16 May 2024

Praying exact prayers.

I haven’t heard this teaching in a mighty long time, but I heard it again recently: The preacher was informing her audience (and reminding her regular listeners) that whenever we pray for stuff, we gotta get really, precisely specific. We gotta tell God exactly what we want from him. Otherwise we might not get it. God might give us something which generally resembles what we want, but not exactly what we want. We weren’t clear.

Fr’instance let’s say you’re looking for a job. What you’d love to do is work at a bank, approving loans. But you ask God, “Please Lord, I’d like to work at a bank; any job will do.” And God answers that prayer! But your job at the bank is looking at the dark and blurry photos people send of checks through the bank’s app, and confirming they’re something the bank can actually cash. Hardly your dream job. But hey, God answered your prayer!—you just didn’t specify you didn’t wanna look at bad phone-camera photography eight hours a day.

Ergo we have to specify what we want. You know, kinda like you’re programming ChatGPT. You want the bot to output exactly what you want, without any surprises or errors? You gotta spell it out for it. It’s not that intelligent.

Now. If you’re in any way familiar with the Almighty, you know he’s not a moron like these “artificially intelligent” programs. If you know your bible, you can probably quote this verse from memory, or close enough:

Matthew 6.8 NRSVue
“Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

That’s Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, explaining to his listeners, and to us Christians centuries later, that we don’t need to use many words and empty phrases with God. Mt 6.7 In context he was really talking about pagans who feel they need to call upon their gods with big, complicated incantations—and if they get the incantations wrong, maybe their gods won’t listen!

And y’know, it’s kinda what this preacher is suggesting God is like. That if we get our prayer wording wrong, maybe the LORD won’t listen, and we won’t get exactly what we ask for.

If you’ve heard this teaching before, I’m betting you heard it from the “name it and claim it” crowd. Every time I’ve heard it taught, it came from someone who’s been listening to their preachers, reading their books, and dabbling in their teachings. A number of ’em believe our words are so powerful, we can actually call things into existence. Same as God! Supposedly he’s granted us Christians the same power he has to create stuff. So we gotta be careful with those words, lest we create things we don’t actually want.

Because when we don’t get precise with our prayer requests, we might ask for the right thing, wrongly. And when we do this, God might grin, say, “Well you did ask for it,” and prankishly give us literally what we requested. And now we’re stuck with it.

Like the man in the joke who asked a genie for a million clams. By which he meant dollars—and somehow expected a genie, who shouldn’t even know English, to know American slang. But nope; the genie bestowed him with a million literal clams.

I don’t know what’s worse: Claiming God is as dumb as a chatbot, or God is some kind of prankster god like Cupid, Loki, or Coyote. I should hope you know he’s wiser, and has a far better character, than that. I should hope you know he’s generous, and is eager to bless us far more than we ask or think. Ep 3.20 I mean, they very idea God’s interested in playing dumb games with prayer, oughta offend us a little. It is blasphemy after all.

But if you're way more interested in getting your wishes granted, stands to reason you'll fall for this foolish advice.

Why do people teach this?

Why do people insist our prayer requests need to be carefully worded? Because pagans think this way.

Pagans imagine if we want stuff from the universe, we gotta declare it into the universe. We gotta say, aloud, “I want a job at a bank as a loan officer!” And we gotta be precise… because the universe isn’t a sentient being. It’s not intelligent. It’s dumber than a tamagotchi who keeps dying on you. So if you want your wishes granted—if you want the universal “law of attraction” to bring you what you want—you gotta word it carefully. Otherwise the magic spell won’t work!

Okay, most pagans don’t call this practice “casting a spell.” Some do, ’cause it’s so obviously an attempt at magic. The rest of ’em think they’re tapping one of the secret powers of the universe. Declare it on a regular basis, believe really hard, and the universe will give it to you!

When such pagans become Christian, hopefully they learn better! But they don’t always. Some of us absolutely suck at growing in wisdom and knowledge of Christ Jesus. Many a Christian will simply take all their old pagan behaviors and beliefs, slap Christian labels on them, and keep on trucking.

And if, at any point in their past, they tried declaring their deepest wishes to the universe, and actually got what they requested, they’re gonna think, “Hey, that wasn’t the universe giving me what I wanted; that was God! That was a prayer request! I was praying! Wow, prayer is easy!” And they’ll keep right on doing as they were doing. It did work for them after all.

But here’s why it worked for them:

  1. Coincidence. Pure coincidence. Coincidence actually does happen, y’know. Contrary to what too many Christians who never read Ecclesiastes claim, not everything happens for a reason.
  2. Self-fulfillment. While they were making those declarations to the universe, they were also doing whatever it took to get what they desired. Turned out it was easier than they thought!—which is why they credit the universe for getting it for them; they can’t really wrap their heads around the idea they got it. But yep, they did.
  3. It actually was the Holy Spirit who got it for ’em. Not because this is a legitimate way to pray; only because it coincided with the Spirit’s plans. Usually he does this to lead people to Jesus.
  4. Someone else got it for ’em. Might be a human with good intentions; might be a human or evil spirit with evil intentions. Either way, it’s not as miraculous as all that. Strings are attached.

So I’m certainly not saying the “law of attraction” never works. Sometimes it definitely looks like it worked! But not because the universe did anything. The universe, I remind you, isn’t intelligent. It’s exactly like praying to a rock.

Now yes, many a pagan has never even heard of the “law of attraction,” or declaring your wishes to the universe. They’ve never tried it. They think it sounds silly. When these pagans become Christian, they don’t have any ridiculous pagan beliefs to port into Christianity, and don’t make any unbiblical claims about prayer based on previous pagan experiences.

But they might wanna learn more about prayer, and might look for people who teach about prayer… and this is where they stumble across one of these people whose teachings about prayer sound an awful lot like the “law of attraction.” They’ve never heard such things before, but the preacher claims it totally works, and has a few testimonies. And next thing you know, yet another Christian has been suckered into trying it. Advises everybody around ’em, “You do realize when you make prayer requests, you gotta get specific, and tell God exactly what you want him to do. Otherwise he might not do it.”

Hopefully they bump into many knowledgeable Christians who know it’s not so, and tell them it’s not so. We don’t serve a stupid God, nor a trickster God. We serve a God who answers prayers in ways we might never expect, in ways we never even imagined to ask for, with abundant generosity way farther than we anticipated. We serve a good God. Pray with this God in mind.