(estimated reading time 8 minutes)
Three days ago, the centre of my wonderful home city, London, became the scene of a terrorist attack in which four innocent people were murdered and many more were injured. The aim of the attacker was to incite terror, so it was immensely satisfying to visit the city centre the very next day and see for myself precisely how hard he’d failed. London is a huge and resilient city and, as always, the centre was jam-packed with shoppers and commuters, tourists and photographers, buskers and dancing Hare Krishnas. Walking the pavements from Regents Street down to Embankment, I didn’t for so much as a moment remember to feel afraid – that is, until I approached Trafalgar Square. A shiver of anxiety ran through me as I saw that dozens of police vans and personnel in high-viz vests had formed a formidable ring around the iconic plaza, where people had come together to remember the victims. The police kept a protective watch as the crowd observed silence, lit candles, and gave strength to one another.
After events like this attack, we need gatherings like these. To have a time and a place you can set aside to just take time to process, and reflect, and cry if you need to. This was what Giles Fraser alluded to in his piece for the Guardian yesterday, titled “Prayer is not wishful nonsense. It helps us to shut up and think.” The column was a response to a Tweet sent out earlier by broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer:
“Can everyone stop all this #PrayforLondon nonsense. It’s these bloody stupid beliefs that help create this violence in the first place.”
My knee-jerk reaction was to agree with the sentiment – to an atheist, the phenomenon of the post-attack “#PrayFor” hashtag can reek of useless sentimentality; of an appeal to the same irrationality that spawns the senseless violence of religious and ideological terrorism.
But Fraser’s column reminded me that, for people who aren’t atheist at least, prayer isn’t useless in a time of tragedy:
“It’s a sort of compassionate concentration, where someone is deliberately thought about in the presence of the widest imaginable perspective – like giving them a mental cradling.
But above all, prayer is often just a jolly good excuse to shut up for a while and think.”
In a busy and noisy world where there are constant demands on our attention, prayer can be a way to escape for a few minutes and spend time thinking about what really matters; to hold the ones we love, as Fraser puts it, in a mental cradling. It comes as no surprise, then, that there’s some evidence that prayer can make you a nicer and more forgiving person, as someone named Clay Routledge writes in a rundown of the scientifically-supported benefits of prayer. Other benefits of prayer that he lists are increased levels of self-control, increased trust between people who pray together, and an ability to offset the negative health effects of stress. No wonder, then that when a national tragedy happens, people often turn to prayer. At times like these, prayer isn’t necessarily an appeal to a sky-wizard to break the physical laws of the universe or miraculously make the world peaceful; maybe if our national religious heritage were different we’d turn to collective meditation, which provides similar benefits.
Fraser’s approach to prayer is the one we reach for in a time of collective fear and stress – but it would be dishonest to pretend that this aspect of prayer is all prayer is. After all, as others have pointed out to Fraser, we could just as easily “shut up and think” without prayer. And as a former Christian, I find it ironic that Fraser’s description of what prayer is not, is essentially what I and so many others have been taught to believe that prayer in fact is:
“Prayer is not a way of telling God the things he already knows. Nor is it some act of collective lobbying, whereby the almighty is encouraged to see the world from your perspective if you screw up your face really hard and wish it so. Forget Christopher Robin at the end of the bed. Prayer is mostly about emptying your head waiting for stuff to become clear. There is no secret formula. And holding people in your prayers is not wishful thinking.”
I was taught to pray according to a popular formula called ACTS, which stood for: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, “supplication” meaning to ask God for things. In the context of the churches I attended in the past, corporate prayer was very much an act of collective adoration, confession, and thanksgiving, but also very much an act of collective lobbying. We were encouraged to have faith that whatever we asked for would be given to us (where did we get that idea?*). In one respect, however, Fraser and my former churches agree: we weren’t encouraged merely to wish for God to answer favourably. Rather we were told to have total and utter unwavering confidence that he would do so – if we asked often enough and hard enough, and fully believed we’d get what we wanted.
The best description of this kind of prayer that I’ve read comes from one of its critics, an American pastor named Greg Boyd. In an interview with Rachel Held Evans, he talked about meeting up with other members of his church for what Fraser might think of as a corporate lobbying session:
“A dozen or so other people and I had gathered to pray for a young man who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. At the beginning of the meeting the lady who owned the house we were in stood up and read Jesus’ statement, “according to your faith it will be done to you.” She then told us that if our faith was free of doubt, this young man would be healed. The implication was that if we doubted, he would not be healed.
As we entered into prayer for this young man, everyone in the room felt pressure to try to make ourselves certain that this man was in fact going to be healed. As I share in my book, after a couple of minutes of praying the image of the Lion on the Wizard of Oz suddenly popped into my mind and I saw him saying, “I do believe, I do believe, I do, I do, I DO believe!” just as he does in the movie. It occurred to me that this was exactly what we were doing. We were trying to talk ourselves into becoming certain, as if faith was a sort of psychological gimmick. And it made me wonder what kind of God would leverage the life of a young man on how well we were to perform this psychological gimmickry, and about a matter that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can’t be certain of. It seemed like we were caught in a cruel, twisted joke!”
As you might expect, faith can become a heavy burden when it’s exercised in such a manner. From time to time, I certainly felt it. When God didn’t answer my prayers, there was always the distinct possibility that it was because I didn’t believe hard enough that he would. I found this confusing, because the prayers he didn’t answer were often the ones I was most certain that he would, in fact, answer. Then when he didn’t, I’d embark on a lot of soul-searching and introspection: where had I gone wrong? Where, inside me, could I find this lack of faith and drive it out?
Even more psychologically stressful than the original “gimmick”, was the one that came after: the task of persuading myself to have even more faith in God’s prayer-answering capacities than I did prior to a prayer going unanswered. It’s a normal, healthy, human thing to try to keep one’s expectations realistic, but for many Christians, it’s a barrier to true faith that must be overcome.
For example, let’s say you pray Prayer 1 with 99% confidence that God will answer, and God doesn’t answer. When it comes time to pray Prayer 2, what’s your expectation going to be that God will answer your prayer: higher or lower? It’s only natural that your expectation will be lower, of course. After all, you prayed once before and didn’t get an answer. And yet, the model of faith I followed stated that because 99% confidence had been too low to see Prayer 1 answered, when it was time to pray Prayer 2 I had to move my confidence up to 100% or I could probably expect the same negative outcome. In other words, the model of faith I followed went against the basic processes humans use to make sense of the world; judging the likely outcomes of various actions based on previous experience. How can this not be psychologically stressful?
Given this model of faith, it’s hardly surprising that the longer I was a Christian, the more difficult prayer became. I often felt that I asked too many questions, over-thought things, doubted too much, and lacked the easy faith that seemed to come to many of the other Christians I knew. And it made me feel like I was failing.
I once asked the young people’s pastor at the church I attended about this difficulty. “It says you will get whatever you ask for”, I told him, “but there are all these exceptions: you didn’t have enough faith, it’s not the right time, it’s not in God’s will… how are you supposed to have perfect confidence that God will give you whatever you ask, at the same time as knowing that he might not do it – but if he doesn’t do it, that might be because you lacked faith? Isn’t that a vicious circle?”
He didn’t have an answer.
Boyd believes he has an answer, though. He believes that these kinds of mental gymnastics – which he calls “certainty-seeking faith” – are destructive:
“Thoughtful people legitimately wonder why God would consider this ability virtuous, to the point of leveraging people’s eternal welfare on it! So too, this model makes thoughtful people who have perfectly reasonable doubts feel guilty and rewards people who either lack the concern or the intellectual curiosity to question their beliefs by making them feel like they have “strong” faith.
On top of this, those who embrace “certainty-seeking faith” tend to become narrow-minded, for honestly trying to see things from other peoples’ point of view might lead them to question their faith and thereby jeopardize their “salvation.“ In fact, this model can easily lead people to develop learning phobias, for if you dare to read broadly and learn to see things from other people’s point of view, you might [start] uncovering facts that could shake your certainty and thus displease God. I’m convinced this explains why Christians, especially conservative Christians, have a well-deserved reputation in the broader culture for being narrow-minded.”
As a response to this problem, Boyd wrote a book called Benefit of the Doubt, detailing a different perspective on what faith ought to be. I haven’t read it. Perhaps it would have helped me with my struggles when I was a believer, or perhaps Boyd merely turns the psychological gimmickry down a few notches, and maybe I was so used to playing mind games with myself that I wouldn’t have even noticed I was still playing them.
When prayer helps people to psychologically heal, then its effects are nothing to complain about. I hope, sincerely and deeply, it can bring deep comfort to people affected by the attack this week. Indeed I’m glad that prayer can be such a comfort to so many around the world, afflicted by their own tragedies. While the world news focussed on the terror attack in London this week, the carnage in Syria raged on, claiming dozens of innocent lives. Anything that can bring some comfort to the aching hearts of the survivors is welcome. But there’s more than one kind of prayer. I don’t make the mistake of thinking that “God” is so toothless that talking to him is merely a synonym for shutting up and thinking.
*This is just a little postscript to clarify something: if you have decided that God didn’t answer my prayers because I was asking for selfish things and/or treating God like my personal dancing monkey/vending machine, expecting to get everything I wanted all the time like some kind of pious Verucca Salt, first of all that isn’t true. I rarely asked for trivial things and usually asked for things that meant a lot to me or other people, or for divine help in developing personal qualities that would make me a better Christian and a better witness for Christ. Secondly, please read this article from Godless in Dixie: “Shame on You for Thinking Prayer Does Anything“.