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The complications of prayer

By Elizabeth Backstrom

Prayer was never complicated for me. Until it was. As a kid, it was ‘talk to God and say what’s on your mind.’ It was more ‘Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret’ than anything with ceremony. Because I learned to do it as a child, when the world was a simpler place, it just was. I didn’t question how it worked. I knew God wasn’t actually in the next room, or above the ceiling, or floating in the sky somewhere. But at that time, I was sure I was heard.

I knew it didn’t always work. One only had to turn on the news and see how often people died, or how many things there weren’t money for, or how often life didn’t turn out the way I hoped, to know prayer wasn’t a divine vending machine for my wants and needs. But what was it then?

In the Bible, prayer is discussed many different ways. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the vending machine theory seems to get some credit. All we have to do is ask, right?

So I tell you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds.” (Luke 11:9)

James reminds us to pair faith and prayer with action and good deeds: “If one of you tells him, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that? So too, faith by itself, if it is not complemented by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)

Too often, we use prayer as a substitute for action on actionable things. Sometimes, we can’t fix a problem. Not everyone can help cure cancer. But usually there’s at least one physical thing we can do to help someone.

But what about the subject of our prayer? How do we know if what we’re asking for is even right?

Here’s Isaiah on the thoughts of God and humans: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)

Is that confusing? You bet. What if two people ask for conflicting things? If each side of a sports team wants to win a game, whose prayer gets answered? What if the stakes are higher, like in a war? And what if there’s no answer at all, as so often happens? Is it just God’s will that a good person died and a seemingly bad person lived? How can humans claim to know anything like that? After all, our thoughts and ways are not those of God.

It’s pretty easy to attribute the good things in life to God and the bad things to human failure or the devil, but these types of explanations often seem like a way to make sense of things that don’t make sense. People have free will and can choose to do what they like. Lots of times they choose to do wrong. But would we really want to end that free will just to get our prayers answered?

So in the end, does prayer make a difference? If it’s not a vending machine, and it’s not any good to control the actions of people, and we need action to make it meaningful, then what’s the point?

To find the answer to this, I’ve gone back to what I thought about prayer when I was 10, before it was complicated. Prayer can be truly useful, I think, to have a conversation with God. What else can it actually be guaranteed to do? It might cure someone of a disease, stop a war, win a game or help you out of a bad situation. It’s worth a shot. What it can do, each time, is put the speaker in communion with the God they serve and help build relationship between them.

A vital part of any relationship (think of your friends and family) is regular conversation, visiting, unhurried discussion of things that matter to each of you. This can be prayer, if you let it. So often prayer has been something stiff and ceremonial, or walled off by doubt and disbelief, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be a conversation with a friend.

Join SpokaneFāVS for a Coffee Talk on the “Role of Prayer” on 10 a.m., Dec. 2 in the Jepson Center at Gonzaga University. Backstrom is a panelist.

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