Chuck Smith said, “I am convinced that prayers do not and cannot change the purposes of God ….” Assume, for the sake of argument, that God, as conceptualized by the average Christian or Muslim, exists. If God knows all and everything is proceeding according to plan, then why pray? What is the point of informing God of that which he already knows? Why expect God to change the plan in order to accommodate the wishes of the one praying? Yet beseeching the gods to change course seems to be at the root of most religions. Smith goes on to explain how prayer can “change the action of God”:
But your prayers open the door and allow God the opportunity to do those things that He’s been desiring to do, but wouldn’t do in violation of your own free will.
There is something about that that feels wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it. We’ll come back to it. According to Smith, there are three forms of prayer: worship, petition, and intercession. Needless to say, I don’t understand those terms quite the way he does.
Worshiping prayer means conceptualizing forces of nature as a conscious being, and attempting to communicate with that concept as if it were a real person. This form of prayer reinforces the illusion that there is an invisible supernatural being behind the scenes of the universe. To worship in prayer is to distort reality, to see everything as the work of a god, rather than experiencing everything without having to understand it, appreciating that there are mysteries that are not so easily explained as to say, “Thanks, Creator.”
Apparently, God won’t give you everything you need unless you ask him for it. It’s that free will thing, I guess. Anyway, it seems like a good way to foster dependence on a hypothetical being and, more importantly, dependence on the organization that distributes the blessings of that being.
In the same way, God will withhold some of the necessities of life of others unless you ask for him to provide them. Furthermore, we are enlisted by God to “do battle” against Satan by focusing our mental energy against demons. “Intercessory prayer is a real labor. It’s a real conflict in the battle against Satan. It’s the deciding factor, and that’s why Satan fights it so hard.” (Smith) By encouraging this kind of mental gymnastics, religious groups get their members to invest time and energy in the practice of the faith. The more investment, the harder it is to break free.
Here is what bothers me about the way this god operates. (I said we’d come back to it.) Somehow, the god of Smith’s imagination allows the free will of his creatures to wreck the perfect plan he had for the universe. Sometimes God won’t intervene for the good of his children unless they humbly ask him to; he won’t override their desires, and do the right thing for them against their will. Yet everything works out in the end anyway. Good triumphs, evil is defeated, and it all works out in line with God’s purposes.
You already know the answer to that conundrum. It’s because God knew from the outset what was going to happen. Every bad choice “freely” made was included in the perfect plan. Everything happens for a reason, even horribly criminal things. God foresaw all those bad choices and included them in the plan. So they had to happen. You see why it makes me uncomfortable?
So Why Pray?
Finally, Oswald Chambers had an interesting take on prayer: “To say that ‘prayer changes things’ is not as close to the truth as saying, ‘Prayer changes me and then I change things.'” This equates prayer with meditation. I can use prayer to “center” myself, and see the world in a way that enables me to focus my energy more effectively.
Sure, why not? There is nothing supernatural or irrational in that, and I can see how it could work in a “positive thinking” kind of way, but is it prayer? It doesn’t fit into any of Smith’s categories. If it is communication with God, it is one-way, from God to the one praying. I think it is more likely communication of the mind with itself, but I’m okay with it. Let’s call it “meditative prayer” and let it be.
I’m going to let Mr. Deity have the last word: