Moving a Cruise Ship*
by Mark Gutman
I have seen many a prayer list book and some very long prayer lists, but I have not seen much study into determining the effectiveness or success of prayer lists. Similarly, weather forecasters, stock market mavens, and astrologers all put out regular reports, but you won’t see many reports on how results turned out compared to their predictions. Even TV channels who claim to be the most accurate weather forecasters in their area don’t tell you their “accuracy” percentage. In some areas of life, we simply forge straight ahead without checking to see if our assumptions are correct.
Keep in mind that many prayer requests are fairly likely to be granted, even for people who don’t formally pray: lost items will be found, sick people and pets will get better, and financial situations will improve. But books of answered-prayer stories are seen as clear evidence that prayer “works.” Feelings can be hurt if some of the stories are explained away, but stories cannot deal with the “what-if-no-one-had-prayed” problem? If I pray for John Smith to be healed of cancer, and John is healed of cancer, that does not prove that he was healed because of my prayer. Atheists get healed of cancer. People who don’t pray experience miracles just as the people in the answered-prayer books do. The fact that something occurred after someone prayed does not prove that the praying caused the subsequent occurrence. Coincidence is not necessarily cause-and-effect.
You may be thinking of the large experiments that proved that prayer works, or showed that prayer is effective in helping hospital patients. I have yet to read about such a study that proved anything. In every case that I’ve come across in the public media, the methodology was suspect, and the reporting focused on the positive and ignored the rest. Even the positive results turned out to be less than fairly reported.
But let’s suppose for the sake of this paper that prayer does “work.” How do we define “work”?
Imagine that I am in a rowboat, paddling out to a cruise ship. As I paddle, I somehow manage to lose both oars, and I am going to have a hard trouble reaching the ship by just using my hands. Fortunately for me, someone on the ship sees my predicament and throws me a long rope – a really long rope, long enough to connect me to the ocean liner. I grab the rope and start pulling. And my pulling gradually moves that huge ship over to my rowboat. Wait a minute, you’re protesting, you don’t move the cruise ship. You pull yourself toward the cruise ship.
In the “prayer works” discussion, people asserting that prayer works usually means that prayer moves the huge cruise ship over to the rowboat, that God is moved to grant what we’ve asked for. I’m reminded of a passage in Steps to Christ, p. 93: “Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend. Not that it is necessary in order to make known to God what we are, but in order to enable us to receive Him. Prayer does not bring God down to us, but brings us up to Him.” Substituting the boat illustration, Prayer does not bring the cruiser over to the rowboat, but brings the rowboat closer to the cruiser. In both cases the question is, Who is doing the moving?
A popular view of prayer is to get God to fill our order. And we can take snippets of Bible passages to support this view. “Ask, and it will be given you. . . . For everyone who asks receives. . . .” Matthew 7:7, 8. “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” John 14:14. So how can anyone question that asking God to fill an order is a good practice?
I suggest three problems with the view of prayer that makes God into Santa Claus. Evidence doesn’t support it. It turns into a name-it-and-claim-it practice that has to ignore all the unsuccessful attempts. It is focused on getting God to do what we want rather than tuning in to God to find what he wants. As in the stock market and weather predicting fields, it means paying attention only to the positive aspects.
Evidence doesn’t support the Santa Claus view. I’ve already referred to the “unanswered” prayers. (Note: “unanswered” ignores the possibility that the answer was No.) If the evidence supported that I get what I want when I ask God for something, sermons on the need to pray would be as rare as sermons telling people they need to eat. We don’t tell people what is obviously and unambiguously good. People who are disappointed by vending machines from time to time quit using them.
The Santa-Claus-list type of prayer turns prayer into a “name-it-and-claim-it” exercise. “Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend,” not presenting a list to a Santa Claus. I can spend hours talking with friends and not ask them for anything, but prayer is often seen as mainly for the purpose of getting God to give us our already-arranged list. It asks God to change the outside world to fit us rather than changing us to deal with the outside world. Even the part of the prayer not used for asking is seen as making God happy until you get around to the real reason for the prayer, which is to ask for things.
And this view of prayer is focused on getting God to do what we want. If I want the job, I don’t ask God for guidance in following the steps to get the job, in figuring out how I could make myself a better fit for the job, or even how I might be better off if I didn’t get the job. I just pray that I’ll get the job, and I ask others to pray that I’ll get it. (And if they’re really my friends, they’ll pray for me to get what I want.) Ignore other factors. I want the job. God, get me what I’m sure I want.
In a later column, I’ll discuss the “opening of the heart to God as to a friend,” but in this column the focus is on whose mind prayer is meant to change. If prayer seems to be mainly a way to get leverage against our opponents, to add weight to our attempts to get our way, we’re going to miss out on many other benefits of prayer – the benefits of confession, gratitude, and expressing worries that pain us when we keep them inside. As I find prayer to be more a conversation with a friend, I open the door to a change in me that leaves me more interested in what God really wants.
It may seem unspiritual not to list some things you want when someone in the pulpit asks for prayer requests. But if our emphasis in prayer is talking with God as a friend rather than trying to get him to change the world to fit us, we’ll leave the lists for people who believe that pulling a cruise ship over to a rowboat is reasonable and useful.
*Part 1 of a 4-part series on Prayer