Our Prayer Should Not Treat God Like A Magical Talisman

Our Prayer Should Not Treat God Like A Magical Talisman April 18, 2023

Lawrence OP: Prayer Before Crucifix / flickr

We are told we should pray to God with faith, hope and love. We are encouraged to ask from God whatever we want, trusting that God will answer in accordance to what is best. What is important for us to remember is that our prayers should be seen as requests, reflecting, in part, what is in our heart, showing to God and ourselves what it is we desire. What we should not do with prayer is place undue demands upon God. This can be easier said than done. We might acknowledge this in theory, but, if we don’t get what we want, we become upset. This is because we know God can fulfill our request, and we do not really understand why it shouldn’t be fulfilled, especially if it is something which seems to be rather good, such as when we ask God to save the life of someone we love. And, even if we understand that there might be a greater picture we do not see, we still feel that there should be a way to fulfill our request while preserving that greater picture. It is in such situations we must find ourselves accepting God’s wisdom, proving, by doing so, we truly have faith in God, that God ultimately will do what is best, even if it is not something we know or understand. But then, we might wonder, why exactly God would have us pray? The answer is that prayer is more about communion, about finding a way to bring ourselves in communication with God and opening ourselves up to listen to and discern the work of God in that communication than it is anything else. When lovers come together, revealing what they love about each other, they go in without expectations; they do not desire to manipulate or control their loved one, but rather to help them to be as free and blessed as possible. This is also true in the way God engages us with prayer. For the more we open ourselves up to God, the more God will respond to us as a lover. The love which is shared then will work to bring about the communion, that is, the union which we are to have with God.

Sadly, the way many of us understand prayer, indeed, the way we have been taught to understand prayer, is not to understand it as bringing us into communion with God, but as a way we can use God to get what we wish. That is, we are encouraged to turn God into some sort of magical talisman which we can use if we find the right words to unleash its power. This, it seems, is one of the problems underlying the way so many understand liturgy, and why they are so focused on preserving it in one form; they think if the words change, they will lose the magic and find themselves disconnected from God.

God is not a magical talisman. God is something far greater, far transcendent to that. Stories concerning magic talismans often demonstrate their use leads to the corruption of their users. Such talismans might get them what they think they want, but they do not understand the consequences of what they ask, and when they receive them, they find themselves coming into a far worse situation than before they received what they asked. God knows what we do not, which is why God’s answer to our prayer is not to become some sort of inanimate object which we control, some sort of object which can be used to fulfill our every whim, but to remain a real subject who will react to our prayer, to our request, with all due consideration that a lover gives to their beloved. Sometimes, what we desire will be given to us, but sometimes it will be denied, not because God does not have the power to fulfill our request, but because God understands the bad which would come as a result of that request, either for us, or for someone else.

Again, it is one thing to understand this, but another to truly live it out. Time and time again, we find ourselves reaching out to God, trying to force God to give us what we want. We will say that if God were truly all-powerful and good, God would understand our wishes were for our own good, and for that reason alone, would have them fulfilled. We then suggest that if God doesn’t do that, then there is something wrong with God, that is, God is not omnipotent, or else, God does not truly exist. When we pray in this manner, our prayer no longer serves as a focal point of communion, but rather, it becomes something else. It becomes a way for us to do what we should never do: put God to the test. We say we are asking for God to offer some proof to us by fulfilling our wish, for then God will let us know our faith is not in vain. This is a dangerous way to approach God, for God will not accept being tested in this fashion: “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (Deut. 6:16 RSV).  When we do this, we show we have yet to truly understand or appreciate God. For we show we think there is a way we can make God our own playing, something which we can control, and thus, into a magical talisman. But to do that would make God, who is absolutely transcendent to us and our comprehension, it something which is comprehended and controlled by us, which is to say, to make God into being something which is not God. And then, if that is the case, how can we expect God to answer us?

All of this can also be said in relation to Jesus, for Jesus is God. We often ask Jesus to prove himself to us, and when we do so, we show our lack of faith. We might say that if you are the son of God, do this thing I want, [x], for me. Whatever it is we ask, we say we do so because we seek after a sign from him. However, it is more than just a sign we want. We want affirmation of our desire, that is, of our will. We do not ask him out of love, giving him room, out of love, to respond in the way he best sees fit. No. We ask him for a sign because we want something out of him, some temporal good which may not be best for us to have.  But  Jesus said he is not interested in giving out such signs, that the only sign he would give is the sign of Jonah, for he knows any attempt to force a miracle out of him comes out of bad faith. “‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ So he left them and departed” (Matt. 16:4 RSV)

If we pay careful attention to the way we ask Jesus to provide for us a sign of his greatness, of his divinity, it seems we are coming at him similar to the way Satan was represented as coming at him when he was in the desert. For Satan said that if he were the Son of God, if he were the messiah, he could and would do great things, like turn stones into bread, or that he would prove his greatness by the way angels would come to save him from harm. If he were the Son of God, all of this would be easy for him to do, and in doing so, he would prove who he was, leaving Satan no room to question or tempt him again. Perhaps the reason we find this as being similar is that Satan in the desert is meant to represent the way all of us can and do come to Jesus to tempt him with our wishes, to tempt him with our desires. Maybe Satan can be seen as representing the collective temptation humanity gives to Jesus.  Indeed, it is clear, though Jesus is said to have proved victorious against the temptations in the desert, these requests, and so temptations, would come to him throughout his ministry, which is why he would constantly have to deny giving such signs and doing such wonders when they came as a result of offering such proof. Thus, we can understand the rebuke he gave to Peter as representing the way Satan was at work in Peter, continuing the temptation begun in the desert, and not just Jesus denouncing Peter:

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Matt. 16:21-23 RSV).

Peter, of course, was not Satan, however, his words provided a way for the temptation of Satan to continue, for Satan to try to get Jesus to act in such a way that he would not go to the cross but set himself up in the world as a mere earthly power with earthly glory. Peter’s words suggested that Jesus could find another way than the way he chose to act out of love; Peter wanted him to prove himself by using his power to overcome those who contended against him, even as in the desert, Satan suggested that he could use his power to fulfill his earthly desires and set himself as king of the world. Jesus could even see that there was some good being promoted by Peter, but he also knew the good was a limited good, and so it was something which must be denied. And yet, because there was some good there, it could tempt him. For temptation comes, not because we see some evil and desire it as evil, but because we see some good which we want, no matter the cost. Jesus knew, if he gave into the temptation, the good which was being offered would have been turned upside down and abused, so that in the end, the greater good would be denied, which of course, is the end result of any such temptation:

Temptation takes reality as its starting point, but perverts it. Man truly was created to become a son of god and a creaturely god, but this could have and should have been realized on the paths of holiness, leading to perfect deification (“ye shall be as gods”). Satan lured man onto the path of human-divinity and egocentrism. On this path of the cooling of love there is revealed, first of all, the knowledge of evil, which in a pure form, without any good, became the lot of Satan himself. [1]

And this, of course, connects to the way we tempt Jesus with our demands. We think our prayers, our requests, are rational. We see the good which we want, and so we think there should be no reason to reject them. We want reality to be changed to fulfill the good which we say we want. But, where we go wrong, and so our demands go wrong, is that we want the good no matter what, no matter the cost, even if it ends up unjustly hurting others. What we should seek for is not mere particular goods, but the absolute good. We can and will receive all kinds of particular goods when we find ourselves in the right, harmonious relationship with the absolute good, and we will have them in a way which does not harm or contradict the absolute good. Tempting Jesus by demanding him to fulfill our inordinate desires, desires aimed merely at some particular good apart from the absolute good, ends up also becoming a temptation for us, for we find ourselves often tempted to turning our backs on Jesus if we do not get what we want. Jesus truly offers us what is good and true, and will help us with his love and grace, giving us what is best. But more than that, he wants to hear from us, as a loved one wants to hear from their lover. He will respond as a lover, not as a magical talisman, and as such, we must recognize Jesus has his own subjectivity. The more we realize this, the more our prayers will be what they should be, a means by which we open ourselves up to Jesus, to God, and for Jesus and God to open themselves up to us. Through such an opening we will be able to come together in a communion of word and spirit, and through that communion, to become one in love. Then we will find the greatest, absolute good, will be ours, as we will be one with the absolute good which is God.

[1] Sergius Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb. Trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 163.


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