I love lists. Some people think in pictures, other people think in words and then there are those who think in lists. I am constantly enumerating ideas, worries, plans and other sundry of thoughts. At one point in my journey away from religion I made a list in my head – I might have even written it down – a list of practical differences between a Christian and an atheist. I limited it to things Christians actually DO (or are expected to do) on a regular basis that atheists do not. I did not include things like “go to heaven” or “feel more peace”, nor did I include “donate money” or “show kindness” since I knew those weren’t limited to Christians.
The shortness of this list was one of the propellants that moved me closer to making a final decision to leave the religion. When it came down to it, there were very few practical things I did as a Christian that differentiated me from an atheist; and when I was honest with myself, the few things I did made absolutely ZERO difference in my life and often served to make things more confusing and burdensome.
First on my list was PRAY. Christians pray daily, preferable multiple times a day...or, are supposed to anyway. I grew up in the Pentecostal tradition and we didn’t just pray, we PRAAYYYYED. We prayed A LOT. We prayed loud, passionate, expressive, looooooong prayers. We spoke in tongues and laid hands on each other. There was often crying involved and possibly being “slain in the spirit”. We were expected to have a tangible relationship with God through “the person of the Holy Spirit”, a relationship that involved frequently talking to God and hearing God speak to us. None of this meek, quiet prayer and certainly not praying the prayers other people wrote. Oh no. Pentecostal children very early learn how to spontaneously compose prayers that could move even the staunchest of atheists to rush to the altar in repentance. And let me tell you, I could pray. I was good at it. I was articulate and could muster up impressive passion. I personally have been in prayer meetings that have lasted over 6 hours and know people who have participated in 24 hour prayer vigils. That’s a lot of tissues folks.
Since prayer was the first item on my list, I made two additional lists about prayer; what is it and what does it do? I thought it might be interesting to examine those questions here.
What is Prayer?
The brief dictionary definition of prayer is as vague and seemingly obtuse as the act itself.
prayer /pre(ə)r/ Noun
A solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship.
Basically, prayer is talking to God/gods/nature or making appeals/requests. There are almost an infinite number of ways to pray. Some religious people say that service to others is an act of prayer. Some say that silence or meditation is an act of prayer. Prayer can be spontaneous or use the prayers others have written. It can be modern or ancient. But ultimately, the idea behind prayer is that a person is communicating with a divine entity or entities in some way to express something or ask for something. Sounds simple enough right? WRONG!
Quick experiment: go to your favourite online book retailer and do a search for books about Christian prayer. It’s overwhelming. You can find books on the right way to pray, the wrong way to pray, what you should and shouldn’t ask, what you can and cannot say, how to hear God and of course guides on the many ways to pray. There have been entire books with hundreds of pages written about a single aspect of Christian prayer. And this doesn’t even include prayer books that have actual prayers written in them.
Prayers that are reportedly worded in such a way as to give them more potency or have a greater effect on the deity.
And then there are a whole bunch of prohibitions surrounding prayer. Don’t pray when you’re angry. Don’t ask for things unless you’ve first confessed your sins. Don’t complain. I grew up believing praying the prayers of others (as in, prayers from a prayer book) or using a Rosary was not only odd but wrong. Maybe God would hear those prayers but he certainly wouldn’t be impressed. And we all knew that impressing God got you bonus points.
If prayer is as simple as communicating with a deity or deities, what’s going on here? Good question. And one I asked myself without coming to any reasonable conclusion. You can take two Christians who are sick with the same disease and they pray to be healed using the exact same prayers. One gets better, one doesn’t and they will both provide answers as to how God answered their prayers.
What Does Prayer Do?
I have formal education in theology and the whole point of prayer eluded me my entire life. I think part of the issue for me is that I rarely felt a personal, emotional connection to God in the way many other people claimed. I played the role of a good Pentecostal but my heart really wasn’t in it. I think I probably would have made a good Eastern Orthodox Christian, they view prayer very differently – it’s more about the ritual and the mystical role Church Tradition plays as opposed to how the person feels. Interestingly, many people who grew up pentecostal convert to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism later in life.
One would think the act of praying presumes a divine being is a) listening, b) cares and c) will, or at least might, respond in some way. In other words, prayer should actually DO something, right? Not necessarily. Some Christians, (I think in an attempt to explain why prayer doesn’t “work”) have explained that prayer is a discipline intended to improve the spiritual life of the person. God might hear your prayers but they don’t actually accomplish anything outside of the individual.
Even the studies conducted about prayer seem to indicate that prayer can be an effective tool for stress relief and connecting with others but there is not much to indicate efficacy in an intercessory role. In other words, it doesn’t seem that prayer changes things outside of the role of “placebo effect”, positive thinking, and the role of a nurturing care team (which is actually quite fascinating).
I found great freedom the day I was able to excuse myself from the responsibility of prayer. In the end, I see prayer as a potentially useful tool that can make certain people feel better about their situation and I’m only concerned about it when it extends to refusing medical care to children or those who are unable to make those decisions on their own. If people want to pray for me, I’m totally fine with that as long as they don’t expect me to be present for it. God help them if they try to lay hands on me.