This post is copied from here.
I’ve always struggled with the idea of an interventionist God. The idea of treating an omnipotent power like a vending machine: If you put in faith, good works, and requests, you’ll get the world to go your way.
This assumes God operates within a meritocracy. It assumes that the better you are, the better you’ll be treated by the almighty. It assumes you can get everything you want if you just pray hard enough, if you’re holy enough, if you never stray. But when “ask and you shall receive” ends up being your proof of faith, how are we meant to react when God says “no”?
About 17 years ago, I was attending church three times a week. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer and then gone into remission, only to find out that her husband, my stepdad, had been cheating on her while she was in chemo. After an ugly divorce, her cancer returned, but this time it didn’t look like she was going to win.
Church became our solace. The community we built there helped us through her divorce and her illness. They prayed our way through each crises, and I prayed with them.
But each time, God seemed to tell us “no.”
After my mom died, I kept praying. It was inertia. But it gradually began to feel hollow. I didn’t throw a tantrum and tell God, “I’m never speaking to you again.” Instead, it was a slow decline in trust. It was as if I were a child, and my parent had stopped showing up for me.
For someone who’d been so embedded in prayer, and the culture of faith, my decision to stop praying wasn’t easy. When life is hard, hopeless, and confusing, prayer is often the only thing that empowers us. It’s how we fight helplessness.
But when we stop praying, helplessness is all that’s left. For most of us, that’s very uncomfortable. And even after I’d decided to quit, I kept fighting the urge to pray. I’d think: How much easier would it be to say a quick prayer on the off chance it might work?
I’d been leaning on the “We’ll pray for you” method of doing nothing.
Then, I started to notice how often Christians substitute prayer for more direct action.
When was the last time you said you would pray for someone? When’s the last time you actually did? And when’s the last time you did something else to reach out and give support? Offered a meal, an ear, a social connection, a protest sign? I’d been leaning on the “We’ll pray for you” method of doing nothing. By not praying, I forced myself to either admit a passive stance or roll up my sleeves and get to work.
I began to reject prayers from those around me. When someone told me they were going to pray for me, I did not feel grateful. I felt resentful. Though I knew they were coming from a good place, I didn’t want their prayers. I wanted their support, concretely.
To insult people’s prayers is to insult their faith. For many, traditional prayer is a central tenet of faith. I never found a way to have this conversation graciously, to politely acknowledge another’s belief without being made complicit in it. And while I wouldn’t say it was easy to decouple prayer and belief, I found that, ultimately, I still believe in a higher power, even if he doesn’t take requests.
After giving up prayer, a part of me wondered: Did I give up on it too quickly? Is it a valuable tool? Does it actually work?
I did some research. In a study on intercessory prayer concluded in 2006, researchers asked three Christian congregations around the country to pray for 1,802 heart surgery patients. They divided them into three groups: patients who knew they were being prayed for, patients who did not know they were being prayed for, and patients who were not prayed for at all. Thirty days after surgery, it appeared there was no significant difference in results between the group that was prayed for and the group that wasn’t. In fact, the group that was told they were being prayed for actually had a higher incidence of complications post-surgery: 59 percent versus 51 percent.
On the other hand, there have been other smaller studies suggesting that prayer may lend a helping hand. Reachers in Seoul studied 219 infertile women who received in vitro fertilization embryo transfers. Remote prayer was conducted by groups in the United States, Australia, and Canada, and the women were not informed they were being prayed for. The result? Women who were prayed for had nearly double the pregnancy rate of those who had not been prayed for: 50 percent versus 26 percent.
Clearly, we still don’t know whether praying for others works. But maybe there’s a less clinical benefit. A personal reward for prayer, one only I can feel. I wondered: Could a daily prayer practice help me achieve some sort of inner peace? Was I willing to try?
When I was in high school, a counselor taught me to meditate as a strategy to manage my PTSD, and it soon became a consistent part of my mental health regimen. I generally feel better when it’s part of my daily routine, and science backs that up. Meditation has been linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduction in anxiety, stress, and pain, as well as a heightened immune response.
Meditation soon became my replacement for prayer.
When meditation is given a spiritual quality, instead of simply sticking to the secular, it can be even more effective. In a study of migraine sufferers, one group was asked to meditate for 20 minutes a day with the mantra “God is good. God is peace. God is love.” Another group was asked to meditate with a more neutral mantra, “Grass is green. Sand is soft.” After a month, the group that meditated on God reported a greater decrease in migraines.
Meditation has been linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduction in anxiety, stress, and pain, as well as a heightened immune response.
Once meditation was already a part of my daily practice, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to give it a more spiritual charge. In fact, it might help. And because it felt different from traditional Christian prayer, it was less likely to bring up all the negative feelings of theistic abandonment.
But how could I incorporate the highly Westernized version of prayer that I’d been taught with my Eastern meditation practice? Both would have to shift.
I returned to the prayers I’d learned growing up, specifically the Lord’s Prayer — a model from which all other prayers should follow. I’m not a theologian, but I’ve bounced around enough denominations at this point to understand that the Lord’s Prayer is essential — it may be one of the only things all Christians can agree on. When I stopped reciting the Lord’s Prayer by rote and really unpacked it, I began to realize that my understanding of what prayer should be was warped.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we’re taught to include three things: praise, submission, and request. And it’s the last part that trips me up, because there are only three requests in the Lord’s Prayer: for bread, for forgiveness, and for guidance. That’s it.
How freeing! None of what Westernized religion had taught me to pray for — health, wealth, personal success — were there. How much easier would it have been to accept my mother’s death if I’d been asking for forgiveness and guidance instead of health? Maybe it wasn’t that God hadn’t shown up, but that I’d been asking for the wrong things. He’d never made a promise to fix me, or my mom, upon request.
Instead of asking, maybe I should have been listening. After all, if you believe that God gives us gifts and talents, then maybe it’s our job to do the fixing. With guidance, of course.
I still don’t pray — at least, not in the typical way. I do try to make time each day, however, to sit and listen. My time with God is a time of quiet and stillness. It’s a time to let clarity come to me slowly, gently, instead of demanding it on cue.
I will probably never tell you that I’ve been praying for you. What I will do is consider the gifts I have been given, and listen for ways that I can use them to truly help you. Then, I’ll get to work.