Pagans and prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 August 2019

Back in my teenage years I attended a government meeting. Which, as is customary in the United States, they opened with prayer. Bible Belt residents presume people only do this in their states, but I live in California; we do it here too.

Thing is, the Constitution’s first amendment forbids our Congress from recognizing an official religion, and the 14th amendment extends this to state and local governments. So any prayers can’t exclusively be Christian prayers, made in Jesus's name. Something I regularly gotta remind my conservative friends about, ’cause they talk about bringing prayer back into public schools, but have never thought about what sort of praying is gonna happen when just anybody gets to lead prayer. I guarantee you they really don’t want pagan schoolteachers demonstrating prayer for their kids! But there’s no way to legally limit school prayers to the sort of Christians they approve of… which sadly means things are best left the way they are.

This prayer I heard before the government meeting, only proves this point. It most certainly wasn’t Christian. It was made by some member of the community, who was either pagan or his “Christianity” was so watered down it doesn’t look like Jesus anymore. Undoubtedly he considered himself “spiritual”; only such people care to pray. But his prayer wasn’t addressed to God. Didn’t even mention God. Didn’t make any requests—which stands to reason; it wasn't made to God! Instead he expressed wishes. “I wish to express my hope that this meeting will be productive. That it's done with no animosity, and good will. That all parties listen to one another. I wish the best for our community.” Stuff like that. All good sentiments; I can't object to any of ’em.

Does it count as a prayer? Nah. Prayer is talking with God. Dude wasn't talking with anyone. He was just wishing aloud, in front of everyone, for nice things. Unfortunately in the meeting which followed, he didn't get any of his wishes.

And maybe that's why he didn't make requests of these wishes. If you don't believe God is listening when we pray (either because he doesn’t intervene, or because his plans are fixed), prayers change nothing. Wishes are about the only thing you can express.

So what good is prayer, then? Well—same as Christians believe about unidirectional prayer—they figure it’s about embracing a positive mental attitude. It’s about spreading this positive mental attitude. It’s about other people hearing our spiritual statements, and maybe these statements will change their minds, change the mood in the room, transform the “spiritual atmosphere.” Which ain’t nothing: People need reminders, and a little encouragement, to be kind, positive, optimistic, selfless, and generous. Especially in a government meeting.

Of course this assumes the people in the meeting are even listening to these prayers. Most pagans blow ’em off as dismissible dead religion. But some of ’em think prayer is a good way to practice the law of attraction, the popular belief that when we want stuff really bad, we gotta declare our desires to the universe, and gradually we’ll get what we want. Pagans aren’t necessarily agreed as to why this works, but most of them are mighty jazzed about the idea. After all, Oprah Winfrey believes in it, and she’s a billionaire, so it worked for her, didn’t it?

So if we declare our desires, our words change the spiritual atmosphere—whether anyone hears these words or not. Because our words continue to exist, floating round the universe, seeding it with all the elements we wished into being. (In the government meeting, that’d be kindness, positivity, optimism, etc.) Spiritual words have spiritual power, right?

Um… no they don’t. Not unless the Holy Spirit empowers them.

Shifting the atmosphere?

“Let’s clear the air” is a very old saying, and it likewise taps this very old idea of trying to change the spiritual temperature of a room with our words. Various ancient pagans taught the idea, y’know. It predates Christianity.

Which is why the Corinthians thought it was something to do. They liked to speak in tongues because it’s an easy gift to practice, and it gave ’em the sensation that they were making their tongues-filled services all holy and special. Problem is, it only gave ’em the sensation. It made ’em feel holy. But it didn’t actually impart any holiness. Or wisdom and knowledge, which is what Paul and Sosthenes pointed out they were supposed to impart.

Speaking words into the air, when nobody listens to or understands them, when nobody cares about them—or personally have their own agendas—was described by the apostles as completely useless.

1 Corinthians 14.9 KWL
Likewise you with tongues: When you don’t give a word that’s easy to understand,
how will people know what’s been said? You’re wasting your breath.

Literally they wrote ἔσεσθε εἰς ἀέρα λαλοῦντες/ésesthe eis aéra lalúntes, “You’re speaking into air.”

Yet I’ve heard Christians straight-up talk about “declaring things into the atmosphere” as if it means the opposite of what Paul and Sosthenes meant: Wasting your breath. Because they believe in the law of attraction. They’ll even claim Jesus taught it:

Matthew 21.21-22 KWL
21 In reply Jesus told his students, “Amen! I promise you when you have faith and don’t waver,
not only can you do what I did to the fig tree,
but if you said to this hill, ‘Rise up and be thrown into the sea,’ it’ll happen.
22 You’ll receive everything—whatever you ask—in faith-filled prayer.”

“See?” pagans will point out. “If you have enough faith, you can move mountains! All you gotta do is believe it’ll happen. Really hard. Believe!”

That’s where they go wrong. They think Jesus was teaching his kids to believe things’ll happen. Have faith their desires will come to fruition. Not put their faith in the only place Jesus ever taught anyone to place their faith: In God. (And him.) Jn 14.1

We Christians don’t just have faith that stuff’ll happen once we wish hard enough. Nor do we just “have faith.” Faith is a belief in something or someone, and whenever Jesus taught his students to have faith, the someone he’s thinking of is his Father. If we want our requests granted, we put our faith in God alone. Not the law of attraction; not the belief if we wish really hard, we wish things into existence. Humans can’t create like that. Only God can.

So… have we talked with the one who can wish things into existence? Or do we still believe in magic? Because that’s what the law of attraction is: Magical thinking. And since all magic is trickery, guess who’s getting tricked?

Make your petitions known to God.

Christians try to depict these declarations as “speaking into the heavenly realms,” or “making divine declarations,” or other terms which disguise our misbegotten ideas as if they’re Christian. They’re not. Either we’re talking to God or we’re wasting our breath.

Paul’s advice to the Philippians was to tell ’em to make their petitions known. And not just generally known, nor declared to the universe as if they’ll sort themselves out by magic. Make ’em known to one particular individual: The only one whom we can trust to answer them properly.

Philippians 4.6-7 KWL
6 Never be anxious, but make your petitions known to God
in every prayer and request, with thanksgiving,
7 and God’s peace, which is better than everything in your mind,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Even if the “law of attraction” is valid (and you can likely tell I think it’s rubbish) we Christians have no business trying to make things happen apart from God. Everything we do needs to be submitted to his will. Either we trust his judgment on our prayer requests, or we don’t—we imagine we have the power, or our words have inherent power (you know, like magic spells), or the universe is gonna obey us. But if we’re tapping any power other than God’s, we’re clearly not following him. If we claim to follow Jesus, we can’t have anything to do with this.

Our expressed wishes, our declared intentions, our “speaking things into reality” with the expectation the universe will give us what we want when we wish super hard: It’s wishful thinking. Magical thinking. Not how the Holy Spirit works. Certainly not how prayer works. Prayer works because we told God something, because we put our faith in him, so God responds. It works absolutely no other way, and for no other reason.