I have been intrigued by two stories that appeared on CNN.com in the past few days. Both concerned matters of the spirit. Both concerned the place of God in human suffering. Both deserve commentary, much deeper than can be found in the usual comments section on such websites.
Today, I wish to deal with the topic of prayer.
In this CNN article, there are a few people who are criticizing the practice of prayer, both Christian scholars and atheists.
"A prayer is supposed to have a consequence for you," said Elizabeth Drescher, a lecturer at Santa Clara University in California. "It's not an act of magic." ...“It seems to express hope and anxiety, and maybe even helplessness,” Drescher said. “At the same time, it evokes this strong response from people who see it as a cop-out, a way of claiming some kind of spiritual space that doesn’t actually have any meaning to the people who are posting the meme or the community they are addressing.”
After MTV tweeted that pop stars Beyonce, Rihanna and Katy Perry are sending their prayers to Oklahoma, Gervais responded, “I feel like an idiot now … I only sent money.”
“If all people are doing is praying, it is worthless,” Hemant Mehta, an Illinois math teacher who writes the blog “Friendly Atheist,” told CNN. “If they are praying and donating to the Red Cross, that’s more like it.”
Why We Pray
First, let's examine the reasons that Christians pray. Of course, we must root our understanding on prayer in the person of Jesus, and it was he who commanded His followers to pray. Jesus Himself prayed, and as imitators of Christ, we are called to do the things He did to the best of our ability.
Drescher is correct in her assessment that prayer is supposed to have a consequence for you, but what she believes that consequence is, I am not sure. What I do know is that prayer, at its best, links a person to God. During our times of prayer, we do not change God, but God changes us. Oftentimes during those moments of intense prayer, God is working around in us rearranging our furniture so that we may come to a fuller knowledge of Him and His will for our lives. This means, we are transformed to produce the fruits of God and His Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control.
This process also helps us realize our dependence upon God. The Prayer of prayers given to us by Jesus guides us into realizing what is most important: seeking God's Kingdom, seeking God's will, seeking heaven on earth, depending upon God for daily sustenance, seeking forgive as we have been forgiven, and seeking deliverance from evil.
In such a manner, prayer indeed has consequences for our lives including when we pray for others.
It's Not Worthless to Pray for Others
What are the consequences for us when we pray for others? This question comes to the fore whenever we pray for those involved in natural disasters, are stricken with grief, are diagnosed with illness, cancer, and the like, or who are going through other rough stretches in life. Is there any value in praying for these folks? Are there any consequences? For us? For them?
First, there are direct consequences for us. This may seem like a bit of a stretch, but I can assure you, it is not. Jesus instructed His followers to "pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you."
Why engage in such an activity? From an atheistic point of view, this truly seems inane! Why pray for someone who actively seeks your harm? Why pray for someone who stands against what you say and do?
Quite simply, Jesus does not want us to forget our human connection to even our enemies. Jesus does not want us to dehumanize even those who are persecuting us. This world is a bed of roses--thorns and all. We are surrounded by immense beauty and harmony, but there are many thorns which cause hurt and suffering. One way we as humans cope with suffering is to dehumanize those who suffer and keep them at arm's length. "I don't know them, so why should I grieve when they hurt?" Jesus says, "Pray for them because they are human, just like you. Your heavenly Father cares for them, just like He cares for you. They deserve your care and concern because they are a part of God's creation, just like you."
But praying for others goes further--much, much further.
Gervais and Mehta criticize prayer as worthless because it actually does nothing for those affected by tragedy. They emphasize money over prayer. This isn't surprising since atheism is inherently materialistic. Atheism denies the existence of the spiritual--and actually anything that cannot be proven by measurement and reason. (This presents a bit of a problem since atheism cannot prove the existence of other minds--other bodies, sure, but other minds--big problem.) The only things that count in regards to such matters is how one deals with material needs. This is why they make claims that money is more important than prayers.
It is indeed true that prayers cannot rebuild homes. Prayer cannot provide food and clothing. Prayers cannot pay for medical bills or funeral arrangements. But--and this is a very important point--people are much more than these things. People are much more than material objects. People have more than material needs.
Again: people have more than material needs.
When we pray for others, we seek healing for their emotional and spiritual needs. Atheism cannot begin to touch this subject with a 10 foot pole because it has absolutely no capability of measuring the success or failure of such things--emotions, spirit, or prayer. Here is where Gervais and Mehta become badly mistaken.
Prayers have an effect.
I cannot tell you the hundreds of times I have heard people say, "I feel the prayers of those around me." Hey, I've even said the exact same thing. The prayers of God's people are very effective at bringing healing to one's emotions and spirits.
This means that even those who are not able to financially and materially assist those who undergo tragedy or illness can affect a situation. They can contribute to the well being of the ENTIRE person, not just one aspect--the material.
Therefore, pray away, my readers. Pray for those affected by the Oklahoma tornadoes. Pray for the parents of Sandy Hook elementary. Pray for mothers and fathers whose children have died. Pray for those who are experiencing suffering and pain and illness. Despite what some would say, you are making a difference.