Many people are skeptical about prayer.
How many have prayed fervently, day and night, for an ailing loved one, and never obtained the desired outcome?
The parable of the widow and the judge promises, “[W]ill not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” For African Americans, that deserves to be laughable.
No one has ever lived, nor is ever likely to live, more expert in prayer than Jesus. I cannot believe he set forth a teaching either so completely wrong in itself or so subject to complete misunderstanding.
So what is wrong, and what is right?
What is wrong
1. Jesus didn’t say this. The authentic parables of Jesus are very brief, practically riddles. Anything longer and allegorical comes instead from the early church, and may not represent Jesus’ teaching. Related: Was there a Jesus? If so, what was he like?
2. Election. The early church developed the belief that God “chooses” who believes in Jesus. There has been much dispute as to exactly how this happens. All for nothing: the concept does not appear in the authentic words of Jesus. Jesus’ God loves everyone, regardless what they think or do.
3. Excuses for failed prayer. Though the text doesn’t set forth any of these itself, it participates in the same worldview as many notions I have heard of what one must do to guarantee success in prayer. They’re all wrong.
a) “You have to have faith.” What Jesus meant by “faith,” what Paul meant, and what the author of Hebrews meant, are three different things. I will tell below what I think Jesus meant by the word. “Faith,” as the word is most commonly understood today, has nothing to do with answered or unanswered prayer.
b) “You have to believe.” This is similar to the first one. See, “I don’t believe in belief. Here’s why.”
c) “You have to claim it.” This does not seem to me to constitute a spiritual act whatsoever. I have no idea what it would accomplish.
Two more of the same ilk that I won’t examine at this time: “It must be God’s will,” and “God answers ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ or ‘Wait.'”
What is right
It may be less a question of what’s “right,” than of what works.
1. God through you. As I have said elsewhere:
The most common mistake I observe in other folks’ prayers [is the] assumption that God is distant and apart from human beings, and specifically distant and apart from the person who prays or is prayed for. Hinduism calls this “delusion.”
God is infinite. If God is truly infinite, then God’s being must necessarily include (or incorporate) everything that exists. If anything were to exist apart from God, then God would not be truly infinite.
Thus God’s being includes each and every one of us. We are each an expression of God. Each person’s life is an expression of God’s own life. More than that; God is more than present in all places and all times; God is present in each material object one may meet. The floor you walk on, the clothes you wear, the chair you sit in: the matter itself of which these are composed, is an expression of God’s own being.
Prayer is not a transaction between one who is and one who is not God. It is instead a process within God’s own being. God does not answer “Yes” or “No;” it is rather a matter of energy transfers across paths of more or less resistance.
It is principally through human beings that God acts in this world. It is principally through you that God will act in your life. Your thoughts, your desires, your actions, for better or worse, express God’s power in this world. A Lutheran slogan is correct: “God’s work, our hands.”
2. Faith. The Greek word used in the New Testament is itself a translation of an Aramaic word that Jesus would have used, which in turn derives from the Hebrew word aman. Aman denotes not so much “belief,” as “truth,” “honesty,” or “integrity.” And that, it seems to me, is most likely what Jesus meant by the word.
Integrity is about being consistent in one’s thoughts, words and actions. It’s about “walking your talk;” about being not credulous, but credible; not having “faith,” but being “faithful.”
Integrity is a deep subject, and establishing it a profound undertaking.
Effectiveness in a specific prayer, or in seeking a specific goal in one’s life (Is there a difference?), depends on making one’s feelings, thoughts and actions wholly consistent with one another. In the New Testament, the Greek word normally translated “doubt” actually means “wavering,” or inconsistency in one’s feelings, thoughts or actions.
If one has a medical condition, one can pray for its healing, but it is sheer folly to do that if one fails also to actually seek medical attention for the condition. See a doctor. One’s actions must be consistent with the goal, consistent with the prayer.
I am in a context where many, many young men complain about not having work. Well, I can tell you, I know well, from my own experience, that looking for work is no fun. But it’s futile to complain about not having a job, while one fails to actually look for a job. What one does, must be consistent with what one says one wants.
It’s often challenge enough to actually want what one says one wants.
In my own current situation of homelessness, I could say I want to leave the shelter forever and have my own residence, with a job that will let me support myself completely. And my various supporters have their own ideas of what I ought to want. But it can’t just be a nice idea, or what someone else thinks I should want; I myself must want it. The feelings must be there; the desire must be there. Otherwise, the ideas are empty.
And as it happens, in my immediate situation, the desire for my own place is highly unrealistic. I’m unable to reach that desire, in my heart, right now. In recent weeks, I have been turned away from the shelter, because of limited capacity, many times. I was turned away last night, Thanksgiving night 2016.
What do I want right now? I want to sleep indoors tonight. And for now, that’s goal enough.
An analogy from physics impresses me.
The beam emitted by a laser can accomplish powerful things that the light emitted by a light bulb cannot.
The difference: the laser beam is wholly consistent or “coherent,” whereas the light bulb’s light is not. The light bulb emits light waves in many, many different directions, of many different wavelengths, and of different orientations (They’re not polarized.) The light waves in the laser beam, in contrast, are all headed in the exact same direction, all have the same wavelength, all have the same orientation (They’re polarized.), and are all in phase, or “in synch,” with one another.
Effectiveness in prayer, or life, depends on one’s feelings, thoughts and actions being that same way.
Related: Coming abstractions
If my feelings are coherent, my thoughts and actions are likely to be also. Establishing coherent feelings is a challenge.
I can hope for a given outcome, and so long as I do so, my thoughts and actions are likely to be consistent with, or congruent with, that goal. All my energies will be headed in the same direction, and in synch, and “in tune with” (on the same wavelength) as each other. However, if I dwell on fear that the desired outcome will not obtain, even for a moment, I send forth energies inconsistent with the goal, energies that actually interfere with obtaining it, and set up thoughts and actions that will likewise interfere with obtaining it.
That appeals to the physics analogy also: two waves “interfere with” each other if they are exactly opposite in phase, canceling each other out.
Related: I will not be disappointed
Thus the emphasis I’ve always placed on choosing one’s thoughts and feelings.
Related: Choosing what to want isn’t a no-brainer, either.
Another example from my immediate experience, this pertaining to making all one’s feelings coherent.
On the one hand, in recent weeks the challenge of getting into the shelter each day has severely constrained the time available to me for job search.
On the other hand, everyone (it seems to me) has, from time to time, an impulse to seek to feel angry, or aggressive, or to seek turmoil and upset and scandal. Some people gratify that desire by watching prize fighters. Millions of Americans gratify it by watching football. I have tended to gratify it by spending lots of time going through my news feed, looking for items that will upset me, and reading and even commenting on them.
At this writing, I am seeking to redirect those feelings, and channel my impulse to seek aggression or turmoil or anger or scandal towards confronting the actual obstacles that exist between me and my goal of becoming self-supporting. I need to find my excitement there. Then, instead of taking time away from job search, the gratification of these impulses will advance it.
God grant every one of us to seek only the best for ourselves and one another, and to be faithful in that seeking.