Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Empathy, thy name is not OneSmallStep.

One of the critiques I see in response to the Christian faith is the element of prayer, and how it doesn't measure up to what Jesus says in certain New Testament quotes. Prayer is meant to bring one closer to God, or provide a sense of peace.

Essentially, God is not a gumball machine, and your prayers aren't quarters.

I came across this blog recently that was for a woman who's husband had a bad accident, and ending up dying from the injuries a month later. A lot of the posts were from people who knew the woman and her husband, and these people were reporting on the husband's status, as well as asking for prayers.

And here's where I come across as incredibly callous.

While I had did have a lot of sympathy for what the woman was going through, I kept stumbling over the prayer reports. Many of these prayers were asking for specific things -- that the doctors would know what to do, that the injuries would subside, that the husband would be okay.

And any amount of improvement, any positive sign, was treating as an answer to the prayers. When the husband was looking better? The bloggers said that the prayers were working and to keep them up. They encouraged others to prayer as well. When the improvement continued? It meant that God was really responding, and then the bloggers listed out more prayers. They also praised God for His goodness, when the doctors reports were encouraging.

Isn't this situation pretty much treating God as a gumball machine? The thing is, based on what I read, I wouldn't say these people were shallow about their faith. They were certainly sincere, they obviously had read quite a bit of the Bible. They might even be people who would say that non-Christians are just reading those certain Jesus verses wrong, and prayer isn't meant as a laundry list.

Yet, do they really believe that? Because all of their behavior points to treating God as though prayer influences Him. All of this behavior points towards taking those Jesus verses as a literal statement. So then how can non-Christians be accused of misinterpreting the verse, or taking the verse out of context, when Christians treat the verses in the same manner?

16 comments:

atimetorend said...

That is a problem with prayer, when it is used as an apologetic for God like that. Another problem I find is when the prayers do seem to be answered, is that a slap in the face for those who's prayers are not answered? Or for those in other parts of the world without the same level of medical care? God cares more for those in developed nations? Or those in developing nations need the blessing of suffering more?

Lorena said...

I agree with ATTR. Prayer promotes egocentrism. If "god" is answering my prayer, then he is good and real, who cares if he isn't answering anyone else's.

Of course, they fail to realize that the prayer's object would make the same "miraculous" improvements even without prayers.

But it is all about brainwashing or in-the-box thinking. If someone wants to attribute all of life's occurrences to god and then weave a story saying he did it, it is perfectly possible.

Sarge said...

I tend to think it's the inconsistency which is the draw.

I have read that subjects at a dispenser of food or of some sort of thing will make certain determinations and take certain actions accordingly.

If it works consistantly, they will use it at need only.

If they determine that it doesn't work at all they pay no attention to it.

If it works inconsistantly they will tend to spend a lot of time around it trying for a positive result. (Kind of like gambling?)

Seems that way with prayer, coincidence and inconsistancy. Plus the 'out' that their deity said 'no' or 'it isn't in god's plan'.

K. Paris said...

A year or so ago I got a book from Richard Foster called "The Spirit of the Disciplines." Foster is a Quaker and I'd hope that the chapter on the discipline of prayer would have been of the contemplative, centering sort. Instead the chapter discussed the "Biblical-ness" of intercessory prayer. It gave instruction on how to start out by praying for something small (like a cold) and then when that worked regularly, to move up to bigger things, like cancer.

I was like "WTF?"

I expected better from Foster.

So God is not only a gumball machine, He is a gumball machine that will only give you quarter gumballs after you've gotten good at getting nickel gumballs.

Temaskian said...

The phenomenon you described reminds me so much of my former church experience, i.e. praying for the surgeon's hands to be steady, for the equpiment to work well,etc. It all seemed incredibly ludicrous to me even at that time. Maybe it's a clever tactic. As long as the details of the prayers get answered, it doesn't matter if the overall prayer is no not answered, i.e. the complete recovery of the person in question. It also takes up time for those long prayer meetings, some of which can be an over-night event!?

Is that how Jesus would pray? He just prayed for the blind man to see, and it was done. He did not pray that the blind man would be able to get a good dog to guide him.

OneSmallStep said...

Atimetorend,

**I find is when the prayers do seem to be answered, is that a slap in the face for those who's prayers are not answered? Or for those in other parts of the world without the same level of medical care? God cares more for those in developed nations? Or those in developing nations need the blessing of suffering more?**

That's why my first reaction right now when ever anyone who survived an accident, and others didn't, starts praising God. God wanted to save this person's life. What about the people who are dead? God didn't want to save their lives? What makes the person alive so special?

OneSmallStep said...

LOrena,

**Of course, they fail to realize that the prayer's object would make the same "miraculous" improvements even without prayers.**

That's pretty much what was going on in the blog I was reading -- the improvements the man was showing basically followed the expected time line of the doctors. Yet the Christians were praising God. How exactly is it miraculous if the man is healing according to the laws of nature? A miracle is when those laws have been suppressed, or overridden.

It just really weakens the definition of "miracle."

OneSmallStep said...

Sarge,

**Seems that way with prayer, coincidence and inconsistancy. Plus the 'out' that their deity said 'no' or 'it isn't in god's plan'.**

Yes, and I wish they'd see the very inconsistenty in their "out." If they're praising God for answering their prayers -- because the man is getting better -- and believe that more/stronger prayers will produce even better results, then they're defining "answer" by a positive response. If the man doesn't improve, or dies, suddenly their definition of "answer" changes.

OneSmallStep said...

K. Paris,

Obviously, quarters aren't for the spiritually weak. ;)

**It gave instruction on how to start out by praying for something small (like a cold) and then when that worked regularly, to move up to bigger things, like cancer.**

Wow. *When* that starts to work regularly? At least he's confident in his process.

OneSmallStep said...

Temaskian,

**As long as the details of the prayers get answered, it doesn't matter if the overall prayer is no not answered,**
Maybe it's almost a subconscious thing -- if you pray about things that you stand a pretty good chance at seeing success in, then it's proof that God answers prayers. Odds are good that the surgeons hands will be steady, or the equipment will work. Those things are how the natural world operates.

Yet if you pray for something miraculous -- the cancer to suddenly vanish, the surgery to no longer be necessary -- the odds really shrink.

Or with atimetorend's example, with more positive results seen in developed worlds, as opposed to developing ones. We don't see the same results.

Why would God be limited by the natural laws? Yet so many prayers seem structured around that very idea.

the chaplain said...

Very nice post and good responses. When I was a Christian, the Bible's prayer promises and the "yes, no, maybe later..." outs for God always made me uncomfortable. It was discouraging, because I often felt like I wasn't being faithful enough, or praying enough, or praying properly... but it was hard to be faithful and pray sincerely when one couldn't be sure whether prayers were actually being answered or nature was just taking its course.

societyvs said...

Prayer - my least favorite subject theoligcally speaking.

The whole idea behind prayer is a difficult one - but the example from OSS' story is very telling of how prayer is taught in churches (ask and you shall receive). There is really not much more to it than that in most teachings. So we get the examples OSS' gives - when things are working out - we thank God. When they don't - we switch to - 'that was God's will' right thurr'.

The disconnection is really in the details - because one must define God's will then if this is going to be used when prayers seem to 'fail'. Prayer must be grounded in some idea...and God's will is a good place to build from.

So we need to define God's will (as is used in the Our Father prayer in Matthew 6)...so God's will is of some importance in prayer - but how does it really look? What is this 'will'?

All we can go by is the teachings surrounding that idea - of the will of God...what does God want for humanity? That's tough to discern - but we can give it a go.

I think the Our Father prayer is probably the best guide - since the line 'you will be done on earth as it is in heaven' is used there...for finding some intention for humanity in how Jesus prayed (and this is subject to interpretation and debate).

A few things seem to shine out from that prayer - Love God, love yourself, and love your neighbor as yourself (concerning the value of human life). It is also encapsulating the teachings about kingdom ethics into the 'here and now' - even if God is in the 'there and then'.

The will of God, I would contend, is about the establishment of the teachings about God in our daily lives. So prayer must meet in reality - in how we live our lives is what we should be praying about.

Maybe prayer, IMO, is about the doing and not the asking? Of someone is sick in the hospital - let the doctors do their job - while we care for our neighbor. Isn't the answer to prayer there that they don't die all alone with no compassion for them?

OneSmallStep said...

The Chaplain,

**but it was hard to be faithful and pray sincerely when one couldn't be sure whether prayers were actually being answered or nature was just taking its course.**

I would think it would also be hard to pray because in theory, your prayers shouldn't influence the outcome at all if God has already ordained what will happen, as God is the one in perfect control.

OneSmallStep said...

Society,

**but the example from OSS' story is very telling of how prayer is taught in churches**

What's even more telling about this is what happens when a Christian is called on this -- many critiques about Christianity is how prayers don't get answered. If you ask, you don't receive. The Christian responds that the critiquer is misinterpreting how prayer works.

Really? Because as we can see from my example, the idea that you receive if you ask is exactly how all those Christians are responding.

**Maybe prayer, IMO, is about the doing and not the asking?**

The doing is usually a lot harder and more complicated than the asking. And that's one of the issues I have with how prayer is commonly treated -- it gives the Christian an out. If prayer is seen as the most important thing one can do, then you can pray and feel good about yourself, even if you haven't physically done anything. Say a friend is dying of cancer. You can pray that the cancer gets healed, and feel a great sense of accomplishment. Yet what the person might need is someone to help with his/her family, someone to cook, someone to help with errands, someone to be there. All those latter events call upon us to sacrifice our time, and put the other person first. Prayer? How much of a sacrifice is that?

atimetorend said...

" If prayer is seen as the most important thing one can do, then you can pray and feel good about yourself, even if you haven't physically done anything."

I had the opportunity to help a friend out yesterday, basically watching out for them in a potentially risky situation, at some sacrifice of time and energy. I was asked later by that person, "Were you praying for me?" (I had not been), and this led to dissapointment on their part. Which felt to me like an insult, I did what I could myself, which was seen as inadequate because I wasn't praying. To me it seems like we need to be faithful to do what we can do in a situation, and let God (or No-God) take care (or not take care) of the rest. So like your post, and comments above, God is either the magic gumball machine (I should have been praying for safety) or the relationship giver (I should have been praying because it would have enriched my relationship with him). And unfortunately, if I don't feel enriched in the relationship by praying, it is my fault. It is a no win situation.

OneSmallStep said...

Atimetorend,

In that circumstance, I would've wanted to ask how praying would've changed the outcome. What difference would it have made?

I'm not sure I actually would have. But I really would've wanted to, with a statement like that. Especially because if praying was that important, you could've saved yourself a lot of time and effort and just prayed.