What does prayer mean? What is its purpose in our lives? Today’s guest post is from jmb275.
For much of my life I really loved the Bible Dictionary definition of prayer. This definition emphasizes our need to communicate with God as His children. More specifically it states:
“Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them.”
I often wonder about the form of prayer. You know how it goes: address Heavenly Father, thank Him for blessings, ask for blessings, close in the name of Jesus Christ. What does this mean?
Recently I read “The Demon-Haunted World” by Carl Sagan. There is a portion where he pokes at our understanding of prayer. He says:
“Does prayer work at all? Which ones? There’s a category of prayer in which God is begged to intervene in human history or just to right some real or imagined injustice or natural calamity – for example, when a bishop from the American West prays for God to intervene and end a devastating dry spell. Why is the prayer needed? Didn’t God know of the drought? Was he unaware that it threatened the bishop’s parishioners? What is implied here about the limitations of a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient deity? The bishop asked his followers to pray as well. Is God more likely to intervene when many pray for mercy or justice than when only a few do? – Carl Sagan, “The Demon-Haunted World”, p. 276″
I think Sagan’s point is a good one. Many literalist religious folk are sure that their prayers make the difference and that God blesses them, or others because of their prayerful efforts. At the very least they have confused correlation and causation, not to mention several other logical fallacies. They tend to ignore the times that God doesn’t bless anyone, or at least not in the way we want, and they regular find convenient explanation for God’s actions, or lack of actions. Many of them even stand in disbelief that a skeptic cannot see the hand of God in a recovery after well-meaning prayers on behalf of the afflicted. The entire idea of God answering prayers seems, to me, to be a bit presumptuous by assuming we are capable of speculating on God’s behavior. Worse than that it feels a bit too puppet-like for me.
On the other hand, I think Sagan has missed a very important metaphysical aspect of prayer. I will try to elucidate these points by responding to Sagan’s questions.
- Sagan: Does prayer work at all?
- jmb275: Yes, but I don’t think it works in the way that many believe – both skeptics and orthodox alike.
- Sagan: Which ones?
- jmb275: All that are asked in sincerity, because that’s what makes the prayer effective.
- Sagan: Why is the prayer needed?
- jmb275: It isn’t needed in an external, literal sense. But it may be helpful in a personal sense.
- Sagan: Didn’t God know of the drought?
- jmb275: Yes, I suppose so, but that’s irrelevant because prayer is not about God.
- Sagan: Was he unaware that it threatened the bishop’s parishioners?
- jmb275: This is once again irrelevant.
- Sagan: What is implied here about the limitations of a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient deity?
- jmb275: Absolutely nothing is implied because many skeptics, like many literalist religious people, have largely misunderstood the purpose of prayer.
- Sagan: Is God more likely to intervene when many pray for mercy or justice than when only a few do?
- jmb275: No, because prayer is not a matter of God intervening, or about numbers, or about blessings.
So what is prayer? To me, prayer is a personal yearning. It is our opportunity to commune with the inner god, the god in embryo. It is our opportunity to clear our mind, to focus on our most fundamental wants and needs, and decide what is really important in our lives. Most importantly, I believe it is our opportunity to reflect, and show gratitude – whether to a personal God or just something other than ourselves. Similarly, I also find great value in meditation, clearing my mind, focusing on breathing, living, and just being. It is my own personal and literal study of ontology.
Recently President Monson, in an Ensign article said:
“Will you join me as we look in on a typical Latter-day Saint family offering prayers unto the Lord? Father, mother, and each of the children kneel, bow their heads, and close their eyes. A sweet spirit of love, unity, and peace fills the home. As father hears his tiny son pray unto God that his dad will do the right things and be obedient to the Lord’s bidding, do you think that such a father would find it difficult to honor the prayer of his precious son? As a teenage daughter hears her sweet mother plead unto the Lord that her daughter will be inspired in the selection of her companions, that she will prepare herself for a temple marriage, don’t you believe that such a daughter will seek to honor this humble, pleading petition of her mother, whom she so dearly loves? When father, mother, and each of the children earnestly pray that the fine sons in the family will live worthily that they may, in due time, receive a call to serve as ambassadors of the Lord in the mission fields of the Church, don’t we begin to see how such sons grow to young manhood with an overwhelming desire to serve as missionaries? – President Thomas S. Monson, “Come unto Him in Prayer and Faith”, Ensign, March 2009″
Let me offer my interpretation of the above remarks. I believe that family prayer, like personal prayer is for us. We do it because it helps us show our love, reverence, and respect for those we love. We do it because it is our opportunity to plead aloud for solutions to the problems each family member faces, announcing our support, and love for that individual. We do it because it instills in our children, and ourselves, a reverence for a cause more noble than preservation of self. We do it because it gives us a chance to count our blessings, and name them one by one.
I submit that prayers are more about us than they are about God; that family prayers are effective because of what we say (overheard by our loved ones), not necessarily by any acts of God; and that the purpose of prayer is to align our will with what’s really important in our lives. Hopefully, what’s really important are other people, and our relationships with them. In this way we become the agent to secure the blessings that God is willing to grant to us and others. God’s blessings, I submit, are not conditional upon us asking for them, but are dependent on us recognizing the needs of others, placing them above our own, and becoming the means of providing those blessings.
So what do you all think? Does God literally answer prayers? Or are the prayers answered because we focus on what we need? Is there an unseen force in collective prayer, whether in large groups, or just a family that God recognizes? Or is it an exercise in coming together in a unified purpose? Take the following two polls and tell us what you think.[poll id=”45″] [poll id=”46″]