The No True Prayer Fallacy

The No True Prayer Fallacy February 8, 2015

prayerTMI didn’t quit believing in God because my prayers didn’t get answered, so let’s get that out of the way before we get started on this topic. While I’m at it, let me reassure you that I also didn’t quit believing because something bad happened to me. I feel like I lived a pretty charmed life right up until the moment I started telling people I no longer believed. That’s when things started heading south for me.

And contrary to an oft-quoted but completely incorrect statement of Brennan Manning, I didn’t quit believing because of the misbehavior of Christians. Christians only tell each other that because they’re looking for moralistic leverage over one another. They get a lot of mileage out of guilting each other about “hurting their witness.”

No, like most former believers I quit believing because the reasons I had been given for believing as a youth just weren’t as persuasive to me in the light of full-grown adulthood. I took longer to reach that point than many of my friends. I was in my mid-30’s before I came to grips with my own inner skeptic after many years of putting him in his place. When your whole life has been built around a set of propositions, it becomes less and less likely that you’ll objectively evaluate those beliefs because the cost of quitting them can be enormously high.  Most just learn to fake it till they make it.  I couldn’t lie to myself like that, so here I am.

But I still talk about prayer because people around me keep talking about it, and they seem hidebound to believe that praying for things will make things happen, regardless of how routinely that’s not the case. It’s a belief that never seems to die no matter what happens.  But no sooner do I critique this fruitless obsession than someone comes along and tells me I’m not defining prayer correctly.

First they presume to tell me that incorrect expectations about prayer must be the main reason for my departure from the faith, telling me I’m just butthurt because God didn’t give me a pony. When in doubt it’s always good to change the subject from the irrationality of your belief to the motives of those who reject it. If you can’t beat ’em, belittle them. It feels like winning even if it’s not.

Judging Christianity On Its Own Terms

Well not so fast there, brother. You’re accusing me of misrepresenting what prayer is supposed to be about but I don’t think that’s happened at all.  First let me assure you that I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. It’s not like I popped in and out of some obscure tangent of Christianity during a semester in college and then wrote the whole thing off on a whim. I’ve run the gamut of beliefs in one way or another, and I’ve given serious consideration to more branches of that faith than you probably have.

I’ll never forget the night I stayed up late at an Orthodox church arguing about the Eucharist with one of the leading evangelists for the Antiochian Orthodox Church and then recounted the conversation to my horrified wife who couldn’t help asking, “You’re not getting ready to tell me you want to be Orthodox now, are you?” I don’t blame her; she had to put up with watching her life partner looking under every rock for True Christianity™ and I’m sure that got really old.

What irks me is this tendency to waffle and wiggle every time someone holds the Christian faith accountable for its own claims. We’re not making this stuff up, and we’re not misrepresenting the religion’s claims. We’re going straight to the sources (ad fontes, h/t Erasmus) and we’re judging the religion based on what we find there. For this we are repeatedly told, “You’re doing it wrong” even though we’re just evaluating the faith on its own terms.  Over time this religion is becoming increasingly preoccupied with making excuses for why the things it has claimed never seem to turn out the way it said they would.

I’ve been told by so many that prayer shouldn’t be about asking for things to happen at all, for you or for anyone else.  That’s not what True Prayer™ is about. There are so many other ways you could conceptualize the practice. Prayer could be about meditating, centering, and calming your mind in the midst of a hectic day. It could also be about expressing affection to the Lover of your soul, your invisible Friend and confidant who listens to all your problems and who, while never promising to do a single thing within his power to change them, cares deeply about your troubles and walks through them with you.

I even spent years among a contemplative people who “practiced the presence of God” and engaged in an interactive kind of lectio divina in which we turned scripture into prayer, responding to each other with our own scriptural responses as if entering into a kind of divine conversation. So I know fully well that there are other ways to conceptualize prayer.

But it’s patently false to say that prayer was never intended to be about asking for things, either for yourself or for others. That flies in the face of how the Bible portrays prayer, and it’s dishonest to pretend that’s not the case. Jesus taught his followers to ask for things. He clearly indicated that this practice isn’t about just ethereal things like finding peace or centering your mind or merely “hanging out” with God. He explicitly instructed people to ask for things.

Give us this day our daily bread…lead us not into temptation…deliver us from evil…1

…whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.2

…if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.3

Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do…If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.4

…how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!5

And yet, here I am being called out by Christians of various sorts for misrepresenting prayer when I say it involves asking for things. They know as well as I do the likelihood that people who expect miracles will be disappointed. They pay lipservice to the idea of miraculous provision and they swear it must have happened to people in the Bible, but the second you ask why it doesn’t happen now they shame you for having the expectation in the first place.

How dare you expect God to perform for you! He’s not your grocery boy or some circus monkey that will do tricks to entertain you.  Shame on you!  Who do you think you are?

What is happening here? Why are they criticizing me for simply holding their religion to its own claims?

Prayer Ain’t What It Used to Be

Incidentally Pentecostal and charismatic churches won’t take this route because—quite the opposite of the people I’m talking about—they see miracles everywhere. They talk constantly about magical things happening and tell stories that’ll make even the most gullible person squinty-eyed. Their tradition has conditioned them to believe fantastical stories with virtually no evidential support, and their theatrical worship experience employs just enough smoke and mirrors to keep feeding them the illusion that supernatural things are happening around them all the time.

But these traditions are relatively young in the vast scheme of things, and they only survive by constantly cycling through new converts, moving to new regions of the world where people haven’t yet figured out it’s all just a show. Those Christian traditions which have been around longer quit believing in such things a long, long time ago.

Over time the Christian church is achieving mastery of the art of sublimating their religion into a form that is immune to falsification. As time goes on, people learn to pray for only those things which will likely happen anyway, or else which they can make happen themselves.

This applies to individuals as well as to whole traditions. Ever in pursuit of rendering the faith completely unfalsifiable, those traditions with the longest histories have learned not to expect much of prayer—that is, other than what can be accomplished by people in the right frame of mind, toward which prayer can be of some assistance.

Like the protagonist in the movie Shadowlands bellowed,“Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes me!”  C.S. Lewis probably never said exactly that phrase but the spirit of it was certainly in his writings. Indicative of the historic mainline tradition to which he belonged, Lewis knew what most intellectuals within Christendom know: You cannot expect prayer to make things happen outside of yourself. It only changes things inside you.

As long as you define it that way, it will be less likely to let you down. That is the goal: The claims of the faith must match the way real life works, and if at any point they don’t, you must redefine the claims of your faith so that they cannot have failed you. You simply misunderstood what it was that God was promising from the start. If you had been practicing True Prayer™ then you wouldn’t have been disappointed because there were no expectations to disappoint.

Give this process enough years and in time you’ll find the Christian faith has become entirely about things happening inside people’s heads. Honestly though, as far as I can tell, that’s all it’s ever been.

[Image Source: Shutterstock]


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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.
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