201. questions/thoughts on prayer
Out of all the mysteries of the Christian faith, one of the top questions has got to be, “how does prayer work?”
I mean think of it from a purely empirical standpoint. The idea of speaking requests into the air, hoping that an omnipotent spiritual being will hear you and then rearrange the universe to grant your request sounds pretty hopeless if not downright arrogant. And on the flip side, the idea that a supreme, omniscient deity would command us to ask (through prayer) for what he already knows we want, sounds like a cruel power trip.
And in the end, no one can know whether a particular prayer will or won’t be answered.
A woman (let’s call her W) who’s been coming to our house church for about a month now, asked the members to pray for her fish who was dying. Now W has issues with God due to traumatic, painful events in her past. As a house church, we rallied around Operation Heal-fish, seeing it as a potential opportunity to see the power of God at work and to allow an opportunity for God to show W that he really does care for her needs. And we went at it, praying for her fish, praying that when W went home she would find it doing backflips a la Flipper.
But the fish died.
And I wonder if we did the best thing in this case. I mean, even W asked that we pray for a quick and peaceful death instead of healing because she believed that the fish was done for. But we didn’t want to waffle. We prayed for all or nothing, and the fish died. Would it have been better for us to have prayed for a quick and painless death instead of complete healing? Should we have prayed for both? And the thought of praying for both was suggested but rejected as a sign of wavering in our faith.
Were we putting God to the test? Well, speaking for myself (and I’m sure the others who prayed felt the same), I only wanted to see God demonstrate his love for W by performing the simple act of healing a tiny, little, innocent fish. It wasn’t as much about the fish as it was about W, because we all love W and we wanted her to see that God cared about her fish and by extension, cared about her as well.
And maybe some people reading this are thinking, God’s got better things to do than heal fish. And maybe that’s true, but how many people around the world are, right now, sitting in some hospital waiting room, praying for the life of their spouse, their parent, their son or their daughter. Surely those lives are more important that that of W’s fish, but some of those prayers will be answered and some will not.
And I think about the morning of September 11th 2001. I think about people who were running late on their way to work at the Pentagon or the Twin Towers. I’m sure there were some who were praying for an opening in traffic so that their boss wouldn’t fire them. And some of those prayers were answered and those people died. And some prayers weren’t answered and those people lived. And what does that say about how prayer works?
I don’t know.
All I know is that God asks us to pray. Jesus prayed and as one who aspires to follow the example of Christ, I should pray. And I try to. But it’s not easy. I’ve never been one of those Christians for whom prayer is a vital, vibrant part of their lives. But I try.
Maybe it’s intellectually dishonest of me to pray with all of these unresolved questions muddying up the waters. I’m sure there are non-christians who will point to this blog and say, “see how irrational Christians are? This guy knows that prayer doesn’t work but he prays anyway.” And I’m sad to say that I don’t have an adequate rebuttal. But I try to pray anyway.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
No, I can’t explain it, but I do my best to pray. And I’ll admit that I don’t spend a lot of time on my knees in prayer and so who am I to ask these questions. Maybe it’s like that scene from Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi is teaching Daniel san karate by having him paint fences and wash cars and sand floors. Daniel doesn’t understand what’s going on and just when he’s about to give up, Mr. Miyagi shows him that there was a purpose behind the chores – that what seemed irrational and meaningless (and even selfish on Mr. Miyagi’s part from Daniel’s perspective) was actually the very training that he thought he was still waiting for.
But even Mr. Miyagi knew when to let Daniel in on the secret.
I think of the one prayer of my life, the one prayer that I’ve prayed for more than any other, the one prayer that was never answered. My prayer for companionship, for a girlfriend, for a wife. God himself said that it’s not good for man to be alone, and for the longest time, I couldn’t have agreed with him more. But I don’t care so much about finding a spouse anymore. And I don’t know if it’s because God has given me a sense of peace regarding my singleness or if it’s because my heart just plain gave up waiting and shut down the dream machine. And I’m wondering if it’s the latter.
See, I’ve been meaning to write on the topic of prayer all week, but I didn’t get to it until tonight because I was working on a different entry that I was hoping to post before getting to this one. If you’ve read any of my short stories you know that most of them are about love. Well I’ve been trying to finish up another little story bit but I just can’t get it to work because I’m finding that it’s just about impossible for me to get into the heads of my characters. And so the story falls flat. In fact, there’s no story there at all because nothing happens, because my heart isn’t in it, because I don’t care about finding love anymore and so my characters don’t care either and so they don’t reveal their inner-selves to me and so the story stinks.
W’s fish. My prayer for love. Victims of 9/11. How does prayer work?
I don’t know.
But I do my best to pray anyway.
But it’s not easy.
But I try.
But I fail.
But I try.
And if prayer works for you then pray for me because I don’t understand.
But I’m trying.
In the end, I do try to pray despite the fact that I have no idea how it works.
Because it’s all I can do. Because God wants me to. Because prayer is at the center of every Christian who ever made a difference in this world. And maybe they didn’t understand prayer either.