We’ve been receiving Christmas cards. They’re a bit fun, but I wonder how many people send them out, not because they just love to do so, but because it’s an obligation. An obligation because if some certain person doesn’t get one, that person will be angry or hurt or feel excluded. An obligation because this is just what we have always done so we keep mindlessly doing it. An obligation because we have to keep up the facade that we are doing just fabulously fantastic, and we need to let all our even near acquaintances know that we are great, even if we aren’t. I’m not trying to be a downer on Christmas. I love Christmas. And I recognize that it certainly is completely possible to just love sending Christmas cards and to do it for pure and honest reasons. But I’m suspect what is behind the majority of card sending, especially when I get one that has some pretty picture, a machine printed message, and a signature. What’s the point of that? Anyway, this is a side issue and an introduction to my main question.
That question is about prayer. One of the cards we have already received (And maybe that is part of the message of this particular card that the senders are doing so very fabulously good that they sent their cards out before Thanksgiving even. But maybe they are just very organized and know they will be busy and not have time to do it after Thanksgiving.) told about a significant illness requiring hospitalization for a few days but that the end result was complete healing which is certainly a wonderful thing in my book. The card went on to describe how there were numerous prayer chains reaching up to the heavens and that if it wasn’t for those prayers, the result would not have been what it was. The author went so far as to imply that the prayers were THE REASON why this person got better. It felt a bit hollow as I read it initially, and as I read and re-read, I wondered what benefit there was in all that, hanging that entire thing on prayer. It just doesn’t seem to sit well inside me, like hoping in a pipe dream or a fairy tale of some sort, almost like falling for some dishonest propaganda or something. And knowing the person who wrote this like I do, I can’t help but wonder if there was a sense on their part that they must approach it in this fashion or else they wouldn’t meet the approval of others in their community of friends, family, and acquaintances. Let me try and clarify a bit.
I’m a physician and take care of gravely ill people in the ICU all the time. It’s a regular part of my existence. And I’m not trying to say that it is the physicians who cured this person and that they are the ones responsible for the healing. I don’t have a physicians-are-gods complex, and that’s not what I’m getting at here. I see people day after day get better and respond to proper medical treatments. It doesn’t take any prayer. You have an ear infection. You get an appropriate antibiotic. And you get better. Without prayer. It doesn’t take any prayer. Get as complicated as you want to get, and it still works the same way. It doesn’t take any prayer. So why add it in there? I don’t pray that God help me eat my dinner well. I don’t pray that God help me know when to go to the bathroom. I don’t pray that God help me remember how to get to WalMart. So why add prayer in here?
At this point some may say that studies have shown that people who are prayed for have better outcomes, and you’d be right. But you wouldn’t be fair unless in your statement you also acknowledge that there are at least an equal number of studies that show no difference between prayed for and non-prayed for and that there are also studies that show those who are prayed for actually do worse. Which means, to me, in the end that there is at least no scientific evidence that praying for others results in disease healing. It’s a wash. But prayer in this way seems to me to be something that we use as a tool to accomplish something for us. In this case, healing, and also maybe being able to talk about how much prayer you were doing and how it is more important to you than food and water. I think I remember Christ telling us to pray in secret, and in the model of prayer he gave us, I don’t see anything about asking God to accomplish things for us. That doesn’t then mean that it’s improper for us to do so. But too often it appears to me that we are praying selfishly and then liking to talk about how we rely so much on prayer. That kind of praying and placing faith and hope in a God who responds to that kind of praying seems to me to be completely useless.
Now this pessimism doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to prayer and that I think it’s worthless. In fact, I think it can be very valuable. For one, the act of praying forces us to slow down and self-reflect which is a good thing in this fast paced culture. Yoga does a lot of the same thing, and I think yoga could be prayer in action. I’ve even prayed some while doing yoga myself. But I think the main value in prayer is not at all that we can ask God for things like healing or wins or losses or parking places (Yes, I know someone who believes that God gives them parking places close to the door when they pray for them.), but in the humility that it brings the person who is doing the praying. Honest communication with God that is not focussed around bargaining or asking for this or that or that is not for the purpose of later on declaring how much you pray and how much you rely on prayer for your very existence, brings forth the acknowledgement within ourselves that there is something greater than ourselves responsible for our existence. And that kind of humility is something that is very obviously critically needed in a world where the powerful and seemingly invincible in sport, business, and government repeatedly fall victim to their money and their attitude and their lust for more power. If you don’t have something or someone or both in your life which do a good job of keeping you humble, of helping you realize that you do in fact need other people, you are heading for a painful decline. Prayer, when approached with an appropriate attitude and mindset, I think accomplishes just that.