“(Prayer) does not change God, it changes me.” – C. S. Lewis
One of the first real challenges to my Christian faith came when I started doing some critical thinking about prayer. In order to discuss it, however, we have to set some ground rules and definitions. For the point of this discussion, “God” refers to the Judeo-Christian deity who is omniscient, all-powerful and omnipresent. This God knows everything there is to know, future and past are known quantities, he can change whatever he chooses at any time, and he’s everywhere watching everything we do.
Ok, now that we have defined God, I’d like to tell a story about prayer.
John Smith gets cancer. John’s church family, his community and extended family all pray for God to take the cancer away. If they all pray hard enough, if they promise God the right things, and if there are enough people praying all at once, maybe God will decide to do as they ask and heal John.
Familiar story, right? It happens probably thousands of times a day around the world in various forms and fashions. Thing is, it doesn’t make any sense.
I’m pretty sure I was in middle school when I started thinking about this. I definitely recall my mom being annoyed at the questions I asked as a result, which went something like this: How many people have to ask God to heal someone before He agrees to do it? What do they have to promise Him in return? If God can heal cancer, why did he allow it to become a thing in the first place? Was it to teach us a lesson of some kind? Doesn’t that make God kind of mean? What did John do to make God give him cancer?
The typical answers/objections to my questions tend to ignore the fact that we agreed God is all-powerful, omniscient and omnipresent. God knows you’re going to get cancer before you get it, he knows how many people are going to pray and what they’re going to promise, and yet he still gave John the cancer. If God didn’t give John the cancer, it means something happened that wasn’t God’s will, meaning He is NOT all-powerful, omniscient and omnipresent, OR it means God is cruel and enjoys suffering. Maybe it means God is a narcissist and needs people to suffer so they remember to praise Him.
And around and around we go.
There is another answer, however, and it is painfully obvious if we step back from the fairy tales of our childhoods and allow ourselves to rethink things. Just like Santa Claus doesn’t really fly around with reindeer and deliver toys on Christmas Eve and Cupid doesn’t really shoot darts in people’s butts to make them fall in love, it’s entirely possible that God isn’t a supreme, omniscient, omnipresent all-powerful being who sits around answering P-mail and deciding which prayers to answer and which to filter into the Heavenly spam filter.
Perhaps we need what famed theologian Marcus Borg called “a mature faith,” that takes a different view on the mythology of a kindergarten education. When I encountered meditation a couple of years ago, it seemed to me that I had found the grown-up version of prayer, one that does not foster resentment towards a god when things don’t go my way, but allows me to experience personal, spiritual growth through the process of relationship with the unseen source of all life.
We live in a very noisy world, and it gets noisier by the minute. There are always new social media outlets that we simply must join, there are zillions of new TV shows that we just aren’t cool if we can’t discuss, and now we have to be up on all of the latest labels and identifications of our millennial friends to be sure we don’t accidentally insult someone by saying something that has been cancelled or is no longer politically correct.
I find it helpful, though challenging at times, to just turn everything off and sit for a while. My personal preference is to have some soft music playing, perhaps a fire in the fireplace, and to just sit and breathe and allow my brain to shut off. The result is a much clearer presence of mind, an ability to be more present in my existence and, best of all, a feeling of peace that cannot be satisfied by any of the aforementioned distractions.
If you would like a good place to start, there is a marvelous series on Netflix entitled “Meditation,” and it walks you through some basic techniques to help you get started. From there you can explore apps like Mindspace, YouTube channels and podcasts galore on Spotify. Find something you like, something that resonates, and make time every day to tend to your mental and spiritual health.
I think of it as grown up prayer, and with the mythological figure removed from the process it’s a more direct connection to the life force all around us.