What prayer can (and can’t?) do

In an earlier post, I wrote about praying for a woman whose family wants her to get better while she herself wants to be at peace:

And here I sit with a theology that says I can’t really request that God make anything happen.

A commenter asked if I could say more about that, or if I’ve written about it in the past. I’m sure I’ve touched on it here and there (most notably, here), but I’m going to try again to put it all in one place.

First, a confession. My theology of prayer is, like all of my theology, a work in progress. This is not a water-tight argument or a series of perfect apologetics. But, as you’ll see, I feel that I’m in good company being a work in progress.

What we believe, what any of us believe about prayer, says at least two things: who we believe God is and what we believe the purpose of prayer is.

To begin at the beginning, then, God. I don’t think God is all-powerful.

This is the first place that I tend to get a couple of raised eyebrows.

I could walk through a couple of nifty theological arguments about the threefold problem of evil (1. God is Good; 2. God is All-Powerful; 3. Evil/Bad things are very real and happen to people. One of the preceding statement must be untrue), but that doesn’t really do it justice. My shortest answer to the cries of ‘how can you say that’ is, look around. Look at the horrible things we do to one another. Look at the evils we ourselves, created somehow in a divine image, unleash on the world. Consider Hitler. And ask yourself, if there’s a God who was all-powerful and could stop such evil, could change people’s hearts, and chooses not to for any reason, what does that say about God? Either that God is limited by itself (rather silly distinctions– I *could* change the course of the earthquake about to rip China in half, but that interferes with my principles), that God is not all-powerful, of that God is, simply, not good. Or, as I said in that previous post, a bit more vehemently:

Plainly put, I can’t buy any argument by which god is all powerful but for some noble reason self-limits or defends free will and chooses not to act in the face of disaster. When it comes to things like mass genocide or murder suicide or pandemic illnesses, screw self limitation and free will. Any god who had the power to stop the holocaust and for whatever reason didn’t is a monster; I can’t worship that god.

Closer to home, one of the formative experiences of this past year for me in my ministry was being with a family in the midst of a very painful crisis. What do I believe in the face of a family that prayed for healing and reconciliation and hope and never found it? What do I tell people whose loved ones have inflicted such horrible violence? How do I answer questions about God’s love and forgiveness and why they prayed if God never answered them? That experience is deep in my theology now, part of my reflection always (same as that first link). What I tell people who are hurting is this: God hurts with you. God weeps with you. As much as your heart breaks, as much as you wish you could fix it, God’s heart breaks too; God wants to fix it too. For whatever reason, that’s not happening right now, but God is with you in this. Maybe God can’t fix it, but God can give you the strength to get through it.

So that’s who I believe God is, a Process God, a God still creating around us and through us and in us. A God who weeps with us when the hurricane strikes, because it’s a hurricane and there was nothing to be done to stop it. A God who is All Love and All Salvation and All Grace.

Now, what is prayer to such a God?

Given that God cannot necessarily intercede in a given circumstance, what are we doing when we pray?

First, we’re acting on faith, and on the principle that it never hurts to ask. Jesus himself asked God for stuff all the time, and told us to (Give us this day our daily bread). Jesus himself quite literally threw himself down and begged God to change the course of events– If there is another way, take this cup from me!  Of course, he added a second part to that, a part we’d often like to forget: Yet not my will, but yours be done.  And in this, one of his most fervent prayers (and in another– may they [my followers] be one, as you and I are one we haven’t quite achieved that yet!), Jesus did not get the answer he was seeking from God. This teaches us that it’s okay to ask for things, for healing for oneness, for safety, for comfort, and sometimes we’re not going to get what we ask for. It doesn’t mean we don’t deserve it. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people. Jesus didn’t get what he was asking for either.

And we recognize that in his case, that wasn’t the point. In praying take this cup from me, but not my will, but yours, be done, Jesus wasn’t so much looking for a way out as he was seeking the strength to face what was before him. He was seeking to align himself with God, not to make God align with him. He was trying to change his own heart, not the situation. That’s what prayer is about.

It needs to be said that this doesn’t always happen either. I have prayed for strength or patience or courage in the past, and sometimes not ‘gotten’ it. I know of many many suicide victims who prayed for the strength to persevere and keep living and still didn’t find it in themselves. This, too, happens.

But for the most part, that’s what prayer is. It’s changing us to be God’s own response, unfolding. It’s drawing us closer to God. It’s preparing ourselves to face the crisis ahead, knowing that God is with us. Again, as I wrote in that earlier reflection:

 I don’t think that we pray to try to get God to do something that God hitherto has been unable or unwilling to do. I think we pray to get ourselves closer to the heart of God, and in so doing to either come to a place where we are the answer to the prayer that we seek, or we are strong enough to bear the outcome of whatever crisis we were trying to avert. I don’t think that we can pray, for example, for God to create world peace, because it’s not like God’s just sitting around waiting for us to pray enough and then ‘he’ will swoop down and fix everything. We can’t pray for peace because we are the ones who stand in the way of it and we are the only ones through whom it can come. Instead, we’re really praying for the courage to be peacemakers, and the strength to deal with the absence of peace, in our selves and in our world. That said, there are instances of people who were prayed for being healed of a particular disease, or in my own (very recent) experience, people who know that they are being prayed for feeling buoyed and strengthened by the support and love of others– a truly sacred feeling.

And that last bit is important, too. Sometimes, despite my theology, which is not-so-watertight, miracles happen. I’d rather have a theology that can comfort in grief and is surprised by miracles than the other way  ’round.

So, coming back to my sweet little lady in the nursing home, who has been doing very well (an answer to her daughter’s prayers and a refutation of her own), I’m not really praying that she be healed and feel better, nor am I really praying that she pass away swiftly and peacefully. I’m praying that she have the strength of body and spirit for the days ahead, which will be difficult ones. I’m praying that her family have the courage and grace to make their peace with her passing. I’m praying that she knows God is with her here and now, even if she hasn’t yet been ‘taken home’ to God. I’m praying that *I* can be part of that strength and courage and grace and peace and presence, because we must never ever pray for something unless we are willing to be part of the ever-Creating God’s answer to that prayer, unfolding in and through and around us.

And that’s the last time you ask me to say more on a subject, right? 😉

2 thoughts on “What prayer can (and can’t?) do”

  1. Becca,
    Thanks so much for your response to my question. You might have thought you chased me away, but no, I’ve just been super out of touch with the blogosphere for the last week or so!

    I’m going through something of a spiritual and existential crisis right now…I’m really soaking in your words and thoughts. I don’t think they’ve helped as a band-aid, but I definitely think I might have been ‘spiritually nudged’ to read them tonight specifically. (BTW, where do ‘spiritual nudges’ fit in to your theology???)

    I am quite sympathetic to the principles of open-theism, so I can certainly appreciate what you’ve said here about our Process God. As for the finer points of what you’ve said about God and a lack of omnipotence (sorry if that is a loaded paraphrase–you never used that phrase specifically) and the efficacy of prayer or lack thereof (as far as actually prompting God to change a course of action)…I just don’t know what I think. I certainly don’t disagree with what you’ve said, but I just really have no idea. And I’m not sure it’s important that I have a cohesive theology in this area right now, although that certainly makes me feel rather guilty to think that way (now that i’ve said it in print).

    I asked the question because I was genuinely curious to know the context of your statement. And you followed through completely. I so appreciate what you’ve said. And it doesn’t necessarily make me feel better right now, but I think it will help me ‘think’ better (or ‘process’ better–I love that word!) once my emotional chaos dies down a little.

    Thanks so much. You rock.
    (and i’m going to keep asking these questions, dammit!)

  2. @sean,

    Glad that you’re back and you got a chance to read the post. Thanks for sharing where you’re at right now. May God work in and with you to calm the chaos. Even my theology holds God can do that!


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