I think that prayer can be a healthy thing. Every religion has prayer of some kind, and all of them claim to have had prayers answered by God. Prayer has a way of focusing inward to “find your center” and focusing outward to “calm your fears” and “let things go”. Even a non-religious person can practice a type of prayer moment when breathing deeply and/or counting to ten. And prayer or positive thoughts for someone who is struggling, can often lead to the concern and actions that contribute to helping that person through their tough time.
I’ve heard prayer used as an encouraging moment of releasing stress and building each other up. And I’ve heard prayer used as a battering ram of manipulation. I remember my dad praying for each of us before bed and feeling such peace as I drifted off to sleep convinced that I was protected by angels. I also remember my dad praying at the dinner table and asking for “forgiveness for all the lazy people who hadn’t finished their chores that day.” I’ve had hugs and encouragement from a friend who prayed for me during a tough time. And I’ve watched my grandfather “rebuke the devil” out of my autistic cousin again and again.
I ‘ve heard the words “answer to prayer” referring from things as minute as finding a dress in your size, or as lifechanging as a full recovery from a serious illness or surgery. I’ve also heard the words “answer to prayer” used in reference to things that were more the result of major arm twisting or shaming than anything contributed by a God.
We’ve all had those moments when the sun comes out at just the right time. Where we’ve been hoping against hope that something would go our way, and then miraculously it does. It’s hard to chalk them all up to coincidence, and it’s nice to think that there is some higher power, that has love and concern enough for us to send us those moments as a sign of that love.
But lately I have trouble thinking of prayer beyond a moment of meditation and release.
For every time that there is an “answer to prayer” there are many many more that are never answered. Yes, it’s still hard for me to chalk everything up to chance, but I have to wonder why God answered your prayer for a sunny day, and at very moment let someone’s wife and child get killed in a horrific car accident. Why should God care to answer the many prayers I’ve moaned at two in the morning asking that the baby “would just fall asleep already”, when somewhere, there is a person being beaten to death?
It doesn’t appear to be a formula, say pray a specific prayer and everything will be resolved. Just use the right words, or say them the correct amount of times or in the right order and then God will listen to you. I used to believe that you had to pray to the right God, but even that doesn’t seem to be a certainty. There are all kinds of Christians who live with unanswered prayers, and many people of other religions who have had their prayers answered. The Pentecostal answer to all of this is that you must pray with the right attitude, motive and faith. If God fails to answer your prayer, it is because you don’t believe enough. Or maybe your prayer is ignored because you have some “unresolved sin issue” in your life, and yet I’ve seen people who live in immense greed and pride have their prayer’s “answered”.
Regardless of all the explanations and theories, we still have a God who does not always answer prayer.
I’ve tried to come up with some scenarios to explain this dilemma.
1. God does not exist. So all of the prayers are for nothing. And once in a while nature or humanity somehow manages to “answer a prayer” by chance.
Part of me would love this to be true, because then all of the guesswork is gone. We are left to be the best we can be, as humans without worrying about pleasing a deity or living “the correct way”. All of our good or bad actions stem from our own decisions’.
However, (despite myself) part of me still questions why so many millions of people seek God in religious activity if he does not exist.
2. God exists, but in a sort of Mark Twain’s “Mysterious Stranger” sort of way. He makes people and social systems for fun, and has no qualms in sending good or bad things to people regardless of what they are praying for, just to observe their reactions. People are kind of God’s playthings, and he gets a kick out of watching us try to turn him into something good.
This is how I am tempted to see God sometimes; especially when I am confronted with people who insist that all God wants is blind, mindless obedience and submission.
3. God exists, and he desires our good and he is all powerful. But he is limited in his powers. He cannot intervene in every circumstance because his power is limited somehow.
4. God exists, he is all powerful, but he will not answer every prayer because he knows what is best for everyone.
I’ve heard this explained to me by many Christians who will describe our prayers as young children asking for candy and God as a wise loving parent who says no because he knows too much candy would not be good for us.
I feel that this analogy completely fails to hold up in scenarios where someone’s life or health is at stake. I also feel that this can devolve into trying to see the “good reasons” that God is letting someone die or experience hardship. After all, “maybe God is trying to teach them something, or maybe he will use this person’s death in a mighty way to witness to someone!” If God has to resort to manipulating people’s lives and wellbeing to gain more converts, I just can’t rationalize that being as a good God I would want to serve, he just sounds more and more like scenario #2.
5. God exists, and he is all powerful, but he will not answer every prayer because we are not praying with the right words or actions, or motive or attitude, or faith or religious system.
6. God exists, and he is all powerful but he has set the world in order, and for the most part will not intervene because to do so would cause immense chaos and confusion and possibly war and further evil. Instead he lets nature and human free will run its course most of the time. Similar to how the world is fairly random in nature and humanity, so answers to prayer are random.
This makes some sense to me too. I suppose God could want to answer all prayers, but know that it would cause the world to unravel. So he limits the amount of prayers he answers. But he does not answer prayers based on performance or fervency or whatever, instead it is completely random, and there is no way to “cheat the system”.