Over the holidays, my brother David lost his glasses. Soon a search was called and everyone got busy looking for the missing glasses. Finding them was important, because he needed to be able to drive, and he needed his glasses to drive. We searched high and we searched low, and it quickly became apparent that this would be no easy search soon over. We took a break and my mother soon began a prayer with words familiar from my childhood.
“Lord Jesus, please show us where David’s glasses are. You know where they are, Lord, and he needs them. But if it is not your will for us to find them, we understand.”
As we continued our search, my mother continually reminded us that Jesus knew where the glasses were, and could show us where they were at any moment, if he so chose—but that if it was not his will for us to find them, we wouldn’t find them, and that was okay. We were told to trust Jesus with the fate of David’s glasses, but to keep looking nonetheless. Ultimately, David’s glasses were found, and my mother exhorted us to all thank Jesus.
I understand why we as humans seek divine help when something is missing or when things have gone awry. Even as a nonbeliever, when I am in a tight spot I sometimes feel a desire to call for help to some force bigger than myself.
The more I think about my mother’s invocation of Jesus in the saga of David’s glasses, the more I am struck by the brilliance of its construction. My mother’s beliefs about prayer and divine aid allowed her to feel that there was a greater benevolent force in charge, that whether or not David’s glasses would be found was somehow fated, and that the outcome, whatever it was, would be for the best. For my mother, these beliefs removed feelings of helplessness in a seemingly hopeless search and offered her comfort and a sense that all was okay and would work out. Further, her beliefs were constructed in such a way that they could not disappoint.
Sometimes I wish evangelicals like my mother could simply view this idea of prayer and divine aid as a sort of mental exercise allowing them to let go, trust, and experience a sort of security. As such, it can really be quite appealing, especially in moments of stress. The trouble is that evangelicals do not simply view prayer and divine aid this way. Instead, they view answered prayer as one proof of God’s existence. But when these beliefs about prayer and divine aid are structured in a way that there can be no failure, this makes no sense whatsoever.
I was often told that God always answers prayer, it’s just that he doesn’t always say “yes”—sometimes he says “no” or “maybe later.” Of course, this means that I could pray to any other with the exact same results as well. If I asked Zeus, or Allah, or Shiva to help me find something that was missing, I would invariably sometimes find it, and if I didn’t I could determine that Zeus, or Allah, or Shiva hadn’t wanted me to find it. If I asked Zeus, or Allah, or Shiva to bring better weather, they sometimes would, and if they didn’t it would obviously because it wasn’t in his plan. I could also do the same with animals, trees, or inanimate objects, again with the same result, and indeed some people worship these things as deities as well. I’ve said before that I am not an anti-theist, and I am not. The problem I am pointing to is not the problem of structuring prayer and divine aid in a way that cannot fail, but rather of doing so and then claiming that it is proof of, well, anything.
My mother prayed and we found David’s glasses, but if we hadn’t found them she wouldn’t have concluded that her prayer had failed, or that Jesus hadn’t listened. She would instead conclude that Jesus knew where those glasses were, but that he had decided not to allow us to find them. Comforting mental exercise? Yes. Proof that her god exists? No.