31st December 2010
Yeah, more of that religion stuff. Feel free to skip it if you’re in a hurry.
This isn’t actually about the post that I reference — although it’s a fine piece, and you ought to read it — but rather about the thought that it triggered in my own mind: The overwhelming majority of people have no clue what prayer is for or about for a Christian. (This also has resonance with a comment left on the blog a bit ago by Eric S. Raymond; Eric, for all his intelligence, can be a hell of a lazy and superficial thinker when he wants to be.)
Even in historically Christian countries, people look at the the formal nature of prayer and dismiss it as some primitive relic out of man’s barbarian past. ‘Yeah, we’re asking God for something. Like that’s going to do any good.’ And then they move on, without giving it any thought. A few might get a dim inkling of what’s going on: ‘Wait a minute! God knows what I want. Why do I have to go through the effort of actually asking?’ That’s a good question, but they rarely bother trying to find an answer — again, dismissing it as a primitive survival. But, if pursued, it’s really the start of a journey that will lead you to buried treasure.
The Christian God is omniscient; He knows everything, including (a) what you want, (b) what you need, and (c) what you lack (and those are three different things; don’t get them mixed up or you’ll regret it). Why are all these people wandering around telling us to ask Him for stuff, when He already knows? Even He pesters us to ask him for stuff, when the available evidence indicates that He’s probably going to ignore us; how does that help?
Well, bunkie, I’m here to tell you how it helps. Prayer isn’t aimed at God. It’s aimed at you.
That may sound strange, but bear with me. How many of you have had the experience of thinking you know something, and then being asked to explain it to somebody else, and quickly realizing that, hey, maybe you didn’t know it as well as you thought you did? I have, more times than I can count. (In fact, many people will tell you that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it to somebody else.) Again: How many of you have had the experience of describing a problem you’ve got to somebody else, and in the course of doing so, received a flash of insight that solves (or helps solve) the problem? Again, I have, more times than I can count. We even have a name for the Other Guy in that process: a ‘sounding board’.
And that’s the function of prayer. It articulates something that is just wandering around in your head like Caspar the Friendly Ghost, and makes it explicit. And once something is explicit, it’s a concrete thing that can be worked on, and with.
Prayer deals with two things: Where we are and where we want to be. Face it, nobody prays when sitting on a beach chair in St Tropez sipping on a margarita and waiting for José to bring the cracked crab for lunch. Prayer indicates that you aren’t where in life you want to be. And nobody prays for something bad to happen; prayer indicates where in life you want to move to. Making those two things explicit in prayer focuses your mind on them, as teaching a subject or describing a problem does, and that puts your mind to work on it. And, as the classic phrase has it, knowing you’ve got a problem is the necessary first step in solving it.
Think about it. Kids pray for different things than adults, because their situations are different from those of adults. Men pray for different things than women, because their situations are different from those of women. Americans pray for different things than Australians, because their situations are different from those of Australians. Each individual has a unique situation and a unique goal, and prayer is a great method for focusing on those two core aspects of life.
Prayers are different from wishes, because they’re more realistic. We can wish for the moon — sometimes literally — without embarrassment: I wish I had super powers. I wish I were King of the World. I wish I had Bill Gates’ money and he was locked in Steve Jobs’ attic. It doesn’t matter. But nobody prays for that sort of thing, because we realize that, if God answers a prayer, it’s going to be something realistic.
Let’s try an exercise. If I were to ask you to pray (‘ask God’) for something, what would it be?
I guarantee that it would be important (you don’t bug God for trivialities), it would be realistic (this isn’t the genie in the lamp we’re talking to), and it would be a concrete indication of where in your life you would rather be other than right here. And that’s its value. It points out what your next priority in life needs to be. It gives you a hook on which to hang some serious thought. Why am I not happy where I am in life? Why do I think that this particular change will put me in a better place? And the most important thought of all: How can I get from here to there? You may think it’s impossible — probably so, otherwise you wouldn’t be praying about it, you’d be doing it. But what if it’s not impossible? What if it just seems impossible? Maybe if you set your mind to it, you’ll find a way? You can be pretty sure God isn’t going to give you what you’re asking for (has He ever?), but what He will do is help you find out how to get it for yourself. God is like a good coach or a good teacher: He’s not going to tell you the answer, but he’ll help you find it on your own, if you’re willing to get with the program.
And that’s the importance of prayer. Prayer doesn’t tell God anything He doesn’t already know; it tells you what you need to get to work on. It’s focuses your own mind on your most important unsolved problem. This is why Paul, in Thessalonians, says ‘Pray without ceasing’, because focus is an unnatural state, and we need to work on it All The Time.
Now, go focus on what you were praying about, and make your life a little better.