Flood zone victims are “praying every day” for relief from the rising waters. So says a headline on one of my news feeds. Last month, the governor of Texas officially announced a “Weekend of Prayer” to pray for rain to alleviate the Texas drought. Well, how’s that working out for you, Governor? Perhaps the two groups should get together and pray for the rain that is already falling to move farther to the west and solve both problems.
When I was a kid, I prayed every night, whenever I didn’t forget. I went through the usual rigmarole of listing all the people in my family that the Lord should bless and to make tomorrow a good day, etc. I would be a little concerned that maybe God wouldn’t hear or grant my prayers if I didn’t say them quite right: Should I always say “In Jesus’ name” at the end? What if I forgot to say “amen”? Do I pray to God directly or to Jesus?
To cover my bets, sometimes I would pray to God and Jesus and also say it in Jesus’ name and then wrap it up with an amen at the end. That should get the attention of the Almighty. But even as I went through the process of saying prayers while sometimes half asleep I never really, down deep, believed they would work. When I was sick or someone else was sick, I would pray about it, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that I was doing any good. It was a formality of my upbringing.
Even well into my adult years, I continued to pray occasionally when in distress about something or if I was worried over something. I always thought I would pray about it “just in case” there was something to it. But something always bugged me about prayer and praying in general. I never really thought much about it, but something wasn’t quite right.
At the point in my life that I began to take a critical look at my religious beliefs I also took a critical look at the efficacy of prayer. I came to realize that praying is a completely futile effort and the only good it can do is to perhaps make someone feel better about themselves or to provide a certain level of comfort. But in realizing that prayer is useless, even the comfort-giving nature of prayer is removed.
What was it about prayer that I couldn’t wrap my brain around? Why did I always, even as a child, question its usefulness? For one thing, I came to realize that all my prayers were not being answered. I remember reading and hearing about bible verses that told of how all you had to do was to pray for something and it would be yours. I realized that praying for something selfish probably wasn’t covered, but most of my prayers were not for selfish purposes. And yet, most were not answered.
Adults would always tell me that “God answers prayers in his own way and in his own time” and that sometimes the answers to my prayers come in a different form than what I might expect. But that sounded like a cop-out to me. It’s what people tell themselves about God to cover up for the fact that God doesn’t answer prayers on a regular basis.
Then I started thinking about the Lord’s Prayer, where it says “Thy will be done.” God’s will is always done because it is part of his divine plan. That’s what preachers in the churches I attended when I was young always told me. I was also always told that God knows everything, even the future. “He knew you long before you were even born,” I was told. Well, if all that is true then what is the point of praying for anything? If God’s will is always done and if he knows the future, then my prayer will be answered only if it happens to be in line with God’s divine plan. And it’s not that my prayer itself is answered but that it only seems to be answered because God was going to take the action anyway. In other words, even those who believe in God must realize that petitionary prayer is useless if they also believe that God has a divine plan.
Another thing that bothered me about prayer was the idea that maybe someone else is praying for the opposite to happen. What if a farmer prays for rain while next door the little boy looking forward to his Little League playoff game prays for the rain to hold off? What if both teams in a football game pray for victory? God can’t possibly answer all prayers because sometimes they conflict.
I no longer pray at all, because in the process of reflecting on my own religious beliefs, I came to realize that prayer of any kind is a complete and utter waste of time. Prayers are answered in exact accord with the laws of probability. As the late George Carlin once noted, praying to Joe Pesci would work just as well as praying to God.
If you don’t believe me, or Mr. Carlin, try it for yourself. For the next month, pick a topic and pray about it to God as usual and take note of how often your prayers are answered. Then, the next month, pray to anyone or anything else, maybe your left shoe, and record how many times those prayers are answered. My bet is that the prayers you offer to your shoe will be answered just as often as the prayers you offer to God.
Oh, wait. Wouldn’t that be putting the Lord, your God, to the test? Isn’t that prohibited in the Old Testament? Perhaps, but maybe it’s time to take a lesson from Gideon. Do it anyway.