Sunday, December 16, 2012


"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." -- Matthew 7:7

"Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that my Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it." -- John 14:13-14

"And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive it, if you have faith." -- Matthew 21:22

Quite a lot of prayers are like this, probably because we're creatures of needs and wants. And as often as not, we don't know the difference.

The Bible, of course, endorses this sort of thing, though in real life, the results seem to be mixed at best. We pray for a loved one to pull through and sometimes, seemingly miraculously, they do. Troublingly, given the above passages, they often don't. Perhaps equally troubling in its own way  stands the fact that believers of other religions--and of no religion--experience "miraculous" cures at about an equal rate, albeit under a different headline. 

These are probably the prayers that are said most earnestly, but, well, good luck if you're asking for something in prayer. You'll need it. Given the evidence, I don't have a lot of faith in these prayers--if there's a God, it's not the sort of God who answers prayers like some kind of genii granting wishes.

"Lord, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." -- Reinhold Niebuhr
I have noticed on several occasions that our school's Director of Spiritual Life (and Protestant minister) frequently prays in terms of virtues, or of mindfulness. A prayer that a group or individual might have some quality strengthened really amounts to emphasizing the characteristics that we think are important. If I pray for myself that I might have courage to do something that I want to do, or that I might have peace in my heart when other people annoy me, or whatever it is, I'm also reminding myself of what it is that I want myself to be, what I see as my highest self. If God exists, then perhaps He will help out, but even in the absence of God, this kind of prayer actually works pretty well. By reminding us of who and what we want to be, we are more likely to put into practice our values.

“Oh, I think that children pray so, to find a lost doll or that Father will bring home a good haul of fish, or that no one will discover a forgotten chore. Children think they know what is best for themselves, and do not fear to ask the divine for it. But I have been a man for many years, and I would be ashamed if I did not know better by now.”
                 […] “So. How does a man pray then?”
                 […] “Don’t you know? How do you pray, then?”
                 “I don’t.” And then I rethought, and laughed aloud. “Unless I’m terrified. Then I suppose I pray as a child does. ‘Get me out of this, and I’ll never be so stupid again. Just let me live.’”
He laughed with me. “Well, it looks as if, so far, your prayers have been granted. And have you kept your promise to the divine?”
I shook my head, smiling ruefully. “I’m afraid not. I just find a new direction to be foolish in.”
“Exactly. So do we all. Hence, I’ve learned I am not wise enough to ask the divine for anything.”
“So. How do you pray then, if you are not asking for something?”
“Ah. Well, prayer for me is more listening than asking.”
—Robin Hobb, Fool’s Fate
This, too, makes a fair bit of sense to me, whether there is a God or there isn't.


  1. I find that first kind of prayer troubling, too. Some folks argue that it's not so much genie prayer, as that if what we pray for is aligned with God's will -- and it will be if we are centered and grounded in him -- then we will receive it. It seems rather tricky to me -- Jesus could have SAID that if that's what he meant. Perhaps with more study of such verses in their context I could understand better what he's getting at.

    Along the lines of your second example, I think a good bit of prayer is about being open and willing to have our own hearts changed, and perhaps even to be confronted with ourselves.

    For me, I suppose, I think of prayer relationally more than anything else. God is my Father, brother, friend, king, shepherd, priest... I speak to him about anything and everything, trusting that a) he cares and listens and b) he is able to do more than I can imagine of asking, and c) he will do what is good and right, and my understanding of "good" and "right" are limited by time, perspective, and finitude, and d) the Spirit prays for me better prayers than I can ever pray (so that my foolishness need never stop me from praying).

    Having recently moved to the Episcopal church, I am learning about some other ways to pray, including the Daily Office's routine of readings, song-like responses, prayers, creeds, and praises.

  2. How funny that you wrote about prayer today, when I've just had a...disconcerting...experience with it. (We went to a new-to-us Episcopal church, where they included the Hail Mary in the service - it's all on my blog).

    Anne Lamott just published a whole book on the subject of prayer: Help. Thanks. Wow. (She says, basically, that all prayers fall into those three general categories.) I haven't read it, just the excerpts she's posted on facebook, but I really want to.

  3. The somewhat low-key veneration of Mary, along with various gestures of reverence like genuflecting before the sacrament, bother me about our new Episcopal church... but I think I understand both, and I think I can understand that neither is the idolatry it is tempting to think it is. Haven't had a Hail Mary in this church so far, though.

    I like Anne Lamott.

    1. I should add, for clarification, that I am coming to the Episcopal church from an evangelical background... one that hasn't fit well for several years now, but one that has been hard to leave.

  4. My take on the first sort of prayer is pretty simple: the Bible's promising more than it can deliver. And then, when it can't deliver, the answer is that the person praying doesn't have enough faith or isn't praying right or isn't aligned with God's will. It's pretty much like all the times that the Bible says that Jesus will be returning soon with the end of the world in tow (the present generation will not pass away, etc), and of course it still hasn't happened a couple thousand years later. Can apologetics find ways to explain away these and other difficulties? Sure. But how convincing one finds them probably correlates strongly with how invested one is in holding onto the ideas.

    But I suppose that's slightly tangential to the subject at hand. I do thank you both for your perspectives here. I'm kind of fascinated by the "personal relationship with God/Jesus" idea (there's a book about it--it's very much entwined with the Evangelical outlook, yes?). MissMeliss, I must have heard that same framework of Lamott's elsewhere, because it was in my mind that way when I was putting this entry together, but then the last quotation I had vaguely in mind didn't say quite what I remembered it as saying, so I ended up going in a different direction than "wow." That's an important one, though, because I think it's a big part of where our spiritual/religious "instincts" (if you will) come from.