Thursday, April 24, 2008

What's the Matter With Prayer?

Jim Bonewald points to another blogger called Internet Monk who is talking about the nature of prayer and the "fixer God." He critiques the nature of prayers from many in evangelical culture that tends to be nothing making God and Jesus a "protection racket." He writes:

It seems to me that a lot of evangelicals have a religious experience that basically amounts to a kind of protection racket; a Christianized version of paganism, where you beg the gods to keep bad things from happening to you and work out your problems.

Those prayer requests are full to overflowing with directions to God to stop the bad that hasn’t happened and solve the results of the bad that has.

He continues:

So I’m having trouble joining in with prayers for God to protect various people from various things, or prayers asking God to straighten out all kinds of problems which I suppose he could have stopped from happening anyway.

In my desire to have a Christ-shaped spirituality, I’m convinced that Jesus didn’t offer his services to “protect” his disciples from bad things. He seems pretty clear that all kinds of bad things are going to happen to them, and he’ll work with whatever comes along.

His response? It's this:

I believe we can pray for God’s revealed kingdom purposes. I believe we can pray boldly for all things related to the Gospel. But that Mrs. Smith’s niece will make a better choice in a boyfriend? I don’t thin he’s that kind of God.

I’ve sat in the chair where I am typing this and I have cried like a little child praying for God to intervene in situations and to stop bad things from happening.

The result? Lots of bad things have happened, but I am trusting Christ in the midst of them more. Some things have changed in a way I can praise God for, but mostly God seems to be going about his business and I’m not really getting to make suggestions.

Robert Capon says that God is sovereign, but most of the time he runs the world in a way that looks like he’s not. That’s precisely my experience. I can call upon God for people to be healed, Christians to have their “needs” met and unbelievers to hear/believe/trust the Gospel.

I can’t ask for God’s protection and expect that bad things that happen to other people won’t happen to me. I can’t ask for God to straighten out messes in a miraculous way and still honestly say I believe what scripture says about what it means to follow Christ in my life.

Jesus doesn’t run a protection racket, and he isn’t a rescue squad. He gives meaning to suffering and shows us the way of kingdom repentance and the cross. That’s where I am these days. I don’t want to tell unbelievers that God works things out for me because I’m on his team.

There is a lot of truth to what he says, but I also think there is some danger as well. In my own "all of evangelicalism is bad" phase about a decade and a half ago, I was wary of asking God for every little thing. The result was that I really didn't pray as much at all. At some point, if God isn't concerned with our piddly little issues, then it makes no sense to even talk to God.

I'm not saying that God will protect us from every bad thing in the world. We know that doesn't happen. Many people pray for healing from illnesses and they don't get healed and die. God isn't a magician, nor is God Superman.

That said, I would still advise people to pray for protection or healing or what have you. Not because God will heal people, or grant them safe travel, but because we believe in God that cares for us and is with us. I pray because I believe in a God that is able to work in our lives. None of this means, God is going to be at our beck and call. God is God and will do what God will do. But I think that we can ask that because we are in a relationship with God.

The thing is, even when God doesn't answer our prayers, it does as the Monk says, change us. Prayer is a two way street, you know. God is not simply there to take our orders but to speak with us as well.

I remember when I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education. I did that at a nursing home. One of the first things I did was meet a family where the husband was dealing with brain cancer. He was in bad shape, but the mother and the children believed God would heal him. I prayed very carefully. I knew that God probably wouldn't heal him. So I kind of prayed around the issue. Looking back, I wonder if I should have prayed for healing, not that God would reverse his cancer, but believing in a God that could do that and if it doesn't happen, knowing that God can bring comfort to the person and the family.

Every Wednesday at Lake Harriet, the Associate Pastor gathers a small people for song and prayer. We have prayed for healing of people riddled with illness who ended up dying. We also pray for those who are in Iraq or getting ready to go. Will they be protected by God? I don't know. But I think we pray for this anyway and if God forbids, the worse happens, we know that God is there with us still.

In the end, the praying is not about getting things, but about a relationship. And that's what matters to me.

1 comment:

thechurchgeek said...

Thanks for you thoughtful response to IM's post. I'd have to say I'd agree with you that it's more helpful to think about prayer in terms of relationship than it is about getting answers, though jesus is pretty clear that we are to ask.