I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what exactly I’ve come to believe and why. I want to look at some of the key tenets of Christianity – that I have lived by for much of my life – and consider why they have suddenly become a problem to me. And I want to start with the topic of prayer.
As with most such central doctrines, the quantity of books and articles about the subject of prayer is staggering. I’ve read but a few of them. But I always looked for different literature in the hope of understanding why I struggled with the idea of prayer for a very, very long time. I have just never quite grasped how the omniscient, almighty, sovereign God could be influenced by the requests and pleadings of ignorant, selfish, narrow individuals.
Yes, No or Wait
I persevered with the idea, nonetheless. It was, after all, one of the things we had to do, if we wanted to call ourselves Christian. And there were rules about being reverent and thankful and not just treating God as a cosmic Santa Claus.
I brought the “requests of my heart” to Him in a way I understood to be the right way. I prayed with faith, always seeking to serve what I thought would be His will. And I waited on the answer. When things panned out as I had asked, I considered it that my request had been met with a “Yes”. When I got a “No”, well that was OK, too – I was obviously off-track with my requests and God was keeping me in line. When I couldn’t quite figure out whether I had an answer of any sort, I treated that as a “Wait”.
When I first started losing my faith, I repeatedly thought back to a number of occasions in my life where I had received what I thought at the time were reasonably stern “No!” answers from the Lord. At those times, it seemed like He knew His “plan for my life” better than I did and would take me there regardless of how much I resisted or misunderstood. They usually worked out quite positive for me, but I only ever realised this in hindsight. It’s interesting how much the Christian experience relies on this particular view of things to make sense of what’s going on and what has happened to get here.
I felt that if I could convince myself that these were real faith experiences and that God was truly in control, mapping it all out, that I’d be able to resist the urge to give it all up. It stopped me from beginning to call myself an atheist for a while, but it never managed to pull me back in to mindset I had held.
But here’s the thing… Prayer falls in the middle of some other key theological doctrines. We have the two book ends of free will and pre-destination. Now, I’m no theologian, but my (truly superficial) understanding of these things is that free will suggests things are open ended and an individual may decide his course – and, by implication, the course of others – by choosing whether or not to follow the spiritual influences he encounters. On the other hand, pre-destination suggests that God has the entirety of history and the future mapped out from start to finish, knowing what people will do, when and the consequences of all these things.
And I have never been able to reconcile where prayer sits in this dichotomy. If prayer is effective, pre-destination does not make sense because how can our words make any difference to something entirely mapped out. In this light, for us to even utter the words was a pre-determined action. So the prayer itself is meaningless. God knows everything; He knows the sequence of things and where they will lead on to next.
If, however, free will applies and we get to make decisions on the fly based on current circumstances, God cannot be omniscient. Or perhaps I misunderstand what that means. The argument would be that even if God knows what’s going to happen – what we’re going to ask for, how we want things to pan out – He doesn’t necessarily make it happen (I think). That’s murky. And surely my free will impacts others. My choices can change the direction of people besides myself? Again, if God doesn’t control this, how can He do anything with our prayers?
More to it than theology?
I wonder if there’s more to prayer than the Christian experience. All religions pray. Most forms of spiritualism throughout the world involve something that can be likened to prayer or meditation. I’ve read some things over the years which suggest that this kind of time-out mechanism is extremely beneficial to us. Perhaps that’s why Christians hold onto prayer so much. The personal benefits they get from actually praying mean more than the outcome of those prayers? That because of how it makes them feel, they look for confirmations and reasons to keep doing it, so they justify it that their prayers are always answered one way or another?
Again, I’ve no experience of this neurological realm either, but there must be something in it.
I look back on my times of praying with a little bit of disdain these days. Even though I struggled with it the whole way through my Christian life, it really makes so little sense now. I have come to firmly believe that the only thing affected by any form of prayer is the mental (or physical) state of the pray-er and that pleading for anything to any god is an exercise in utter futility.