"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Efficacy Of Prayer–Illusion Or Reality?

The Bible is clear about prayer and why we should pray – not, in a predestined and predetermined universe, to ease our way to heaven; nor to gain divine favors which are bestowed by God alone; nor to assure secular outcomes over which only God has authority.


The purpose of prayer is to glorify God and most importantly to put us the right frame of mind to accept his grace. 

In other words, according to classical Lutheran theology, Jesus Christ alone will decide who is saved and who is not, and no manner or means of supplication will enhance our chances of salvation.  Prayer is the means of facilitating our appreciation of our absolute submission to God’s will and to his bestowal of grace and redemption.  We do not ask for divine favors, nor beseech Our Lord for petty favors.  We only wish to be more worthy in his eyes; and if he chooses to overlook us, then that is his prerogative, our fate, and human destiny.


Catholics hold a very different  interpretation of the Bible, finding enough in James to support the argument that good works are indeed the path to heaven and salvation.  The Protestant-Catholic faith vs works debate has gone on for centuries.  Whichever theology appeals, the nature and purpose of prayer is clear.  God does not grant individual benediction nor sky boxes in the race for heavenly rewards.

Why, then, do so many preachers ask God Almighty for special favors?  Why should God favor Americans, Africans, progressives, or pious Southerners? What ignorant faith leads sports teams to bow their heads in prayer for victory? Why should God, in his infinitude, care one way or another about cancerous Aunt Margaret or even the slaughter of thousands in civil war?

Yet prayers for divine intervention are heard from every pulpit, mosque, and temple for such interventions.  With a little noodging God will see that Western liberal democracy holds all the cards; that traditional, heterosexual family values reflect his Word; that venality, greed, and capitalist predation flaunt the words and spirit of his son, Jesus Christ.


Children pray for Barbies, I-Phones, hot Mika in the Fourth Form.  Adults pray for partner, that their sexual indiscretions will not be discovered, that their baggage will arrive in Kinshasa.
What on earth for? Nowhere in the Bible, except for a few oblique reference in the letters of Paul, is found  any explicit reference to the power and efficacy of prayer.  Verse after verse exhort the importance of prayer, but none ascribe to it efficacy.

Yet ‘Please, God…” is part of popular Christian lexicon.  However, Muslims have understood the relationship between man and God much more accurately. Insha'Allah is a much more accurate and textually correct expression of faith in a supreme being.  No human action is initiated or completed without the will of God; and any prayer for divine intervention for a particular secular, personal cause or reason is apostasy.

Yet, Insha’Allah has of course been appropriated and distorted for very secular political ends.   ISIS believes that God has willed the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, one which will finally and permanently establish a government of God and a citizenry of the faithful.  ISIS assumes and believes that such a theocracy will be a final statement of absolute obedience to God’s will.  Democracy and the febrile aspirations of the West have no relevance or salience.  Praying for a New Age Muslim hegemony is only right and expected.

Prayer is all over the Internet.  The current American presidential campaign is not simply a predictable debate between conservative and political opinion, but a struggle between right and wrong.  Conservatives pray for Republican victory not only to defeat the tax-and-spend, internationalist policies of the Left, but to assure the continued influence and predominance of fundamental Christian principles.   Abortion, same-sex marriage, and neutralizing Christianity in schools and public places is not only politically wrong but morally wrong.

Liberals do not pray. Progressives have arrogated to themselves a secular power – an assumption of right that no one who believes in the Word of the Bible can accept.  This arrogant dismissal of Biblical authority is as indemnifying as any current political analysis.

Conservatives pray and liberals do not; and this is perhaps the fulcrum around which the current (2016) presidential election debate revolves.  America is either a country conceived in religious liberty, animated by the logical theology of the Enlightenment (itself a successor to Augustine and Aquinas, supreme intellectual theologians of the early Church) or a socialist, pragmatist, and materialist society consumed only by venal self-interest.

Conservatives pray and liberals do not.  Both are deceived.  Conservatives have never appreciated the Biblical exhortations to prayer; and have attributed to it a secular, temporal power.  Liberals have never granted divine authority and have arrogated to themselves authority over moral and ethical decisions which no text or religious tradition has ever granted.

The twain will never meet; and assumptions about absolute, immanent authority will always exist.
A colleague related his experience in Poland shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.  The Polish Parliament was debating their Bill of Rights.  The Right to Work was  to be inscribed in the Constitution.  My friend asked, “On whose authority?”, and his Polish contributors were for a moment flummoxed.  Never far from the Communist philosophy of only a few years previous, they assumed a ‘given’ right without questioning its origin.

“From God”, explained my American colleague, citing our own Bill of Rights and its origin in the philosophy of Locke and Rousseau.  “Where do yours come from?”

Conservatives in America continue to believe in God-given rights, and thus have a strict constructionist view of the Constitution.  Our nation was not founded only on the secular, ethical principles of the French Revolution, but on the absolute authority of the Bible.
It is not surprising, therefore, that conservative Americans pray for the Republic.

And what about all the faithful who fill country churches throughout the South or those who cram store-front churches in the cities? Pastors invoke the spirit of Jesus Christ and invoke the power of prayer.  “Jesus can be your personal Savior”, they preach, “If only you accept him, pray to him, ask his forgiveness, beseech his favor.”


Thousands of faithful hoping for salvation– even those in strict Protestant congregations which scorn any arrogant prayer for forgiveness and heavenly reward-  walk up the aisle for Jesus.  “Hallelujah. Praise be to God”.

On the same Sundays the Eastern faithful of the United Church of Christ whose faith is rooted in principles of secular justice, righteousness, and worldly redemption, pray without praying.  They do not pray to God but to an idea of God – a universal goodness which will always prevail. 
Prayer, therefore, is as common and universal as it always has been – perhaps more so in an increasingly complex world with few if any secular answers.  People everywhere – from Syria to Columbus, Mississippi – pray for peace, harmony, and good will among nations; but the violence, killing, and depredation continue. 

Their prayers will never be answered either because there is no God or more likely because he wants no hand in the  Creation he has enabled.  Soul, free will, spiritual independence is what has been bestowed; and how humanity chooses to use them is their own business.


It is always touching – for lack of a better word – to see college athletes grouped in prayer before a game.  Such innocence, such naïveté, such young and beautiful but sorely misplaced faith.   Prayer ain’t worth a hill of beans unless – and only maybe – if it is completely selfless and said in obeisance and dutiful respect.

I pray that Aunt Tillie recovers from iliac surgery.  That Uncle Bob is not sent to prison.  That Billy Ray give up his drug dependency.  That second cousin Halley makes partner.  I believe with all my soul and Christian belief that God will listen to my prayers.

But in my heart of hearts I know that he will not.  Why on earth should he?

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