“Unanswered” prayer is perhaps the greatest argument for the NON-existence of God.
When religion preaches “ask and you shall receive,” and people routinely and publicly ask their God for things they obviously have not and will not get (relief from storms, protecting children, etc.), the result is more MORE EVIDENCE that there is no such thing as God.
And yet, many Christians continue to “preach and pull that lever” in the hopes that their number will come up and God will give them what they ask for.
A crappy understanding of prayer permeates the thinking of most believers and unbelievers. Every time a believer puts another coin in the machine, it funds the growth of doubt, ..both their own and those who have already moved into unbelief. This crappy understanding of prayer, of God as a slot machine, is especially prevalent in evangelical and pentecostal circles, but also remains in the undercurrents beneath mainline church practices, liturgical language, and the persistent personal beliefs found in every pew.
What many of my Christian and atheist friends DON’T KNOW is that there are some voices in scripture that remind us that life is often unfair regardless of our prayers, and that God is not in the prayer slot machine any more than God is in the wind or fire (1 Kings 19). God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Jesus in Matthew 5:45). “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned,” (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12.)
Crappy Prayer Theology is based on a selective reading of cherry-picked scriptures, such as “ask and you shall receive,” that are either misinterpreted or understood through the false theology of “works” — which is the pharisaical belief that “righteousness” (“right-ness”) gets you access and reward. Such verses and thinking about prayer result in the absurd (but common) understanding of God humorously brought to life in Bruce Almighty when Bruce tries to play God by answering people’s prayers:
The New Testament Letter of James is one of the best (worst?) examples of this kind of crappy pharisaical thinking. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly” (James 4:3, and I’m not the only one who doesn’t like James, Martin Luther wanted it tossed.)
Why does Crappy Prayer Theology persist?
I believe it is rooted in the human psyche’s perverse love of guilt which is all too often flamed by the “priestly class” who know that “guilt works” when it comes to boosting giving and attendance. They also know that promoting “asking prayers” elevates their status as religious shaman — i.e. those with “the right words” which people are also asking them to speak. (“Lord, I just wanna ask you to bless this meeting, …keep us free from injury during our game, …be with them as they travel…” Ad nauseum.)
Towards a Better Theology of Prayer
Let’s begin by agreeing with the atheists that the “slot machine God” does not exist.
Let’s take it a step further and also say that “there is no such thing as prayer” …at least in the way the priestly class has been preaching it and pew people have been practicing it, and when some “lesser words” in the Bible are elevated to the same authority as those closer to the truth.
We’d all be better off, believer and unbeliever, if we defined prayer as listening rather than speaking. And that’s something that both believers and atheists could use a lot more of.
Here are my cherry-picked proof-texts for this “better” theology:
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Job 38:3 — God’s answer to all of Job’s questions and complaints:
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me!
(God’s chapter 38 answer to Job’s 37 chapters of questions and laments is basically, “shut up and listen.”)
1 Kings 19:11-13 — God’s answer to Elijah’s complaints outside of the Cave of Horeb.
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
“Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.”
|To my atheist friends I would say, “listen to the universe.” Listen for that “gentle whisper” (“still small voice”) speaking within your life. Don’t expect God in the wind, earthquake, or fire.
To my Christian friends I would say, “ask to be led, not to be answered; ask to give not to get.”
I hope you’ve found this entry thought-provoking. I realize that prayer is a huge topic and that each of its many permutations are supported by select scriptures and traditions. To my atheist friends, know that I also believe God will speak to your listening ear, but for his own mysterious reasons and ways, in this life God does not reveal himself in fullness to any of us. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, “for now we see dimly, but one day, face to face.”
Grace, Peace, and Good Listening to you all.
Read more entries in my Atheism and Faith Project.