Does it matter that prayer doesn’t work?
Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient?
–God, as played by Morgan Freeman
I read this quote in a movie review on Friendly Christian, and didn’t leave a comment because the author really is making a sincere effort to be a “friendly Christian” so the last thing I want to do is be the jerk atheist who goes over to his blog to pick a fight with him. But some part of me really wanted to point out that if you pray to a rock in your backyard, the rock will most likely be loving enough to grant you the opportunity to solve your own damn problems. Similarly, The Exterminator posted the Democratic presidential candidates’ views on whether prayer could be effective in preventing or lessening real-world natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota Bridge collapse here. Most of them affirmed that prayer is of vital importance, but not one of them claimed that yes, if you pray enough (or better) then you can actually convince God to change His mysterious plans on such matters. Of course that doesn’t mean all Christians believe prayer doesn’t affect real-world outcomes (here’s a counterexample), but it does show that religious people bend over backward to give God a pass when that whole “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that I will do,” thing doesn’t work (John 14:13).
So the idea is that God is going to do whatever He sees fit (according to his will), and even if His plan seems (by your puny understanding) cruel or even sadistic at times, you should take His word for it that it’s a loving plan because He said so (or at least somebody said so…), and besides, He’s bigger, smarter, and more powerful than you. And you should pray for things because — even though it’s blasphemy to imagine that your prayer might force God’s hand and make Him change His plan to accomodate your request — you should pray because praying is really important.
I’ve tried to wrap my mind around how this could possibly be comforting to anyone, yet weirdly it seems that it is. And when I stop thinking and feel instead, I can kind of see why:
At one point recently I suffered a professional set-back — an opportunity I’d been banking on didn’t pan out — and weirdly the first thing that popped into my mind was “well, it wasn’t meant to be…” As if some reptile part of my brain still believes in destiny. And it was stressful to do a personal post-mortem of the variety “when I saw X-Y-Z happen, I should have known I needed to do Q…” (that is, learn something from it 😉 ), and also kind of stressful to notice that in fact part of the problem was just a question of random chance. On the other hand it was kind of comforting to think “The Lord has given you talents and wants you to work to develop them. Obviously handing you opportunities on a silver platter won’t accomplish that goal…” I can almost hear my LDS friends saying that.
Hell, if I were still a believer, I’d probably be standing up in testimony meeting citing this as a proof of the power of prayer even though I got the opposite of what I would have asked for if I’d prayed (which I didn’t). I’d have explained it as proof of God’s superior wisdom in answering prayers in His own way.
Of course if I’d prayed, maybe the outcome would have been different. 😉 But ultimately it wouldn’t have mattered…