I haven’t truly prayed in years, and today even when something bad happens, something that would send the faithful to their knees, it doesn’t occur to me to seek divine guidance or intervention. It isn’t that I don’t worry or don’t seek help and comfort from others, it’s that prayer no longer seems any more helpful than consulting a horoscope, or reading chicken entrails, or offering a burnt sacrifice, or any other ancient mystical means of dealing with life’s uncertainties.
As much as believers talk about prayer as submission to God’s will, prayer—at least prayer of supplication, which I think is the most common kind—is by its very nature an attempt to alter or control the course of events. You’re asking God to do something: cure someone’s illness, get you that job, preserve that marriage, elect that candidate. Even if you end with “but your will be done,” everyone but the strictest Calvinist is praying in the belief that there’s a God who allows himself to be influenced to some degree by human requests. Otherwise what’s the point of asking for anything?
I’m aware that others take great comfort in prayer, and that many more believe they ought to take comfort in prayer, or that it would comfort them if they only did it better or more faithfully. So when I provocatively titled this post “Finding comfort in not praying,” what I really meant is a lack of discomfort and a lack of nagging doubt.
Let’s take doubt first. The idea of prayer seems comforting, but if you doubt at all, then every prayer is tempered with the fear that it might all be in vain. Maybe you’re just wasting your time. Worse, the Bible teaches that doubt can short-circuit a prayer that would otherwise be answered. (James 1:6-8: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.”)
More importantly, there’s the discomfort. Even if you believe that God answers yes or no based on what’s best, you still face scenarios like this one: Some years ago my church had a childless couple who prayed for years to have a child. At last the woman became pregnant. Everyone praised God for his blessings. But the girl was born with weak lungs and needed a ventilator, and she was brain damaged from oxygen deprivation. She remained on the church prayer list pretty much constantly for the next five years, during which time she was in and out of the hospital, severely mentally retarded… and at last she died.
We all know stories like that. If you believe in a God who answers prayer, you have to believe in a God who allows things like that to happen to people who pray…
…A God who can change things but often chooses not to, even when that means letting you go through something horrible.
…A God who may stand by as you die a torturous death, or who might force you to watch a loved one die such a death.
…A God who acts, or fails to act, with no discernible correlation to a person’s faith or to how much or how little they pray.
Even if you can bring yourself to believe in it, what kind of comfort is that?
Understand, I’m not suggesting that emotional satisfaction is a reliable measure of truth. I’m merely pointing out that if you really think about prayer and its implications, it isn’t as comforting as we’ve been told. There’s a dark side to it that your pastor won’t tell you about.
For me, the ‘comfort’ of not praying is in the acceptance that I can’t control what is uncontrollable. I know that I’m no more or less vulnerable to unpredictable events than a believer, but I don’t have to waste precious time and energy trying to influence God. I don’t have to wonder why he withholds the help I need and which he could deliver. I don’t have to doubt his goodness and then feel bad for doubting and then try to assure myself that it’s all part of some divine plan. The friends and loved ones I that I do rely on may be more limited in their powers, but I know they’re real and that they actually care about me.