Why I Pray

Last August I discovered a little cancer in my eye, ocular melanoma. For a week or so I was scanned and tested and faced the possibility of my imminent demise. Dramatic. Then I had my left eye removed, which rid me of the cancer but the wound did not heal. Months and followup surgeries later, my eye looks to be healing properly and I am cancer free.

Lucky as I am, these months have given me plenty of time to ponder, to experience the shocking goodness and generosity of friends and strangers, and, despite adjusting to monocularity, time for recreational reading. This all created an appropriate scenario to pick up Mortality (2012) by the late Christopher Hitchens.

I like to read Hitchens. He is bracing and opinionated, profoundly life-affirming (as unexpected as that might seem). I am glad he wrote this last book. But his remarks on prayer are amiss. Hitchens described and decried a caricature of prayer. When he recalled in an essay hearing from his debating partners that their congregations were praying for him, he responded “Praying for what?” He cited a 2006 study on the therapeutic effects of prayer that found “no correlation at all between the number and regularity of prayers offered and the likelihood that the person being prayed for would have improved chances” (23). He wonders why one would enjoin or thank [G]od for doing “what he was going to do anyway” (29). He picks at the most troubling aspects of a past Catholicism and a past Calvinism to conclude that religion preys on “a human being in fear and doubt who is openly exploited to believe in the impossible” (33).

Hitchens does not allow for the likely possibility that believers hundreds of years ago built relationships with God despite and around the doctrines that may have troubled them. He ignores the vital ways believers then and now make individual meaning in the context of their traditions. Popular portrayals to the contrary, the faithful are often independent thinkers and believers and nowhere do people exercise the individuality of religious expression as they do in prayer. Finally, his thesis ignores the impact on prayer that institutional changes have exerted over the centuries. But of greater consequence is the fact that he doesn’t know prayer the way many believers do. I shouldn’t be surprised that Hitchens misses the mark, because in my own prayer life, and as the grateful recipient of prayers on my behalf, I have inhabited terrain that Hitchens chose not to explore.

Hitchens’s conjectures have flaws because he hasn’t been where I have been. My own view on prayer is indelibly Mormon, and Mormon thought on prayer has been heavily influenced by the LDS Bible Dictionary, which is not canonical though it is published in the same volume as the LDS Old and New Testaments. The LDS Bible Dictionary is an adaptation of an Anglican bible dictionary from Cambridge University Press, and Robert J. Matthews was the head of the committee that edited it throughout the 1970s for an LDS audience. The Bible dictionary states “Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. . . Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them. Prayer is a form of work, and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings.” These comments on prayer seem particularly focused on the prayer of the individual, what I might experience when praying alone in my room. The major points here address Hitchens’s question about why we would ask an omnipotent God for anything. The Bible Dictionary suggests we ask because receiving blessings might require some work on our part. This asking for a specific outcome, for healing, is the most theologically complex part of prayer. We ask but we know that ultimately the results are up to God’s will, not ours. But still it somehow does make sense to ask, to perform that work.

Why might it make sense? I believe that in petitioning God we open ourselves to guidance, to receiving a message about how to endure our circumstances regardless of the outcome. We also learn how to prepare for and accept that outcome with God as our comrade while the future unfolds. Prayer is a place where we can come to terms with the contents of our lives. More significant than getting exactly what we ask for in prayer, which of course we often do not, is the first point from the Bible Dictionary, that prayer can bring your will into accordance with God’s will. I think of personal prayer as a space that I enter to offer myself for instruction. Through prayer I knock, as Jesus so often told us to do. I knock, and I ask for the powers of heaven to descend upon me in the way that heaven knows best.

Once the public knew that Hitchens had cancer, some hopeful beings organized a day of prayer on his behalf. Hitchens requested that his readers refrain from participation, and I’m glad that he has that prerogative. But prayers from others on my behalf have been a tremendous help to me these past four months. So much of the isolation of suffering is ameliorated in knowing that others consciously remember you, intentionally maintain an awareness of your circumstance, and spend a portion of their communication with the divine in supplication on your behalf. When Hitchens asked “Praying for what?” I knew what I had received from others’ prayers, in particular a tangible, abiding sense of God’s comfort, love, and peace as I have moved through states that were physically and psychologically disorienting, painful, and leading to unknown destinations. I know that people have prayed that if it were God’s will, my eye would heal, cancer would leave, and I would orient to monocularity without too much struggle, and we seem to be realizing this good fortune. I suspect some have prayed that I would be receptive to whatever possible benefits could come from this period in my family’s life, and I’ve found the benefits have been many. At diagnosis and during later complications, I have been that “human being in fear and doubt.” But religion did not exploit my vulnerability. I have felt guided, enlightened, amplified, and accompanied. I have prayed and others have prayed not because we are gullible, stupid, or otherwise inferior to the atheist minds of the day. We pray because of what we find there.

Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-Day Saints in American Religion, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 208–212; Robert J. Matthews, “The New Publications of the Standard Works–1979, 1981,” BYU Studies 22, no. 4 (n.d.): 387–424.

  • cken

    Beautiful article. I think however one could effectively argue both positions. Mostly because far too often we offer prayers which don’t demand that God answer them, and we don’t believe to the very core of our being He will. A prayer offered without the belief that you will receive the desired results is ineffective. Prayer stated in full belief is effective. I can state that unequivocally because I am living proof of it.

    • pedro bundol

      I hate to be in Christopher Hitchens place in the afterlife.

      • Seth R.

        I’m too worried about my own place in the afterlife to bother much with where Hitchens is.

        Perhaps you should mind your own business as well.

        • sporg

          nice comeback. Accurate, too.

  • RocksCryOut

    The job of the one who prays is not to change God, but rather to bring themselves into alignment with the plans and purposes, yes, the very will of God. The Bible tells us that although we don’t know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit does, and He takes our prayers to God in a language that we cannot express (Romans 8:26). Our prayers are to acknowledge our weakness and the fact that we rely on God’s strength and help, as well as avail believers of the privilege for which Christ died– the ability to enter in to the very presence of God with our requests.

  • Robert

    Okay, lovely article right up to this point: “My own view on prayer is indelibly Mormon, and Mormon thought on prayer has been heavily influenced by the LDS Bible Dictionary, which is not canonical though it is published in the same volume as the LDS Old and New Testaments. ”

    As if your indoctrination into Mormonism adds legitimacy to your position.
    So, you offer as support for your argument the fact that you believe that Jesus came to what is now the North American continent…and that the ancient Jews also came to this same continent…”the Book of Mormon indicates that the Amerindians are Lamanites, descended from Lehi, and a “remnant of the House of Israel””…yet genetics and modern-day DNA testing offer no support for this claim…a claim, by the way, made by a convicted fraud and huckster.

    I find that what Hitchens said about debating the religious is true: “you never know what they’ll say next”.

    • Seth R.

      Joseph Smith was never convicted of anything.
      Genetics and DNA offer no support for a myriad of accepted historical events, yet I don’t see you complaining about them.
      And I’ve actually found atheists I’ve debated with to be some of the most credulous, superstitious, and magical thinkers I’ve ever encountered.

      Now – would you like to say something actually relevant to the article, and not one of your stock jeers from the New Atheist grab-bag of schoolyard taunts?

      • http://tiny.cc/bostonreaders ounbbl

        People don’t change and don’t want change. Mormons including. Mormon fables Mormons seem to love and think they have no other choice than to believe them.

    • DavidF

      Robert, I think you are misreading her position. She’s not saying being Mormon adds legitimacy to her argument, she is explaining the source that informs her beliefs on prayer (LDS Bible Dictionary). You’re bringing up things that have nothing to do with the post at hand, which I would like to add is a beautiful, respectful reply to a Hitchens worldview of prayer.

  • Larry Lundgren

    Prayer can actually accomplish one thing. It can make the prayer feel better, whether or not the prayer actually believes in the so called power of prayer. In this effect it is kind of like “self hypnosis”…it gives the prayer a warm and fuzzy feeling….but it does not and can’t possibly benefit a nonbeliever like Hitchens….to him it is simply an exercise in futility. Studies have been done (and some by churches) as to the effect if any that praying has on the outcome of a wished for event….and the correlation was zero…NO EFFECT whatsoever….but it made the folks praying feel better (what else could they do….:(
    Every dog has it’s day and when your day comes (death bed or foxhole) you will probably be praying too, but to no avail….it’s wishful thinking. If there was a God who cared anything about the inhabitants of this planet you would have to ask why? and where did this God come from? Simple logic tells us that this God could not create itself out of nothing….therefore a God of this sort could not exist….very simple fifth grade logic.

  • jim

    you know it must feel good to be so confident in your belief that no God can possibly be Larry.
    I do believe in a Superior being of some type,but,in all honesty,I do not have your certainty.
    I just think that we must and should answer to how we live out our short lives.

  • Bethany

    Beautiful. I love that I’m not the only one who has looked deeply into prayer. The first time I looked, I came up short, and am currently trying to rebuild my concept of prayer. This helps.

  • Richard

    Thank you for the eloquence in in which you expressed something deeply personal.