating it that way — even as a joke — the sooner we can grow into a more accepting and mature understanding of prayer.
When we talk about prayer exclusively as an asking exercise (regardless of what we’re asking for), we are implicitly saying that some people get what they want through prayer, while others don’t (and take your pick as to why — not enough faith, God doesn’t like you, etc.). And that’s just sad. And theologically embarrassing.
What happens when I pray for the 49ers to win, and the Ravens do? What happens when I pray to have a better day, and I, you know, don’t?
When we frame prayer in this way, it raises some serious questions when the prayers are seriously important. What happens when we pray for the tumor to be benign, and it’s not? What happens when we pray for starving people, and the next day, they still die all around the world because they don’t have enough food?
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pray about those things. But it’s high time we name prayer for what it is: a way to connect with the holy; not a way to “cover our bases.” Prayer is a challenge for us to join in the justice and mercy of God, and not sit back and sanctimoniously wait to see what happens. Prayer doesn’t get us off the hook.
And how we see prayer says more about us than about God.
What are we saying when we treat prayer as a sacred temper tantrum that tells God, “Please! Gimme! Now!”? What does that look like to people inside and outside the church?
Prayer is so much more than that. And God is so much more than an all-knowing giver-of-stuff. How lame if the Creator of the universe was just another genie in a bottle?
Sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears (see: the biblical book of Lamentations).
But we need to remember that our God isn’t “making a list and checking it twice” to figure out who gets their prayers answered — and who gets coal in their spiritual stocking.
God is there with us, crying with us, frustrated with us.
Our prayers help us to realize this. And that is a powerful thing.
Find a link to Jason Chesnut’s the altar ego at Lutheran Blogs.