Posted by: Miguel Clark Mallet | 24 January 2010

Questioning prayer

What kind of god would save or take the life of my child based on whether I said “Please don’t” properly?

These are the kinds of questions you find yourself asking when you have a son three-days sick with a cold who has suddenly turned listless and whimpering, the question as you trudge along an ice-covered country driveway up to the road and the van you will use to take him, through an ice storm, to the doctor.

You ask yourself this because you fear how sick he might be, and because your stomach tightens at the thought that something–anything–might be really wrong with him. So you think, “I should pray. Please God let him be okay.” But then you think about it and say to yourself, “Really? You who know everything don’t already know how scared I am? And if I don’t ask right you’ll kill my son?”

And, as you scrape a solid coat of ice from the van’s surface, you begin to think of Haiti and the dead there, and of Pat Robertson, and you comfort yourself that this isn’t the picture of god that the vast majority of spiritual people would have. Then you recall the times when someone you knew or someone at church had a sick family member or friend and asked for prayers for that person’s recovery. And if the person did recover, how that was attributed to “the power of prayer” or “the Lord’s intercession” (as if the Lord is usually off somewhere else, perhaps at the beach or busy in meetings, and our prayers go out as a kind of Batman signal in the sky, causing Him to leap into action and “intercede”). Or the times when people have faced a difficult task (a test, an athletic competition, a business venture) and prayed for success.

The situations and prayers seem to imply that if you ask god for the right things at the right moment, he’ll deliver and bad things won’t happen. But if that’s so, it also implies the reverse (which we might call the Robertson corollary): If bad things happen to you, something in your connection to god has gone wrong.

I don’t believe that. Neither do I believe that prayer is pointless. This does raise the question, though about what prayer is for if it isn’t a private request line. For myself, I’ve distilled it down to  four simple prayers:

  • Thanks. For everything in my life–good, bad, indifferent.
  • Help me understand, with compassion, as much as my capacity allows.
  • Help me to accept, with grace, when things don’t turn out the way I’d like.
  • Give me the strength to do what I know I should do, even when I don’t want to do it.

That’s it. Because in my view, the only thing I have any business asking god to change is me. The rest is not my call.

My toddler is fine, by the way. He had an ear infection and is on antibi0tics, but by the next day he was getting back to his old self. I don’t attribute that to my prayers but to the everyday miracles that I am fortunate enough to have access to, and for which I am very, very grateful.


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