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Blog reader asks: For what shall I pray?

January 29, 2012

Q: I hope you won’t use my name because I’m not really brave enough to “question God publicly” as some folks might see this. But I have a question you can maybe address in your blog: For what shall I pray?  I see zero evidence that it helps to pray for God to cure someone’s cancer or send their runaway child home or get them a job that pays more money. In fact, it’s fairly offensive (to me) to think God favors some people over others on request and I seriously doubt he spares those on prayer lists from tragedy any more than he wreaks havoc on the Godless. So I pray for God to give comfort, understanding and courage to people I know, just as I pray for those things for myself. Those tools might lead to better situations. But I’m not sure that’s much different than praying for a miracle cancer cure … it’s just a more realistic hope. Maybe my prayers speak to my immature faith? If I were a better believer, my friends could get well and be rich? That doesn’t seem logical to me either. So for what shall I pray?


A: I also grew up in a religious tradition in which one would be penalized for “questioning God publicly,” so let me say at the outset that perhaps I know a little about where you are coming from.

Don’t worry, you’re in good company. If you want to see some really heavy duty questioning of God, just read the Psalms. You will find some passages that say things like this: “God, what is wrong with you? Why are you letting people treat me like dirt and get away with it?” In the Jewish tradition from which Christianity was born, sometimes God was even called into account for God’s actions. The rabbis wrote commentaries called midrash in which they filled holes in scripture, and sometimes they would say that, well, God was just wrong about something. Ha! Try that in church on Sunday morning!

Somehow, instead of embracing the parts of our faith tradition that embrace asking the questions that linger in each of our minds, we have created religious environments that dictate sitting quietly and doing what we are told. That’s unfortunate for all of us, and it has harmed the church and the people it should be serving.

The thoughtful questions you raise about prayer are the same issues people of faith have been wrestling with for centuries. The most honest answer I can give is that there are no answers that are completely satisfying. However, the process of trying to deal with such questions with all of our collective heart, mind and soul in itself demonstrates a mature faith. I rather think it would be an immature faith that sees God as being a Santa Claus who rewards us with nice things if we ask nicely and behave.

Why is it that some people recover from cancer, and others do not, despite prayers being lifted on their behalf day and night? I don’t know. But here are some of my thoughts: Tragedy, if it hasn’t already visited, will strike each of us in the course of our lives. In the Bible, the faithful were not spared from harm because of their prayers. Legend holds that the disciples all died horrible deaths. We know that the most faithful person to ever walk the earth died a terrible death on a Roman cross despite praying that, if it were possible, “let this cup pass from me.” (Matthew 26:39, NRSV)

So why pray? Most everyone has heard the famous quote attributed to C.S. Lewis that prayer doesn’t change God, but “prayer changes me.” I cannot completely embrace that thought because there is actually strong scriptural evidence of God being swayed by prayer (Exodus 32:14, James 5:16, among others). But I have come increasingly to believe that time spent in prayer is meant to put us in line with divine purposes such as justice, freedom, love and reconciliation.

In the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, we seek God’s will to be done – what Jesus ultimately prayed after asking that the cup pass him by. Like you, I tend to pray for comfort and understanding and courage for others, as well as myself. Sometimes, though, my admission to God is that I do not know what to pray – and that is my prayer. Other times, the words of my prayer stem solely from my desperation, because I don’t know what else to do.

Prayer is a confession that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead will work everything out for the best for all of us – even if we have no earthly idea how and when that will happen. There have been times when I have stood in a hospital room at the bedside of someone who is dying, and the prayers that flowed forth were not born of any hope that person would get well and walk out of the hospital, but rather in acknowledgement that, ‘however this turns out, God is in control.’ And because God is in control, somehow, some way, everything is going to ultimately be all right. God doesn’t promise that we won’t face bad times, only to be with us through every step of it, and well beyond. To pray is to reach for that hope.



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