28 June 2022

Those who no longer think prayer works.

There’s a blog I follow. A few years ago, its author wrote a post about how he no longer believes prayer works—at least not the way we imagine it does.

He no longer believes prayer involves asking God for stuff. Nor asking questions of him, and getting answers. Nor calling on him for help. Forget about God meeting our needs and granting our wishes. Forget about asking this mountain to move over there, and it will.

Prayer, he states, is only about empathy. We pray for others because we love and care about them. It brings us closer to them. It expresses our love for them. It expresses our love for God too. It’s kind.

But otherwise prayer doesn’t do jack. And y’know, he says he’s okay with that.

I’ll take his word for it that he’s okay with that. But man alive, I sure wouldn’t be.

Back in my early twenties, I told God he needed to either do something, or I was gonna quit being Christian. Because I was tired of following a God who, according to my bible, does stuff… yet going to a church where, according to them, he doesn’t do stuff. They were cessationist, and believed God no longer answers prayer. Not for miracles, anyway.

Now, fortunate coincidences: He’d do those, from time to time. If a friend of yours had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy and you prayed real hard and the tumor shrank, they felt it was wholly legitimate to give God the credit… for permitting the chemo to work, I suppose. Or say a different friend got into a road accident, and a dozen friends coincidentally happened to be on the scene, and helped rescue her, call an ambulance, call the auto insurance company, call a tow truck—why, such coincidences have to be a “God-incidence,” as Christians I know tend to call it. Such things don’t just happen.

But that’s as far as they’d permit God to act. Anything more than that—like actually getting cured of cancer only minutes before the chemotherapy—and they’d doubt the person even had cancer to begin with. Any incident where God told a person in advance, “Hey, be at this intersection; I need to you help somebody; you’ll see it when you get there,” and they’d claim, “Well that can’t be God, ’cause he doesn’t do such things. But Satan does.” According to their worldview, God’s powerless—and Satan’s not. Seriously.

I’m not claiming this blogger is this kind of cessationist. I’m pretty sure he’s not; I suspect if you asked him about Satan, he’d say the devil’s more of a malevolent human attitude than a literal being. But he has determined God doesn’t answer prayer, doesn’t cure the sick, doesn’t act. So, same as the cessationists I grew up with, he thinks prayer’s only about training us to pursue God’s will. Not teaching us to depend on him. We can’t. He’s sitting things out. He’s abandoned us to our fates. Bye kids; see you in heaven!

You can probably tell I disagree with him. A lot.

And no, not because I’d like to imagine God as caring and interactive. It’s because he answered my twentysomething prayer: He did something. Still does. He answers my prayers. Therefore I see no reason he can’t answer yours.

Thing is, you may sometimes hate his answers.

This blogger wrote about how he’s prayed thousands of prayers. Asked his congregations for thousands of prayers. ’Cause his world, same as ours, is full of needy people: Injured children, dying adults, poverty, abuse, addiction, hopeless situations. In fact, on the very week he wrote his post, one of his family members died. Thousands of people prayed for God to cure this young man—and he died.

Yep. This is why the blogger concluded prayer doesn’t work the way he presumed. Because it can’t. He’s a righteous man! And if God, for some deranged reason, has decided to base our righteousness on something other than faith… well, surely one of the other people who prayed for his family member is a righteous person. Yet despite all these righteous prayers, his family member died. So he can’t help but conclude prayer must work some other way than he thought. ’Cause it surely wasn’t working when he asked God to cure the sick!

Again: Gonna disagree with him. Because I don’t claim any special kind of righteousness. Yet I’ve asked God to cure the sick, and he did. I’ve asked God to cure me, and he did. And no, I’m not talking about one of those non-miraculous “miracles” which may as well have happened by chance: “I prayed, and eight days later, I got better!” I’m talking right then, that instant, got cured.

Now, does God cure the sick every single time I ask him? Nope.

Shouldn’t he cure the sick every single time I ask him? Nope.

Didn’t Jesus, when he was walking the earth, cure the sick every single time he was asked? Nope.

Claiming God cures people every single time: It’s not something any Christian should claim. I know; I’ve heard preachers and faith-healers definitely claim otherwise. But it’s not biblical. Sometimes God’s not gonna cure someone. Sometimes they’re gonna die.

It sucks, and God doesn’t like it either, and Jesus even mourns right along with us. Jn 11.35 But that’s life.

No, we don’t like it. After all, that’s why we’ve been praying for it not to happen! But sometimes God’s answer to our various prayer requests is “No.” Same as when the five-year-old asks for a bow and arrow for Christmas, or the 10-year-old asks to drive the car, or the 15-year-old asks if he can smoke weed on the back patio. Some of our requests are dumb, wrong, and unhealthy. Others are earnest; we mean well, and we do have the right attitude and good fruit… but it’s still best if God tells us no. And we gotta learn to be okay with this answer. We gotta learn to trust that God knows what he’s doing.

That’s not at all easy. Especially when someone’s dying. And particularly when well-meaning but horribly misinformed Christians prophesy to us, “No, God’s absolutely gonna cure your mom. Count on it!” (Now d’you see why we used to stone such people to death?) The loss of a loved one can absolutely wreck us, and more than once I’ve seen it shatter a person’s faith in God. But it’s because they believed the lie, “Every answer from God is yes and amen!” Nobody ever taught ’em to rightly pray, “Your will be done.”

To many people, a “no” answer is the same as no answer. God didn’t answer their prayers! And that’s why they conclude God must not answer prayer: They simply can’t handle the “no” answers. They find it far easier to believe God doesn’t answer anyone’s prayers, than God won’t give ’em what they want. After all, why won’t he give us what we want? Aren’t we worthy? Aren’t we his kids? Doesn’t he delight to give good things to his kids?

But a “no” answer has nothing to do with worthiness. Nothing to do with how we didn’t pray right, or didn’t pray enough, or didn’t pound on the doors of heaven with all our might, or didn’t recruit thousands of people in massive prayer chains and vigils to bombard God’s throne with nice ’n loud requests. Nothing to do with how we didn’t get great saints and successful faith-healers to pray right along with us. Doesn’t even have anything to do with our own personal levels of faith—whether we believed hard enough, or silenced our doubts enough, or are devout enough.

Nope. Sometimes God’s answer is no. And he has his reasons, and doesn’t feel like revealing them to us so we can second-guess him. And either he’s Lord and we’re okay with that… or we’re not, and he’s not.

Sometimes he regularly answers no.

If you work as a chaplain, or pastor a large church, you’re gonna see a lot of these “no” answers. It kinda comes with the job.

Everybody dies sometime, and Christian ministers see a lot of people whose time has come. Plus a lot of family members and loved ones who really don’t like it that their time has come. And they want God to act; to make an exception for them. In the United States, a lot of us arrogantly expect to be an exception, and are outraged when we’re not. Why can’t God do just this one thing for us, just this once?

So in some places, in certain churches, you’re gonna see God answer “no” often. More than average. Because none of the people in question have any relationship with him. They’re Christianist, not Christian, and don’t really believe in Jesus. Or they never really expected prayer to work anyway. Sometimes ’cause cessationism; often ’cause unbelief, and frequently ’cause they’ve been taught—same as this blogger is claiming—prayer’s not about requests anyway. It’s about the warm fuzzy feelings of religious activity. It makes us feel spiritual. That’s plenty, isn’t it?

Because these people don’t know God, of course they’re not gonna trust him when crises come—and crises always do. People get hurt, people get sick, people die. When crises come, they try God as a last resort—and when he doesn’t do as they demand, they trust him even less. Sometimes quit their pretense of Christianity altogether. It’s a vicious spiral.

So how do we defeat this spiral? Start your dialogue with God! Start praying for real. Stop thinking prayer is just you doing all the talking, and start listening. When you hear him, confirm it’s really God—then start responding to what you hear from him. Learn to recognize when he says yes and no; don’t immaturely wait for circumstances to reveal those answers!

Yeah, that takes some work on our part. Get to work.