In yesterday’s post entitled “Our Biggest Mistake: We Did As We Were Told” I listed several things deconverts like me did that inadvertently led to the demise of our faith. At one point I brought up prayer, and I explained that we approached prayer exactly the way the Bible instructed us to approach it: We came to God with hearts full of expectation, asking him to do the very things he said in the Bible that he wanted us to ask him to do.
Allow me to list a few examples of places where Jesus himself instructs us 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
I could easily get off on a tangent about why someone would require that we ask him to do anything that he was already planning on doing. But I remember having pretty good rationalizations for that when I was still a Christian, so I won’t spend much time belaboring that point. I could also explore the curious notion of asking a God who is supposed to be both all-knowing and all-powerful to alter his course in any way, as if we know better than he does what should happen. Who do we think we are, anyway?
But that’s what the Bible tells us to do: ask God for things we need—not superfluous, luxurious things like yachts and private jets (only preachers are supposed to ask for those), but things like health, safety, and basic provision. In particular I mentioned that both Jesus and James explicitly instructed us to pray for healing when people among us are sick, assuring us that they would be healed.
Let the Gaslighting Begin
But like clockwork, people began sounding off in various places on social media to shift the blame onto the rest of us for believing the promises of the Bible. One well-meaning commenter expressed pity, an emotion I’m accustomed to receiving from people blissfully unaware how condescending that comes across to us:
There’s so much in his post that’s sad, but the suppositions about prayer in #2—talking about prayers as if they’re wishes that do or do not “come true”—stuck out to me the most. Yes, when praying is likened to wishing, faith in God through Jesus Christ will disappoint for sure.
See, there’s where we went wrong: We actually expected God to do what he said he would do. That was our biggest mistake. God isn’t into granting “wishes,” you see. He isn’t Santa Claus, you know.
What a dismissive response! But this follows a time-tested strategy that’s become quite familiar to me at this point:
Step 1: Trivialize people’s heartfelt cries for help as if we’re spoiled children asking for toys.
Step 2: Shame former believers for believing what the Bible told them to believe.
Step 3: Explain that prayer isn’t really supposed to be asking God to do anything.
It seems many Christians suffer from selective amnesia when it comes to the claims of the Bible. After the above interchange on Facebook, I tweeted the following:
Bible: Pray for the sick and they’ll be healed.
Me: They didn’t get better.
Them: Shame on you. God’s not your genie.
Me: [quiet rage]
— Neil Carter (@godlessindixie) April 6, 2017
Which of course prompted an immediate denial from believers, demanding I show them exactly there the Bible ever says anything of the sort.
So far, neither of them have replied. Maybe they don’t really read the Bible much.
You know, some days you just have to step back and marvel at the manipulative genius of the Christian faith:
First it promises rewards which cannot materialize until after you’re dead, then it threatens you with a punishment that is as unspeakably cruel as it is irrational, yet it asks you to believe in the inevitability of both outcomes without offering any concrete present-day proof. You will know the truth of it all the moment right after you die, they tell you, at which point it will be too late to change your mind. Before that day comes you will have to accept the third-hand testimony of people who died so many centuries ago that we can’t even find where they’re buried, much less call them in for questioning.
But it doesn’t stop there. They lure you in with grandiose promises of divine care and provision, offering an intimate personal relationship with the Creator of the universe, a Supreme Being who loves you unconditionally and accepts you exactly as you are. But once you’re in, they inform you that everything about you is wrong and needs to change or else God will remove his blessings, whatever those are actually supposed to be. Also, you should never expect him to show up in your life in any clearly discernible way (and shame on you for expecting that). If you want to make sure he truly takes care of you, it will require asking him in exactly the right ways under precisely the right conditions or else his promises become null and void.
If you protest this arrangement, they will guilt you for believing the Bible when it unambiguously instructs you to expect certain things to happen, then they call into question whether it really says he will do what it clearly says he will do. Not only did you read it wrong, they insinuate, but also you’re a selfish, shallow ingrate for coming away with the impression you got from reading whatever it was that Jesus or whoever said would happen.
Then if you ever get fed up and leave, you were never really one of them to begin with (no matter how long nor how sincerely you were among them), and any problems you encountered must be attributed to either your own failures to do it right, or else to other people, because people just do bad things, but God and the Bible cannot be inculpated for any of it. They must remain above reproach at all costs.
As a bonus, this system of beliefs, together with all of its defense mechanisms and social reinforcements keeping it safe from external or internal critique, generates a global industry worth trillions of dollars every year, employing hundreds of thousands of people. No wonder it’s so difficult to budge.
But the problem must be you, not the system of belief itself. Always.
That’s Not What Prayer is For
There is one other dismissive tactic that shows up during this discussion that I have to mention before I leave this topic. Whenever this subject comes up, people always rush to argue that prayer isn’t supposed to actually DO anything at all, at least not outside of our own heads. I recall hearing Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis in the movie Shadowlands exclaiming: “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes ME.”
Finally, something we can both agree on.
I’ve noticed that the more “mature” a person’s faith becomes, the more it evolves to fit the way life actually works (as opposed to the way the Bible claims it will). Whether we’re talking about prophecy, or prayer, or simply “standing on the promises of God,” the mature Christian eventually learns to wait and see where the arrow lands, then they draw a target around that spot, calling God faithful and his word true.
In time, prayer comes to be seen as a purely internal practice meant to reorient the individual’s outlook and perspective on life rather than an actual interchange between real persons who can be expected to respond to each other in discernible ways.
The things is, I can relate to this, and I don’t blame them for reaching that point. I think prayer can function just like meditation—a calming, centering personal discipline that helps us all maintain a healthy psychological balance in the midst of an increasingly chaotic, noisy world. We could all benefit from this kind of practice.
But you don’t get to tell us that the Bible doesn’t also indicate prayer is supposed to change things in real life…and I mean things happening outside of our own heads. That’s a terribly selective reading of your own religion, and those of us who inhabited that tradition for so much of our lives know better than to accept such facile dismissals of our legitimate critiques of the biblical notion of prayer.
Try these answers on someone else; we’re not buying it. And frankly, it’s insulting.
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]