Guest post- Giving Up Magical Thinking

By EmilyU

(flickr- horia varlan)I learned to pray from my parents, not that I remember it. I don’t remember my first prayer any more than I remember my first word. I assume I learned to pray the same way I learned to speak – by listening and imitating. My parents undoubtedly instructed me to repeat their words, showing me how to begin and end a prayer, and giving me examples of what goes between the bookends of a prayer. I learned to first thank God for blessings and then to ask for things.

While I’ve always been mindful of the necessity for expressing gratitude in my prayers, I’ve often felt that thanking was a preamble to the real business of prayer – asking for things I need. All my life I have given God lists of things I wanted and needed. I’ve prayed for myself and for people I love. Once in a while I’ve even prayed for my enemies. I’ve prayed for help on exams, for employment, for health, and for a testimony. Sometimes my prayers have been answered. Or rather, sometimes events have unfolded in ways that would indicate that my prayers were answered. If that sounds cynical, let me explain myself.

A few years ago I was a graduate student working on biology research that was not going anywhere. I’d started out with a promising research project, but after several years of working on it, the expected results were not in sight. I felt frustrated, but I had faith. Faith that perseverance in the laboratory was going to pay off, and faith that God would help me with my work. So I kept at it for a few more years. I had a baby (at least biology worked for me in that way). But my research was still not giving me the results I needed to graduate. Seven years into my doctoral training I found myself in the position of being a worn out mother of a small child who was commuting 40 miles round trip every day, facing tension in my marriage, running low on money, and getting very little support from my thesis advisor. I badly needed to finish graduate school. So I wrote a letter requesting a master’s degree so that I could quit my program but still receive a graduate degree. My husband and thesis committee chair talked me out of quitting, however, so I resolved to finish my Ph.D. But I desperately needed God’s help to get it done.

I fasted and prayed that my research would give me the results my thesis committee wanted. I worked as hard as I could in the lab and believed that if my efforts weren’t enough, that God would make up the difference. I fully expected God to help me get those results. But they never came. After an additional year of working in the lab, my project failed. My thesis committee decided to let me graduate on the promise of writing up results from a backup project that was not impressive, but passable. My poor publication record has made it difficult if not impossible for me to continue a career in science.

In the end I got the diploma, but it was a pyrrhic victory. My faith in God had not weathered the strain of finishing my Ph.D. at all well. God had not answered my prayers, which either meant that He didn’t exist or that my understanding of His ways was wrong. I was familiar with the rationalization that God always answers prayers, it’s just that sometimes the answer is no, but this argument was cold comfort. It also seemed like a tautology. God can never fail us if silence and miracles are equal answers to prayer. During my worst moments, my feelings of abandonment caused me to question God’s existence. The idea that God doesn’t exist was too hopeless for me to accept for very long, however, so rather that giving up belief, my doubt became anger. I was angry with God for leaving me alone when I needed help – so angry that I actually quit praying for a while. I am not proud of the fact that I gave God the silent treatment because it shows how petulant and immature I can be, but my feelings of disappointment were overwhelming, and I simply couldn’t see the point of praying at that time.

I resumed praying, but I still had to grapple with the fact that God wasn’t answering my prayers. Perhaps it was self-centered to believe that they’d be answered. But my religious education had been filled with the idea that God answers prayers. So either everyone else experienced answers to prayer but me, or there was something wrong about my expectations regarding receiving answers to prayer.

With a little hindsight, I can see that I was indulging in magical thinking regarding my research. I believed I had a metaphysical connection with God such that asking for what I needed would result in Him intervening in the physical world. I fully expected that prayer would result in God taking action to intervene in my life, as if prayer were part of a chemical equation: Prayer + Faith + Fasting = Desired Result, with God acting as the catalyst. I could not have been more wrong. God’s power is not a reagent I can take off the shelf and use at will.

Any answer to prayer, any divine intervention into the physical world resulting from a human being mentally striving to contact God, is a miracle. I believe this kind of thing happens in the world, but not just because we humans ask for it. If that was all it took, it should have happened for me. I don’t think God withheld an answer because I was guilty of Oliver Cowdery’s famous mistake of taking “no thought save to ask.”1 I was doing all I could to make my research successful, while praying that God would make up the difference if my efforts weren’t enough. Perhaps in some cases God chooses to answer such prayers, but my experience is one data point in evidence that He often does not.

I have realized that praying for God’s intervention is a risky endeavor. If you really believe God will intervene, it can devastate you when He doesn’t. All my life I have prayed for things I wanted and needed. Please bless me to pass this test, to get well, to drive home safely, to have a good day. And when I was praying for things of small importance, I didn’t pay too much attention to whether or not those prayers were answered. But in praying for something that really mattered, the lack of an answer was a real shock. My experience with unanswered prayers has made me wary of asking God for certain things. Asking for something intangible like patience or inner peace feels safe and proper to me, but asking for God’s intervention in my physical world no longer does. Perhaps I am afraid I’ll be disappointed again; I suppose I simply lack faith. But I also suspect that my faith is not the issue. Rather, the fact is that wars will rage, children will die of cancer, criminals will go unpunished, graduate student research will go awry, and God will let it all happen in spite of our pleading for him to intervene.

For much of my life I have engaged in magical thinking; I believed that if I asked for something in prayer, having faith that it would happen, that my request would set metaphysical gears in motion and the divine vending machine would spit out an answer for me. And even after my realization of the error in this kind of thinking, I still find myself believing that my thoughts and prayers will actually affect the world around me. Whether it is habit or hope, I still ask God to intervene in my life. I just can’t stop myself, although I make requests of God far less often than I used to.

I am not sure that I should stop praying for specific outcomes or material things altogether. But I am sure that God is not going to change the circumstances of my life just be cause I ask Him to. Even if I ask in faith. Even if I’m asking for a good thing. Even if I’m praying unselfishly for someone else. And even if I’m suffering. For reasons known only to Him, it’s just not a priority for God to prevent human suffering. Christ has said He will heal our wounds,2 but He will not prevent us from being wounded. And if God is going to stop short of solving problems for me, I think I should stop asking Him to solve them. Believing that He will is magical thinking, and I am trying to give that up.

1. Doctrine and Covenants 9:7.

2. Isaiah 61:1

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  • A Francis Chisolm

    Thank you for your meaningful thoughts expressed in this post. My thoughts follow: I have a firm testimony of God the Father and Christ and his incalculable atonement. However, I also understand the gospel plan as one which puts us into a physical world governed by physical laws. We are provided through several means, prayer being a principal means, with an understanding of spiritual, eternal principles that can guide us in using the experiences in the physical world to accomplish the purposes for which we were sent – development of knowledge, spiritual maturity, humbling experience, unselfish love. We may wish to use prayer (magical thinking as you succintly put it) to avoid the results of a physical world. Prayer is instead a means of gaining spiritual insight and learning from as well as gaining the strength to overcome those experiences, not avoiding them. God is not playing a giant game of checkers with us as the game pieces. If we could pray a magic escape route from our problems we would thwart the purpose of the Plan. Prayer is necessary and effectual, just not for the purposes that we may think when we are at the beginning of our spiritual maturation process. And miracles, it would seem, are for the purpose of bringing forth God’s purposes, including the spreading forth of the Gospel, and not to help us get a better job or win a competition or even rescue us from a terrible situation. I also don’t see prayer as guiding us in decisions, such as where to live or work or who to marry. Prayer, helps us to live the gospel once we choose where to live or work or who to marry. I believe that God doesn’t care so much where we live as how we live.

  • http://sciencebysteve.net SteveP

    This was a powerful post Emily. I’m glad you shared it. Magical thinking is rampant in the church. I also think your advisor served you poorly.

    I came through a very similar process in my graduate school experience. I thought God would intervene to help me on my phd written prelims because I was serving in the church in the young mens, taking care of my family by working full time, reading my scriptures, etc. I had studied hard, but I could not put in the hours of my fellow graduate studies. Still, I did not want answers on the test, I just wanted not to panic on the test, as I’m prone to and which makes it impossible for me to remember what I’ve learned. I thought if He could just keep me from going into panic mode, I could do the rest. I got in there feeling blessed and calm. The test started and I descended into the worst panic of my life. I flunked the test. I had to change programs.

    My prayers are more modest now. I don’t expect interventions that would require things like my brain being rewired or interventions of the magical sort. My prayers seem more meaningful now, and my constant feelings of guilt because God does not seem to come through in the ways I expect (and it must be my fault/unworthiness, because he always comes through) seems to be lessened.

    You said important things here. Thanks for sharing them.

  • http://timesandseasons.org Dane

    My experience was as a computer science student in college. I remember staying late in the lab, frustrated and angry that my programs weren’t running. Each time I’d compile, I offer a quick silent prayer that it would work. Eventually I had to ask myself, “What would that look like? The program will execute exactly as I’ve programmed it. What does it even mean for me to pray for it to work? Would the program execute as I’d intended, rather than as I’d programmed? That would be like me building a house with jello instead of bricks and then expecting it to hold the roof up. Would an angel sneak in and change the lines of code for me? Do I really expect him to change the files, so that if I open them up again I would see something different from what I’d written? That wouldn’t do any good for me or the school.” So instead, I started praying for the patience and wisdom to do the work correctly in the first place, rather than fumbling through and crossing my fingers at the end. This has worked better for me :)

  • http://www.millennialstar.org Ben Pratt

    Thank you, Emily. These are wise words. As yet another graduate school veteran, I’ve learned some similar (and similarly difficult) lessons. I’m in the middle of a major and unexpected change of course to which God has led me, and I think it will be much more rewarding both now and in years to come.

  • Linda

    Thanks for the candor, Emily. I appreciate your thoughtful, articulate essay on this rich issue. I love that you are so engaged in the wrestle of faith. A spiritual life isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m glad to have you in the trenches with me.


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