Monday, February 06, 2006

Ups and downs -- more problems with prayer

You know, this whole process would be a lot easier if I could just have some Constantine-style flaming cross in the sky message and just be completely assured of God's presence, never to doubt again. (Maybe I should change the name of this blog to The Lazy Atheist). I know, I'm confusing almighty God with a cheap parlor magician who does neat tricks for my amusement again, but I've been thrown back into a period of frustration and doubt recently that's bumming me out and just wanted to take a moment to whine that I wish this were easier. :)

There are a few things going on, but the main issue (again) is prayer. I've been following Colleen's suggestion and using the Lord's Prayer as my guide. I've tried to not focus on specifics based on what I think I need (e.g. "please don't let us lose this client"), but rather praying for divine guidance to help me see what God wants me to do in this situation. (A follow-up to the post Colleen commented on: sure enough, the client left us. And it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to our business.)

After praying in this manner for a few weeks I was very surprised at how well it was going. I truly felt like my prayers were being answered -- God was very clearly guiding me to new insights and perspectives that would have never occurred to me on my own!

...And then there was that annoying materialist voice in the back of my head telling me that I was just seeing what I wanted to see and becoming like "one of those Christians" who fabricated religious experiences to make themselves feel better (the way I used to see all Christians). But I was so happy and the experiences I was having seemed so clearly to be answers to my prayers that I was actually able to ignore that snippy little voice.

And then while watching the Superbowl yesterday I decided to thumb through my copy of Fr. John Hardon's Catholic Catechism to see what it had to say about an issue that had been troubling me lately: what is and is not the will of God. I didn't exactly find the answer to my question, but I came across this passage about prayer:

With human intercession we seek to inform another person of our wants, and then to sway his will on our behalf. Obviously neither of these considerations applies when we make our petitions to God. Our intention is not to divulge our needs and hopes, for God knows all things. Nor can the divine will be persuaded to alter a decision...Prayer is necessary for our sake, to make us reflect on our great needs and arouse our wills to desire what God wishes us to have.

We might add that God has foreseen our prayers from eternity and thus included them in his plan for the universe, to give us (and others) what he knew we would ask for. [emphasis mine]

Maybe it shouldn't have, but that passage took the wind out of my sails about the whole prayer thing. The part about God having seen our prayers from eternity and included it in his plan gave me a headache so I didn't dwell on it too much. It's hard for me to wrap my mind around the whole free will vs. God's plan concept, e.g. that if I decide to let a coin toss determine whether or not I pray today, that the outcome of the toss was part of God's plan and my prayers will be answered (or not answered if the toss lands in favor of not praying) accordingly. That's baffling to me so I'll move on to what I found to be the most troubling part of the passage:

I interpreted the passage to say that a) prayer is not for expressing your needs and wants to God and b) God is not going to do anything based on your prayers since his plan is already laid out; prayer is really just a mental exercise for you to remember who's in charge here. That annoying voice in the back of my head was quick to point out that if the purpose of prayer is just "to make us reflect on our great needs and arouse our wills to desire what God wishes us to have," then my prayers over the past few weeks have not really been answered. What I thought was the hand of God guiding me to see things I had not seen before was really just me using the meditative time of prayer to figure things out for myself.

If I'm interpreting this correctly I guess I could get used to the idea that prayer never results in action on God's part, but that's a whole lot less comforting than what I originally perceived the purpose of prayer to be.

Am I misinterpreting this part of the Catechism? How do most religious people (particularly Catholics) perceive that prayer works? I've heard a lot of people talk about prayer in a cause-and-effect sort of way ("my prayers were answered!") -- were they all mistaken?



OK, I just re-read this after I posted it and I can see that the second paragraph of the passage I quoted is indeed encouraging. It seems to be saying that God does answer our prayers...sort of...but it's different since he knew what we were going to ask for and already had it hopefully you're asking for what was in his plan...although he knew you were going to ask that so maybe he incorporated it into his plan.

Maybe this issue here is that I need to think a bit more about the fact that God doesn't work in the cause-and-effect sort of way that we humans do since he already has the universe all planned out.


At February 06, 2006 5:08 PM, Blogger Jeff Miller said...

The main thing is that God wants us involved in salvation history by praying for ourselves and others.

A mother lets her daughter help her bake cookies even though the mother needs no help at all. Our cooperation is an act of love from God.

At February 06, 2006 8:06 PM, Blogger Colleen said...

Any atheist less lazy than you would be a sight... uh, saint to behold. Let's not worry about that aspect.

I don't have time this evening to try to give you a good answer but I hope a couple of comments will help.

The question you are posing is a very good one. But, whatever the ultimate solution is, this much I can say with certainty:

Scripture very clearly and unequivocally teaches us to pray for what we need. Ultimately our aim is to so conform our wills with God's will, that what we desire is what He desires. Sounds something like Christ, doesn't it? "Not my will but thy will be done..." It is also not humanly possible to do it perfectly but we are called on to imitate Christ.

Now until we reach that stage, we will be tempted, we will be sad, we will be angry ... and when we pray for forgiveness and strength to do better, we are confiding in a loving father and friend who will give us help (grace) to become more like Christ.

And when trouble looms, a client threatening to leave, a beloved parent ill with cancer; prayer reminds us that God is there and cares. We do not bear sorrow alone.

When a friend is in trouble, we pray for him and ask God to intercede. He already knows what the trouble is and how it will end, so why should we pray?

Because it is a very special gift God gives us. He allows us to share their burden. We offer what tangible help we can, maybe all we can do is offer a listening ear, and a kindly word. But those small acts of love are gifts from God, too. He so often works through us! And then he allows us the joy of sharing in a good outcome and allows us the gift of sharing sympathy and, even, grief, when the outcome is not the one we wanted.

I cannot tell you, what joy I have felt in seeing outcomes so wonderful that they were beyond anything I could have imagined. And it would not have touched me on so deep a level, had God not allowed me to share the burden through prayer in the first place.

Well, I will try to do better for you tomorrow. But don't lose heart! Prayer matters.

At February 08, 2006 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you again so much for your prayers for me and mine. They are so appreciated.

I wish I had time to write a real response to your very real points in this post. Instead, I'll wipe a tear after being moved by colleen's response and metnion that I couldn't possibly have said it any better.

At February 08, 2006 4:01 PM, Blogger Colleen said...

Jennifer: I really did intend to get back to you yesterday but between my normal life and the incredible tons of garbage I had to wade through trying to find helpful links for you to refer to later, as you had interest or need-- well, it has taken time.

I want to add some things that I wish I had said in my original reply. It is reasonably good as far as it goes (if you look past confusing pronoun/noun agreement and less than clear style) but there were a couple important points I left out.

On the question of why pray when it has all been decided anyway:

No, not quite: "Every prayer changes the entire universe. Our every prayer, each prayer, actually changes history, the way God created the world, and all else. God is outside time. God is not "waiting up there" for our prayer, and then He acts. All has already occurred in God."


This is so important! We are the ones trapped in time. Not God. For that reason a million ... a billion of us could pray to him at the same moment and he would hear each and everyone of us out fully and answer in accordance with our best interests.

We are not left on our own to tug at God's hem (so-to-speak) hoping to ask the right questions or offer the right words. We do not pray by ourselves but by and in Christ through the Holy Spirit, the Helper Christ promised us before he departed from the disciples for the last time:

Romans 8:26-27
In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

I found the most marvelous essay by NT Wright, an Anglican and major scholar, on the Lord's prayer which was mind-blowing. It touches on the larger issues as well as developing the meaning of this seemingly simple prayer in a way that I am going to have to meditate on for weeks.

Thankfully, I wasn't wrong in what I told you; it is just that my explanation in relation to his is like a child reciting the alphabet and a modern actor reciting all of Shakespeare. His site is at:

The essay is linked from the top page in the third column 2nd from the bottom (The Lord's prayer as a paradigm of Christian Prayer). There is a lot there on his site that I am dying to find time to read.

I find that having a job interferes with my life!!

At February 09, 2006 12:57 PM, Blogger Jennifer F. said...

GREAT reply, Colleen. I'm printing the N.T. Wright page to read tonight.


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