Is prayer a form of “deity panhandling”?

Mormon Hereticbooks, LDS lessons, Mormon, prayer 15 Comments

I’m teaching the Priesthood lesson today.  You may have had this lesson already; we may be a week behind you.  Before I get into the lesson, I thought it might it might be nice to get some quotes on prayer.

“There are two kinds of people: those that say to God ‘Thy will be done.’  And those to whom God says ‘Ok, have it your way.’  C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.

“Under certain circumstances profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”  Mark Twain.

Larry King wrote a book called Powerful Prayers.  He tells a joke on page 25.

“A rabbi and an alcoholic bus driver arrive in heaven at the very same moment.  The rabbi is shocked when the bus driver is greeted with great accolades and immediately asked to come inside while the rabbi is told to wait outside for a moment.  After a while the rabbi is brought inside and he immediately asks God why he had to wait after performing God’s work on earth while the bus driver with the drinking problem was given a hero’s welcome.  God says, ‘Rabbi, when you spoke in synagogue everyone went to sleep.  When the bus driver was on the job, everyone was praying.’

The Gospel Principles manual divides the lesson into 5 questions.  I think we could have a good discussion based on these questions.

What Is Prayer?

While I like this question, I think this lesson is so bland that it deserves a little spice.  I’ve been reading a book titled The Road Less Traveled and Beyond by M Scott Peck.

“I’ve said before that I am a born contemplative.  This means that setting aside time to think—and pray—is as natural to me as brushing my teeth.  My routine involves a total of almost two and a half hours a day, in three separate forth-five minute intervals.  No more than a tenth of that time is spent talking to God (which is what most people would consider prayer) and another tenth listening to God (a definition of meditation).  For the rest of the time, I’m just thinking, sorting out my priorities and weighing options before making decisions.  I call it my prayer time because if I simply called it my thinking time, people would view it as less ‘holy’ and feel free to interrupt me.  But I’m not being dishonest.  In many ways, thinking is akin to prayer.

My favorite definition of prayer—one that doesn’t even mention God—comes from Matthew Fox, who describes prayer as “a radical response to the mysteries of life.”  Thus prayer has everything to do with thinking.

Why Do We Pray?

CS Lewis said, “I don’t pray because it changes God; I pray because it changes me.”

Let me quote from Larry King’s book again.  He interviewed Tom Robbins on pages 50-51,

“I think a lot of prayer is nothing more than deity panhandling.  People ask for God for money, for cars, for girlfriends and boyfriends, and for help in their work.  I don’t think that’s the Deity’s function.  At least, I don’t know, I find something tacky about that.  The only think that I ask God for is protection and safety of my loved ones—and myself.

When Should We Pray?

Larry interviewed Steve Young on pages 169-170,

“I don’t pray to win because that’s not appropriate.  I pray for safety and for clarity of mind.  There have been many times when I have left the sidelines for the field and I say a quick prayer for clarity of mind.”

How Should We Pray?

J Willard Marriott on page 149,

“I’ve always been taught it’s not necessarily good to pray for the end result.  But it’s good to pray for assistance and help in whatever you need to do….I’ve come to believe that fasting is an important part of prayer.  It cleanses the body and weakens you to the point where you are more humble and attuned with what you need to say, and it helps you listen.

When I fast and pray, I always say the prayer at the end.  It’s more effective in the end that it is in the beginning.  I think you are more in tune with the spirit….Prayer is work and the Lord requires a lot of work sometimes.

How Are Prayers Answered?

Steve Young said on page 170,

So many times we learn by unanswered prayers.  So many times there are prayers we say—“Gee, if this would just work out once”—but what we need isn’t always what we want, it’s what the Lord knows is best for us.  The purpose of mortality is to learn.

On page 163,  Larry asks rabbi Irwin Katsof,

So I put the question to the rabbi:  If a prayer is answered but we’re not given the tools to decipher it and are not even aware it has been answered because so much mishagoss—Yiddish for “craziness”—has been piled on top of if, then the prayer really hasn’t been answered.  Or has it?

Another uncomfortable pause at the other end of the phone.  Or maybe the discomfort was on my end?  Let’s see, if an uncomfortable pause occurs and there’s nobody there to hear it…

“Larry, if a prayer is answered and your eyes aren’t open, then of course you’re not going to see it or understand it.

Why can’t God speak English?  Why all the hoops?

What do you want?  You want it delivered every morning like the newspaper?  You want room service?  You want a Larry Channel on your TV?”

I must admit, I started thinking about the  last one and enjoying the idea…..

Comments 15

  1. Great post – important things to consider. When I’m focused and more deliberate in my prayers, I try to focus not so much on the end results of things, but generally on three areas: Process – asking for help/awareness/endurance to live and grow how I need to/could, Gratitude – being grateful just for life, among other things, and Guidance – not so much usually more specific answers, but be guided overall in my life in ways that will allow me to grow and also help others effectively.

  2. Great answer AdamF

    I think prayer is a means of discovery. I believe anyone who prays to a deity with sincerity will gain the ear of deity. I’m saying this way to make the point that all mankind have access to God, via Jesus Christ, because we’re all son and daughters of the same God.

    What we discover in prayer will differ for everyone. It depends on what kind of tradition we’re raised in. Someone who has never heard of the Savior–“prayer’s” will certainly be different than someone raised in a Christian home. Regardless, I believe their “prayers” will be heard and some kind of discovery will be the forth coming.

    For covenant making, and covenant keeping LDS I believe all their discoveries in prayer will point them, like a compass needle, to acquiring the gift of the Holy Ghost. This is the greatest gift LDS can acquire in this life.

    With it everything in the scriptures can be ours, without it we can never know God well enough to obtain the Celestial Kingdom. In the end, we are like a panhandler because we have no means, in and of ourselves, to receive what is necessary to become joint-heirs with Christ without the grace of God.

  3. I think King Mosiah was of the opinion that we are in fact all “beggars before God”. Even so, when it comes to wordly sustenance it can be quite a conundrum to figure out how God manages the doling of blessings which are often attained by competitive output. In this light, praying for clarity in the process seems like a better take. Still it ultimately requires a survival of the fittest reward system if both parties are fervently praying and equally worthy of the reward per a Mormon view righteousness. I wouldn’t fault a person for praying over their flocks and their fields, but I’ll be honest by saying I don’t get how this really works seeing that God is supposed to be the universall Father of mankind and no respector of persons, all while a cursory glance over history shows that distribution of resources has always been completely inequitable.

  4. When I pray, it’s more of an attitude of “I’ll try to be a good person and do my best. I’ll try to make good decisions. Please let my path blunder in the correct general direction. Amen”

  5. #4 Cowboy–

    God is a universal God, and is no respecter of persons, as you said; however the righteous are favored (1 Nephi 17:35). The righteous in turn, are supposed to be a blessing to all others.

  6. Ah,but Jared,how are the righteous favoured?

    By prosperity,or by the infinite grace of God in requiring that we submit to his educative process?

    Is a chinese peasant more righteous than me,in living a life of submission to service,ignorant of either commandments or covenants?

    Guess what I think.

  7. Jared:

    I understand the theology, and wouldn’t debate an argument which say’s that “spiritually” one group is more blessed than all others (not because I agree, but because these are not evidence based conclusion). However, there is little empirical evidence to support the claim that God favors the “righteous” pan-handlers with greater prosperity than he does other groups. Again, just a quick glance both in our immediate social circles and in the world more broadly shows suffering and ease both among the so-called “righteous” and “wicked” in fashion devoid of both theological ryhme and/or reason. Among moral philosophers it is almost cliche` these days to ask the age old question of “if God is good and loves his children, why does he let bad things happen to good people”. Because I know you love a good scripture reference, how about D&C 42: 43-44. From this I gather that God is admitting, according to the Doctrine & Covenants, to an arbitrary doling of blessings, even for those administered by the Priesthood. In spite of all this, my simple point was – I don’t object to prayer for prosperity or sustaining, but in the competitive enviroment that has defined most of the various economies throughout history, often the attainment of a good by one party (particularly in surplus) comes at the cost of an insufficient amount of that good by another party. Historical wage studies are a particularly good example of this.

  8. My experience has been that prayers filled with gratitude and prayers of surrender (The Serenity Prayer or a “thy will be done” mentality are powerful prayers. They help us face challenges with a more peaceful attitude and allow us to better access God’s power and mercy in our lives. I like this quote by Master Eckhart, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is “thank you”, it will be enough.” I also like this quote by Charles de Foucauld: “Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
    Watever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all.
    Let only your will be done in me, and in all Your creatures –
    I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my soul;
    I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you Lord,
    and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands,
    without reserve, and with boundless confidence,
    For you are my Father.”

  9. I think when prayer becomes merely a way to fulfill our physical wants, we are guilty of panhandling. I am reminded of a scripture in the D&C that says if we ask for things we ought not, it will be to our condemnation. Nevertheless, I think Cowboy makes an excellent point in relation to King Benjamin’s address that we are all beggars. (Thanks Cowboy–I used your comment in my lesson today–I read it just before I went up!) I thought comparing King Benjamin’s comment to Tom Robbins panhandling comment was an excellent contrast.

  10. #7 wayfarer–

    I’m not sure of your point.

    #8 Cowboy–

    There is lots of meat in your comment.

    The only point I would add, is that being favored doesn’t always mean the Lord will bless the righteous with prosperity–whether it be in health, education, or wealth. It might show up in ways not discernible by others; spiritual gifts, talents, and etc. It could also mean difficulty. For example, Neal Maxwell said the following:

    “Rather than simply passing through trials, we must allow trials to pass through us in ways that sanctify us.”

  11. Jared:

    I don’t have much of an objection for that take on things, I even accounted for it in my comments. I don’t even have a problem with the notion of a person praying for their success, I mean most of us have had to endure the nerves and fear that come with the possibility that we may fail and be unable to care for ourselves and our families. Given that, why not pray? It’s just that when I stop and think about the implications behind such prayers being “answered” I realize our expectations often pit us against another prayer. So, I don’t know if prayer is something we do for our own sakes, or if it is something that God expects and responds to. And if he does, how does he manage it in some way that doesn’t appear nepotistic? After all, how often is a promotion granted, for example, where there aren’t at least a few candidates who are both “worthy” and praying for the position????

  12. #12: Cowboy

    I agree that in a zero-sum game one person’s promotion is another person’s not-promotion. My attitude is different. I don’t think that God cares that much about most things that we care about. I think there are very few cases where he actually cares what position we have at work, what food we eat, what we like to do for fun, etc. My prayers are much more general. Help me in my quest to be a better person, more loving, more caring and kind to my fellowman, etc. Bless my family in their lives that they may learn what they need to learn to be good people. Help me accept my lot in life, learn from it, grow.

    I think much more than that can be dangerous to our spirituality and confusing. We all have sincere prayers that go unanswered. We all have blessings despite our lack of prayer and worthiness. I don’t see a relation in many regards. Good and bad things happen to good people. Good and bad things happen to bad people. It all seems somewhat arbitrary. So we should instead pray to accept things as they are and thank God for the good.

  13. Mike:

    I think that makes sense, and I think it is good policy to take the position that we really don’t understand God’s way – After all he himself stated that his way’s are not our ways. At the same time, I think the challenge with the don’t put too much pressure on God approach is that it is a good way to keep God from letting us down – without really doing much of anything for us either.

  14. For me, prayer has been a source of many blessings. Not only for myself, but for other family members. I have recorded hundreds of answers to prayer in my journal. Many of the answers have been serendipitous. These kinds of answers don’t come with a feeling or impression, things just line up in a way that has the Lord’s finger prints all over them. Many other answers come by impressions,or dreams. Some answers have come in ways that are miraculous (faith is replaced with knowing). These kinds of answers are sometimes accompanied by a profound sense of love that allowed me understand, in a small way, what Nephi meant when he said:

    He hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh. 2 Nephi 4:21

    Then, of course, there are prayers that so far have gone unanswered.

    I am not relating this with any sense of pride whatsoever. I know the truth about myself. The Lord left the ninety and nine and found me as a teenager well on his way to a life of misery. He reclaimed me. I hold special feelings for parable the Savior related in Luke 7:40-43.

    I can’t answer every question that comes along, but I can say with knowledge that the Savior is indeed the Son of God, and is the God of the prophet Joseph Smith.

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