Santa, Safety, and Specificity
by Mark Gutman
Tabloids such as The National Enquirer used to print predictions by psychics. The tabloids never seemed to go back to see how accurate previous predictions had been; they mainly were interested in achieving current sales by printing new lists. And if a psychic prediction ever seemed to work out, the tabloids would rely on what has been called “the Jeane Dixon effect.” “The Jeane Dixon effect refers to the tendency of the mass media to hype or exaggerate a few correct predictions by a psychic, guaranteeing that they will be remembered, while forgetting or ignoring the much more numerous incorrect predictions.” https://www.skepdic.com/dixon.html
We may shake our heads at the uselessness of psychic predictions and the misrepresentation of their accuracy, but objections raised to the track record of psychics (and the presentation of the track record) could also be raised about prayer. After all, people don’t usually go back and analyze how well their prayers have been answered, and references to answered prayer usually make no mention of all the prayers that didn’t work out.
I suggest that the reason prayer seems to have such problems (low percent of answers; only refer to successful outcomes) is that people misunderstand what it is for. In my recent column, I referred to the benefits of “opening up” about what is otherwise cooped up inside our troubled minds. Unfortunately, instead of understanding prayer to be conversation with God as with a friend, we generally see prayer referred to as something reminding us of Santa Claus or a vending machine. And that sets us up for disappointment or disillusionment.
When children go to see Santa, they generally go for one reason – to ask for things. There’s no discussion with Santa; just a list to be presented. Santa is of interest only in December. Even if he’s thought of during the year by a child, the thought is of the possible benefit in December. Similarly, prayer is seen as a time to ask God for favors, for blessings we or others wouldn’t get if we didn’t ask and get him to answer favorably. Children, though, eventually give up on Santa.
Vending machines, similar to Santa, are for getting what we want, and we use them even as adults. We know that if we follow the recommended procedure for a vending machine, we will get the product we desire. How many times would you put money into a vending machine that didn’t give you what it was supposed to? Not very many, I hope. But if you don’t get what you want from prayer, you can’t give up on prayer.
How do people put together not wanting to give up on prayer and not getting desired “answers” to prayer? One helpful method is the Jeane Dixon effect, in which successes are featured and non-successes are ignored. Most people who rely on “Jeane Dixon effect” thinking for prayer as a way to deal with “vending machine disappointment” are not insincere; they don’t even realize what they’re doing. Focus forward. Positive thinking helps deal with disappointments.
Another way to deal with the lack of “answers” is to use safe prayer language. Many prayers are filled with “bless” and “be with” and similar words that are rather vague. We know that “bless” is supposed to mean something good, so why specify more than that? And why would anyone criticize petitioners for asking God to “be with” someone? And the risk of disappointment is low. If I pray to be hired for a certain job or to have my house sell for a certain price, I might not look very spiritual if I’m not hired to that job or receive less than I wanted for my house. My chagrin will be worse if I know that others know what I was praying and that I did not get what I asked.
Using safe language can help make longer prayers. If we have a long list of people to pray for, we can pray for God to bless A, and be with B, and bless C, and be with D, etc. But praying that way also invites one to make prayers short by praying either “Bless everyone on my list” or just “Bless everyone.” If “bless” and “be with” are vague, why can’t the direct objects of those verbs be equally vague? Why bother to list everyone one at a time?
Why not learn to be more specific in prayer? Instead of asking God to bless so-and-so, tell God what you mean by bless. This might be more work for a while, if you’re used to the more general terms. But being more specific may reveal to you some features about your prayer requests that you hadn’t thought of. You might discover that you’re asking that God set aside natural law, natural consequences. You might be asking God to make 2 + 2 = 5. If you’re asking that John Doe get the job he applied for, has it occurred to you that John Doe might be without a job for good reasons? Maybe he was habitually tardy or couldn’t get along with co-workers or needs to improve his skills. Maybe he needs the motivation to switch to a job that is more suited to him. Is your interest short-term (he needs a job) or long-term (he needs to make some changes so he can get and keep a job, or he needs to switch fields)? Praying that John will recover from a sickness that he helped bring on himself might not help John in the long run; it might teach John that effective praying to set aside consequences is more important than a focus on how to live in a way that makes sickness less likely.
In fact, focusing on the bigger picture for John might lead to a prayer that starts to get you involved in John’s life in a way that “Bless John” doesn’t. Maybe you would figure out ways that you could help John, thus helping to answer your prayers, as opposed to the ask-Santa-Claus-and-forget-about-it model. Helping John yourself is more work than putting coins into a vending machine and pushing a button. There’s something about prayer that can appeal to the lazy side of a person, in that praying for a person can seem downright spiritual and yet not require anything more than the effort to say a few shallow words. If I’m really concerned about John, prayer will be my talking with God as part of my overall interest in trying to help John myself.
When I talk with God as with a friend, I don’t need a list. I talk with him about what really matters. When it matters to me. Rather than making up a list for prayer later, I can open up my heart to him when I’m actually worried about something, or angry, or thrilled. I’ll also be interested in figuring out how I do something about what I’m really interested in, so that talking with God about my concerns is just one aspect of my dealing with them. Asking for things won’t make up the majority of my conversation. Not getting something I told God I wanted won’t be a source of spiritual embarrassment.
Let’s enjoy conversation with God as with a friend – without prayer jargon, vague language, or a list of requests for God to break natural law. We don’t need to keep score of “answers.”