I was reeling from so many sources by now. I’d just graduated from college and had a nice shiny degree that was more or less useless by itself. I was married to a handsome and impossibly fervent minister husband who had some measure of respect in our denomination. I had a decent little job doing something I enjoyed tolerably enough. I was a busy bee all right. But beneath that surface happiness, tension roiled like a stormcloud and nothing was what it seemed. I needed answers about prayer, and I needed them now.
We all have a number of props and supports for our religious ideas. Mine were as varied as anybody else’s. But they were getting knocked out from under me at a frightening pace.
Probably the very last one I had was that the Bible’s god was faithful to his people and an omnimax being who loved us (“omnimax” means omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent–omni-everything, if you will). And the best way for me to evaluate that claim was to examine my god’s response to prayer.
God loves prayer. All through the Bible, his people are told to pray and God listens to those prayers. We are also told that God uses prayers as a barometer of our needs and desires, and responds to those prayers in ways that will benefit his followers. Among many other exhortations, we have Jesus in Luke 18:1 telling us that we should always be praying. Out of every single thing that a Christian is almost always totally sure of, it’s that his or her god hears those prayers and cares about each and every one. If I found out that prayer wasn’t what it seemed, not much was going to be left.
So, uh, Opus of Bloom County asks again: you wanna yell “TIMBER!”? Or shall I?
Someone stuff that penguin in a closet and let’s get started.
The Bible Verses.
First we’ll lay out the verses:
Mark is usually thought to be the first Gospel written (see Markan Priority), though this isn’t a totally universal idea. I think it’s first, so I’m starting there. In Mark, we see these passages:
Mark 11:23-4: Whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.” There’s a bit of weaseling and fine print here (the stipulation is that the praying person have absolute faith that he or she will receive whatever is requested) that is absent in later-written Matthew, but overall the intention seems clear: if you just believe enough, you’ll get whatever you want.
Mark 16:17 follows up the general trend this way: “These signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” So about those snake handlers who keep dying of snake bites… In my church, we regarded ourselves as a bit more sophisticated than that. My first Pentecostal pastor (remember, the good egg who discouraged Biff from running off to Waco) refused to handle snakes, and refused to let anybody in the congregation do it either. And I never once saw or heard of any group out there deliberately drinking poisons just to show the miraculous power of God, which if you think about it is *way* more impressive than handling snakes which might or might not bite. Why was that, I wondered that night as I pored over my study Bible? Why wasn’t snake handling and poison-drinking more popular? Why didn’t anybody do it in perfect safety, knowing the Bible flat-out said they could do this as a specific sign and testament given by Jesus Christ himself? (Now I know this passage is in all likelihood a later addition to Mark and as likely to have been said by Jesus himself as a Transformers quote, but at the time, I took it all as one big piece.)
Matthew 7 has Jesus telling us all about how we will be given whatever we ask for: “Ask and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” Well, that sounds really strong, doesn’t it? No less than the savior of humankind is saying that whatever we want, we’ll get, and he isn’t using any fine print here at all. (HelLO prosperity gospel! We’ll be discussing this concept in detail at some point.)
In Matthew 17, Jesus expands on this mysticism thusly: “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” Well, that sounds pretty positive too, doesn’t it? He doubles down on it in Matthew 21 when he’s just gotten done cursing that fig tree (you know, the one that wasn’t doing anything wrong at all except being out of season when Jesus had a major munchie fit for figs): “If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” Now, note that the fig tree cursing is a specific power he’s telling believers they’ll have. So all those Christians saying a prayer didn’t get answered because it was “selfish” have some explaining to do.
In Matthew 18:18-20, we even get a look at how powerful groups of Christians are (is there a word for a group of Christians, like a flock of geese or a lamentation of swans? “Congregation” is too specifically churchy): “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” So whatever the magic power is of one Christian praying, it’s even more powerful when more than one gets together and prays. In almost every one of the church services I attended throughout the Protestant system, this verse got invoked, by the way–especially when the church prayed for one particular thing (like that pastor’s healing of brain cancer).
John’s probably the last of the gospels, and it has the strongest of all the assurances. In John 14, we see this: “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.” Straightforward enough.
But now let’s look at the weaseling out of these strong assurances in the rest of the Bible:
1 John 3:22: “Whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” So a Christian who sins won’t get what’s requested. Well, that’s about all of us, because nobody’s righteous but Jesus (Romans 3:10, but see this writeup which mysteriously we didn’t know about as Christians).
Philippians 4:19: “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Jesus Christ.” Well, that implies that if we don’t need it, we won’t get it.
James 1:5-7: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.” Another one that implies that faith is required. All right.
James 4:3: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” If you don’t get what you asked for, you probably were asking in the wrong spirit–you just wanted it out of some selfish or sinful impulse (you know, like wanting figs out of season). So it’s your fault. That does kind of knock the prosperity gospel Christians right in the nads and it’s definitely not in keeping with Jesus’ earlier assurances that he’d do whatever we asked, especially if we asked in groups, but it’s a pretty standard deflection I heard to explain away the problem.
James 5:13-18:” Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms. Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. . . The effectual prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” This one predicts healings aplenty and reaffirms that righteousness is required. Seems like a poisoned well excuse, doesn’t it? If someone doesn’t get what was requested, there’s probably some taint involved.
The only requirements I can see in the Gospels is that whoever’s praying for something needs to be very very fervent in believing that whatever is being requested will happen. The later books of the New Testament add a few stipulations, but overall, the insistence is there that yes, God answers prayers.
The Reality of the Bible Verses.
But that’s not how it works.
That’s not how it works at all.
And this “yes/no/later” thing that Christians repeat like a mantra isn’t mentioned in any of these verses. Ever. I didn’t even see how such a concept could be inferred from these verses. Either God answered the prayer every single time by giving the praying person what was requested, or in the later weasel words, God flat refuses due to some inadequacy on the part of the petitioner–not out of the person’s best interest, but out of inadequacy. What I’d been told about prayer just wasn’t true if the Bible was any kind of guide in the matter.
As I studied, I wondered again to myself: just when had I stopped asking for anything really supernatural? Every time I got in my car, I prayed that I’d get to my destination “safely and unharmed,” as I had learned from the older members of my church. When I went to the mall with Christian friends, they prayed that we’d get a good parking spot (and one year, on Christmas Eve, we did! Right up front! It was a miracle!). I prayed that work would go smoothly, that God would bless me in general, that God would bring my errant family to salvation (not a single one was saved yet).
But when I prayed for specific things, did I really get them? No, not normally, not any more than I might get them with random chance or my own hard work. Were parking spots really a miracle? Why would God let me get to work without a car accident when tons of other people, many who presumably prayed the same sort of way, did not get to their destinations safely? When Biff had invaded Pastor Daniel’s deathbed vigil, I tell you he’d have been quite positive he could bring about Daniel’s healing–but he got thrown out by the very people who should have most known that prayer worked. And I can tell you that thousands upon thousands of Christians banded together to beg God for Daniel’s healing, only to be denied. Are we to assume that they were all inadequate in some way?
Forget all the rationalizations. Forget all the fine print (because whoa Nelly there is a lot of fine print). Forget all the justifications for why. Just look at the situation.
The god this Bible described says over and over again that he is a wonder-working god. This god says he listens to prayer. He answers prayer. No “yes/no/later” bullshit. Yes. If you believe, yes. The later books of the Bible, written long after Jesus didn’t return as he’d said he would, were clearly scrambling for explanations for why prayers weren’t getting answered (and settled on the approach Christians would use for centuries to come: “It’s all your fault”).
I never once while a Christian ever heard of any supernatural answer to prayer that was accompanied by credible, objective evidence for the claim. I never saw evidence of supernatural healing. I never saw any mountains moved. I never experienced a single “answered prayer” that couldn’t be explained easily by some other means. And 2000 years after these promises were made, we’ve still got slavery, murder, disease, and a host of other things that prayer was specifically said to be able to stop. Not a single mountain has been moved. Nobody’s ever documented any big-time healing. No amputees have been regenerated. No missing eyeballs brought back. No dead people raised. No poison drunk safely. Reality simply did not conform to what the Bible promised.
When had I stopped bothering to ask for anything that big? I already suspected in my heart of hearts, I realized as I studied, that prayer was a waste of time. Once I’d been positive about it, yes. I knew that. But somewhere along the way I learned the hard lessons that all Christians learn, and I’d internalized those doublespeak arguments meant to stop my thinking about it and make me content to labor in delusion. Now that I wasn’t bound by those old thought-stoppers, I could think about the matter honestly for the first time.
And I rejected it all in one fell swoop. It made no sense, and I was not obligated to keep twisting and contorting my mind to accept all these contradictions and complete fallacies. Nothing held me anymore–there was no fear left in me, and whatever love I’d felt had dissolved over time and with repeated disappointments (something that was happening simultaneously with my “godly” marriage).
With the sadness of a mourner at a funeral, I closed my Bible. Biff would be home soon from his lying–er, witnessing session at the Crisis Pregnancy Center. Tomorrow was Sunday. I didn’t know what I was going to do at this point. I couldn’t just not go–I was a minister’s wife. But I couldn’t hold the truth in any longer. My eyes had been opened. I’d made my saving roll to disbelieve at last, at last, at last. I couldn’t force myself to believe again any more than you, reader, could force yourself to believe once more in Santa. I’d seen too much, learned too much, suffered too much. This religion was not true (the question of “well, is it valid then at least?” hadn’t occurred to me), and I would no longer ally myself with lies.
A Long and Scary Night.
I was in bed by the time Biff got home. I don’t remember talking to him or anything else that happened. I don’t think I slept a wink all night. I didn’t weep, though; I was out of tears. I had spent them all earlier that night. I was over Christianity, and just as you know when a romantic relationship is well and truly over, I knew this “relationship” I’d built in my own head was over too.
All night long, I tossed and turned. Later I would read about the philosopher Epicurus who presented a dilemma called “The Problem of Evil” that illustrated perfectly what was going on in my head in a far more primitive and less eloquent form. If God really was omnipotent, then he certainly could easily do anything one of his followers asked. If he really were omnibenevolent, then I couldn’t see any rational reason why he wouldn’t do simple things like heal disease or end war or violence that might hurt his children (and “well you know God, he’s just so confusing sometimes” thought terminators didn’t cut it anymore, remember?). If he really were omniscient, then it didn’t make sense why he even needed his beloved spouse to even need to ask him for anything–he should know already. The truth was clear: there was no way that the god I’d worshiped all this time was omnimax. I couldn’t trust the Bible’s history or science, and I couldn’t trust Christianity’s assertions about his power, love, or grace. I wasn’t that sad by the time morning came, really; I felt a curious sense of detachment from myself that liberated me and freed me. I felt like I hadn’t eaten in many days and had hit that stage in starvation when the human body just doesn’t feel hungry anymore.
I felt gaunt and wrung-out. But I also felt a strange exhilaration. I didn’t have to bash my brains out trying to reconcile those things which are not by their nature reconcilable. I no longer had to struggle to understand that which makes no sense whatsoever. Slowly I began to feel strength coursing back into my body as my liberation became more and more clear. I was free. And I would never be enslaved again.
As the grey morning light began its creep across my bedroom floor toward the bed, I realized I could just not go to church. I could just skip out. I could just quit going. And nobody could make me go if I didn’t want to go. That is where you first joined me in this blog, dear reader; this very bedroom and this very dawn is where you first met me. I had just closed an old book full of mold and fungus and rot, and I’d just made a new beginning that was fresh and clean and full of hope. And this new beginning is where we shall start our journey together. Thank you for making it with me.
This was a huge post for me, and like all big projects, it didn’t happen without help. I’d like to give a grateful tip of the hat to Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?, which very devastatingly and sensitively covers the argument against prayer’s effectiveness in greater (and probably way more eloquent and relevant) detail. I used the site as a gathering-point for many of the Bible verses as I don’t pretend to remember them all now. I’d also like to thank Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, which has such a great search function and such helpful collections of the Bible’s various flaws and absurdities. I wish these sites had existed when I was a Christian; their existence would have made my transition a lot easier and faster. I encourage those who question and doubt to check those sites out.