No it’s not how prayer works. But you’d be surprised how many Christians believe otherwise.
Lots of people firmly believe God doesn’t talk back when we pray. We talk to the sky, or we form sentences in our head, and God doesn’t respond. At all. Not a word. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. May as well have spoken to a brick wall. Heck, a brick wall’d be more responsive, ’cause people have graffito’d on it.
Now I can understand this mindset in pagans, ’cause they don’t talk to God. Or they talk to fake gods, which of course don’t speak back, ’cause they’re imaginary. So what do they know?
But a disturbing number of Christians think this way. Seriously. They’re cessationist; they think God turned off the miracles between bible times and the End Times. That includes answering prayer. He listens… but never, ever talks.
Yeah it’s crap, but they firmly believe it: That whole “I’ll never leave nor forsake you” bit in the bible?
If you can’t detect the mockery in that description: Hi there. Welcome to TXAB, my blog where I talk about following Jesus. Sometimes I use sarcasm. Read enough and you’ll get the hang of it.
Anyway, the reason these Christians believe as they do is ’cause their fellow Christians taught ’em so. Not necessarily on purpose; it’s what their teachers were taught, and it stems all the way back to various faithless individuals who guessed how God communicates with his beloved kids—and guessed horribly, woefully wrong that God’s a deadbeat Dad. Over the past five centuries* there’ve been a lot of teachings, theology, and practices centered on the idea God doesn’t talk. Instead, like a deafmute who thinks he’ll be cured soon, so he stubbornly never learns sign language, for
Obviously these folks never learned to listen to God. Or think he would only speak in an audible voice—and if he does, it’d be rarely, to only a very small number of prophets. That is, unless prophecy’s done till the End Times; till then we gotta make do with bible-based warm feelings.
I grew up cessationist, and man alive is it difficult to read anything they’ve written on prayer. It’s faithless, Godless, and largely useless. Because if prayer isn’t two-way communication, that’s what it is: Useless.
*(Only five centuries? Yep. The Orthodox, Catholics, and early Protestants rightly taught God talks back, and suppressed those who taught otherwise. When the suppression ended, the idea God doesn’t talk spread. Hey, sometimes freedom of religion is a double-edged sword.)
If prayer’s not a conversation, it’s a monologue. (Or worse.)
When you hear what cessationists teach on prayer, or read what they’ve written, they fall into two categories: Optimistic, and fatalistic.
The optimistic view is about how prayer does work, and God does listen. No, they don’t expect him to give us any feedback whatsoever. Nor bother to answer our prayers… unless they happen to coincide what he was gonna do regardless. So it feels like we’re praying to a big brass sky. But that’s okay! Because prayer’s therapeutic. It’s good for us!
Yep. To their minds, prayer isn’t about growing closer to God, learning his will, getting his guidance, being given his power, nor growing our relationship. It’s only about our positive mental attitude. It’s about how infinitely delayed gratification can make us happier, calmer, more peaceful, more even-tempered and patient, make us feel good about our relationship with God (such as it is) and feel connected to him… ’cause after all we’re putting in so much effort. All of it, really.
Prayer grows faith, they insist. After all, to daily spend several minutes talking to someone who never, ever responds to us: That’s gotta take faith. Persistent, determined, tireless, stubborn, willful, stiff-necked, bloody-minded faith. And they’ll praise the way Christians continue to pray even though God gives us nothing: This is how we deny our senses. No matter how much they scream, “You idiot; you’re only talking to yourself.” It’s our way of denying our doubts, our minds, and telling ’em right back, “I believe I’m talking to someone. I believe he hears me no matter how it appears. My faith is stronger than my doubts. Piss off, doubts.”
Supposedly God gets a kick out of this form of intellectual self-denial, and plans to reward it someday.
Well, unless we direct it at the wrong gods. Remember the prophets of Baal? How Elijah challenged ’em to a contest?—the god who responds, who acts, is truly God?
1 Kings 18.25-29 KWL
- 25 Elijah told Baal’s prophets, “Choose one calf for yourselves.
- Go first, because you’re many. Call in your god’s name. Set no fire.”
- 26 They received the calf given them, and did it:
- They called in Baal’s name from morning to midday, saying, “Baal, answer us!”
- No sound. No answer. They “limped” round the altar they made.
- 27 When it became midday, Elijah threw insults at them, saying,
- “You have to call with a louder voice! For he’s a god!
- For he meditates! For he’s in the toilet! For he went out!
- What if he’s asleep, and he needs to be awakened?”
- 28 They called with a louder voice.
- They ritually cut themselves with knives and spears, till blood poured out over them.
- 29 Afternoon came, and they prophesied till grain-offering time.
- No sound. No answer. No one listening.
Functionally this is no different than the cessationist idea of a God who never answers. Yet the Baalists get our scorn… and the Christians get praise for blindly trusting a God who never, ever answers them?
Yeah, even the optimistic cessationist view has serious problems. ’Cause since the point of prayer can’t be communication with an uncommunicative God, why bother? Well, they insist, because it’s about what prayer can do for us. It’s about how prayer makes us better people. How prayer makes us more disciplined and spiritual. Us, us, us.
After all, once you remove God from the relationship, who’s left? When you’re talking to the ceiling, who’re you really talking to? Yourself.
That’s why unidirectional prayers, over time, evolve into a form which please us best. Without feedback, we pray in a manner which sounds to us like God’d appreciate it—even when he really doesn’t.
I’ve heard such prayers several different times. The petitioners think they’re insightful and inspiring. And yeah, in short prayers they sound okay. But let ’em pray any longer than a minute, and they’re horrifying.
The prayers of the doomed.
The other category is fatalistic. These are the folks who are pretty sure their prayers are redundant: God’s made up his own mind about what he’s gonna do, and the only reason we pray… is because Christians pray. It’s what we do. Don’t argue with it; just go through the motions.
If you ever go to a prayer meeting where the people don’t believe God talks back, this is why they’re some of the most lifeless, bleak, dreary functions you’ll ever see. It’s a lot like a poetry reading where nobody there actually likes poetry, but they were all dragged there by their girlfriends. Then their girlfriends all left, leaving behind only the grumblers and haters.
Such Christians tend to give up on prayer. They only pray when it’s part of the Sunday morning service. Maybe say grace, maybe address God on formal occasions. The rest of the week: No prayer. No point. Besides, God knows our requests before we even make them.
Stands to reason such Christians have seriously deficient relationships with God. Which I fully understand; growing up I had it myself. Lots of kids do when we grow up cessationist: We wanna know why God Almighty, who could easily talk if he wanted—he was awfully chatty in the bible!—won’t talk to us anymore. Cessationists’ usual explanations made no sense to us: We knew from experience when our parents quit talking to us—when they give us “the silent treatment”—it was punishment. That’s why people who can talk, won’t: Vengeful, malicious, or resistant reasons. Therefore a non-responsive God, regardless of his intentions, felt exactly like a punishing God. Felt angry, judgmental, withdrawn, absent. Certainly not loving.
When you have no real experiences with a loving God, you’d better grow up among some loving Christians, ’cause they have to represent God by proxy. Otherwise you’ll quit this godless form of Christianity as soon as you’re old enough—as so many of my high school friends did. Some of ’em were easily swayed by skeptics, who believe God doesn’t talk because he isn’t there… and isn’t that precisely what they experienced?
In comparison I know many Christians who grew up in a church which prayed a lot, but never taught ’em to listen to God speak back to them. Hence prayer was so boring. Some of ’em (namely the Christians who grew up Catholic) are still convinced those churches are centers of dead religion. But once they learned to hear God, if they ever go back to those churches for a visit, they’re shocked to discover how seriously involved the Holy Spirit is among them. Sometimes they think the church “got religion” somehow. Really it was just them: The Spirit was always there, but they weren’t listening to him. He does make a huge difference.
The prayers of those who hear.
If you pray, and aren’t sure God heard you, or aren’t sure God spoke back to you, get dissatisfied. Very very dissatisfied. There are plenty of reasons why we might not hear God speak, but in my experience we can reduce ’em to two causes: We didn’t wanna listen, or we got distracted. Most of the time he speaks.
Sometimes we didn’t wanna listen because we wanted God to speak to us in a particular way. We wanted him to include a warm happy feeling. We wanted an audible voice, or some other material experience. We wanted him to give us an entire message, and not a piece of the puzzle which’ll later be filled by our obedience, by sharing it with others, or some other act of faith. We wanted God to sound like he did in Exodus, and instead he sounds like he did in Job.
(In my own personal experience: If God doesn’t speak, it’s ’cause he already told me what to do the last time I prayed… and I haven’t done it, and he’s waiting for me to quit being stubborn and obey. So that’s on me. I didn’t wanna listen. He’s not gonna change his message just because I don’t care to receive it. God’s infinitely more stubborn than I am.)
We’ve got baggage. We’ve gotta be rid of it, and put in some effort to listen to God. Unidirectional prayer—a form where we do all the talking, God does all the listening, and we needn’t do anything—is way easier in comparison. But it’s a fake substitute for prayer, and we’re not really gonna get to know God that way. We’ll spend our lives cheating ourselves of that relationship. Don’t do that to yourselves. Or God.