What about those Christians who pray to saints?

by K.W. Leslie, 13 August

When we talk about prayer, we usually mean speaking with God. But technically pray means “to ask.” Still meant that, back in the olden days. In one of Jesus’s stories, one man tells another, “I pray thee have me excused,” Lk 14.19 KJV ’cause people can make requests of one another. We can ask God for things, God can ask things of us, and Christians can ask things of one another.

Now, here’s where it slides away from your average Evangelical’s comfort zone: When Christians ask things of fellow Christians… who are dead.

“Praying to saints,” we call it. It’s found in older churches: Orthodox, Roman Catholics, or Anglicans and Episcopalians. And it’s commonly practiced by Christians whose loved ones have died: To comfort ourselves, figuring our loved ones are in heaven and in God’s presence, sometimes we talk to those loved ones. Some of us hope they heard us… and others are downright certain they heard us, ’cause they can’t see why God can’t empower that kind of thing. Why can’t he pass a message to our dead relatives and friends?

For that matter, why not to anyone? Including people whom we know God saved: Jesus’s parents Joseph and Mary; Jesus’s brothers James and Jude; Jesus’s apostles Peter, John, Mary of Magdala, and the rest. And maybe Christian who aren’t in the bible. Like the founders of great Christian movements, like St. Francis of Assisi, or Martin Luther, or Billy Graham.

Like all humans, Evangelicals are creatures of extremes, and take one of two attitudes about praying to saints:

  1. Won’t do any harm. Maybe God will pass our messages along.
  2. It’s heresy. And praying to anyone but God is idolatry. Plus praying to the dead violates the scriptures:
Deuteronomy 18.10-12 KWL
10 Don’t have among you anyone who passes their son or daughter through fire.
Nor augurs practicing augury, nephelomancy, scrying, incanting, 11 enchanting,
asking a psychic or spiritist, nor questioning the dead.
12 For all these acts offend the LORD.
Because of these offenses, your LORD God takes them out of your presence.

So if praying to saints is the same as questioning the dead, isn’t that a serious no-no?

Well, if it were the same. Those whose churches teach ’em to pray to saints, insist it’s actually not: The saints in heaven aren’t dead.

Seriously. Jesus once said the way the Father perceives Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—saints who are really long-dead, and were long-dead even in Jesus’s day—is that “to him they’re all alive.” Lk 20.38 When a saint dies, we perceive ’em as dead. But they’re alive in heaven. More alive than ever they were here on earth.

Remember in the bible when Moses died? Dt 34.5 Yet when Jesus was transfigured, Moses showed up, and they had a chat. Mk 9.4 Now, was Jesus, of all people, questioning the dead?—and therefore breaking his own Law, and sinning? Or is Moses in fact alive—in heaven?

You can likely guess those who pray to saints claim it’s they’re not really dead. Once they got to heaven, God made them alive again. They got resurrected. So whether we’re talking to a saint on earth, or a saint in heaven, it’s all the same—all part of “the communion of saints,” as the creeds put it. The body of Christ happens to have a few members in a really useful place. Namely heaven.

And if they’re alive in heaven, why can’t we make requests of them, same as we would to any other living Christian? There are certain Christians I know, and if I need prophecy, healing, or any other miracle, I could ask them. As the Holy Spirit permits, they can actually answer those requests and perform such miracles. Well, how much more so might St. Mary, St. Jude, St. Francis, or St. Martin Luther King Jr.?

That’s the general idea: When you pray to saints, you’re requesting help, same as you would from any other Christian… but unlike earthly Christians, who might look like they have a solid relationship with Jesus, but secretly be major screw-ups, the heavenly saints are definitely in God’s presence. Pray to them, and your chances of answered prayer shoot way up.

(Especially, most figure, when you pray to Mary. ’Member how effectively she got her resistant son to take care of the wine situation at Cana? Jn 2.3-11 So if you’re not so sure you can get a yes out of Jesus, talk to his mom. She’ll twist his arm.)

Asking for help in prayer.

I grew up Fundamentalist, the camp which tends to take the attitude of “praying to anyone but God is idolatry.” Really they suspect anyone who’s not Fundie like them, and the very fact I’m discussing this subject might make them flee this blog in red outrage. Meh.

I admit, though, I’ve got some old Fundie biases. One of them (which I’m trying to resist, y’know) is the old-fashioned go-it-alone attitude of “Why do I need any other Christians? All I need is Jesus. Me ’n Jesus, against the world.” Such Christians don’t see the point in praying to saints. After all, we can pray directly to God! Jesus has granted us unrestricted access to the Father. Why bother with middlemen when we can go straight to the Boss?

Problem with the straight-to-the-Boss idea is such Christians therefore don’t bother to share our problems and requests with one another. And James did tell us to pray for one another. The prayers of righteous people have great power. Jm 5.16 As righteous as I may think I am, I might be deluding myself. Wouldn’t hurt to turn to another Christian, ideally someone more righteous, to pray along with me. In other words, a saint.

True, some saints have the power to answer prayers on their own. Fr’instance, if my prayer is, “God, fix my broken car,” and I ask a Christian to pray this with me, and it turns out the saint is a mechanic with free time (and free parts ’n labor), there y’go. Problem solved. But often our prayer requests are the sort only God can answer, and all the prayer partner can really do is pray with us. “God, cure my backache” requires the Holy Spirit to act, and all any saint can do, whether on earth or in heaven, is ask the Spirit for help.

According to those who believe in praying to saints, that’s technically all the saints in heaven do. They don’t answer our prayers. They can’t; they’re not God. All they can do is pray with us. If you pray to Mary, all she can do is forward your request to the Father, same as Jesus does. 1Ti 2.1-7 She can’t cure your broken leg any better than any living faith-healer—but either way, it’s ultimately the Holy Spirit’s power which does the healing.

Where it drifts into idolatry.

A lot of Christians who pray to saints haven’t necessarily thought their practice all the way through. They don’t think of it in terms of fellow Christians (in heaven) who are petitioning the Father right along with them. They really expect the saints to answer their prayers directly.

They figure the Father’s too busy ruling the universe, or they’re unworthy of the Father’s attention. But the saints have spare time, and maybe even more compassion. The reason so many people pray to Mary is because they imagine God’s a stern Father, but Mary’s a loving mother, so maybe their heavenly Mother will help ’em out.

Problem is, God is your heavenly Mother. Not Mary.

Yeah, I know calling God by a feminine term is gonna freak out certain sexist Christians. I can’t help their hangups. I’ll simply remind you God has no gender. We use masculine pronouns for him out of custom. Jesus called him Father, so by default we call him Father. But y’know how certain single parents have to function as both father and mother to their kids? It’s even more true of God: He’s our sole Creator, and co-parents us with no one.

True, we should treat Christian elders as moms and dads, 1Ti 5.1-2 and in that sense Mary is kind of a mom to all Christians. But still not our heavenly Mother. And there’s a vast difference between honoring Mary as a great Christian saint, a devout servant of God with exemplary faith, Lk 1.38 and treating her as another god who’ll answer the prayer requests our Father won’t. That turns her into a competitor god. And God has no competition.

But as I said, a number of Christians have fallen into this heresy. Some of it is the influence of Yoruba religions—like Umbanda, which disguises its gods as Jesus and Christian saints. Some of it is just old-fashioned superstition: “I tried this, and it appeared to work, so I’m gonna do this every time, and I don’t care what you say otherwise.” If praying to Jude appeared to answer their lost cause, they’re always going to Jude first—and God a distant second.

My own conclusion.

Obviously I fall into the camp of “Won’t do any harm”—until it does.

The scriptures say nothing, one way or the other, about whether the saints hear our prayers. There is this:

Ecclesiastes 9.5-6 KWL
5 For the living are aware they die—and the dead don’t know anything.
They never again earn wages. Their memory is forgotten.
6 Their love, their hate, their jealousy—already gone.
Nothing more of their portion, of anything which they did under the sun.

Granted, people figure Ecclesiastes describes the dead from our perspective: We don’t see what’s happened to them, so for all we can tell the dead experience nothing. But I suspect this interpretation is mostly because we’d like to imagine better for the dead than a barely conscious, half-asleep afterlife. It’s why we Christians look forward to resurrection.

So we don’t know what the saints who’ve died are up to. We figure they experience God’s presence, 1Co 5.6-8 but we don’t know whether they hear us, whether they pray or intercede for us, whether they’re not meant to stop working and experience some rest and comfort. Lk 16.25 I mean, in Jesus’s story of Lazarus and the rich man, the instant Lazarus gets to paradise, the dead jerk who never did squat for him in life is suddenly demanding Lazarus moisten his tongue. Lk 16.24 Lazarus, said Abraham, wasn’t there to work.

True, if you love helping people—and lets say God grants you the power in heaven to really meet their needs—it’d be an awesome gig. Still don’t know whether that’s the deal. ’Cause the scriptures don’t say. Really don’t.

Other than when it crosses the line into idolatry, there are two drawbacks to praying to saints. The most obvious is that prayer is ordinarily two-way: We talk to God, and God talks back. But when people pray to saints, the saints can’t talk back. Unless God grants a special mount-of-transfiguration-style vision, we’ll never hear back from the saints we pray to. No answers to questions. No feedback: “Stop asking me for winning lotto tickets and get a job.” Nada. Frustrating for both the petitioners and the saints.

Whereas when we ask living saints to pray with us, we can immediately get that feedback. Is some of the reason we turn to the saints in heaven, instead of the saints on earth, because we’re avoiding the feedback?—because we’re trying to dodge relationships or accountability with fellow Christians? Some of the reason God wants us Christians to pray together is so we can help each other pray. So we can encourage, or counsel. If someone comes to me and says, “Could you pray that God smite my noisy neighbor?” I can counsel them to forgive, not pray for a smiting. So would the Holy Spirit and most Christians. But since the saints in paradise don’t talk back, they can’t do that. Iron can’t sharpen iron.

Second drawback: When I pray for you, and God answers my prayer, it grows my faith. When you pray for me, and God answers your prayer, it grows your faith. But when a saint who stands in God’s presence prays for you, how’s the saint’s faith gonna grow? They’re in glory. God’s visibly right there before them. Interceding for us doesn’t grow them any. (Really, they can’t be doing any better!) And Christians on earth, who could be sharing prayer needs or rejoicing in answered prayers, miss out. Opportunities lost.

So it’s for these reasons I suspect God prefers we don’t bypass living saints in favor of heavenly ones.

Nope, not saying don’t ever do it. Nor that God doesn’t allow it. God can do whatever he wants, and work with those Christians who wanna make contact with the saints in glory. I’m only saying it seems wiser to work on our relationships with God, and with our fellow Christians here on earth. “Love God and love your neighbor” Mk 12.29-31 and all that.