Thoughts on Prayer Part I: What you’re really praying for

I have always had a hard time with prayer, or rather the concept of prayer that had been widely presented to me. What I mean is, I had a problem with asking G-d to make things go my way. I had a problem with asking and therefore receiving. I always felt like I was treating G-d like a piggy bank, or a vending machine: insert prayer, receive treat. It also didn’t help that if receiving didn’t take place, the explanations were a bit odd. Either I didn’t have enough faith, or G-d answered my prayer with a clear “no.” But, does G-d really say no to things like “will you cure my cancer?” or “will you heal my infant child?” because there are plenty of times that people ask for those things, and nothing happens. This paradigm of prayer also leads itself to countless legitimate critiques from outside sources like “Why won’t G-d heal amputees?” It just seems problematic on many levels.

But, for the longest time, there was a greater problem that I had with this concept of prayer. It all started when I went to a local Christian open mic night. The night before a terrible storm was supposed to hit the area I live in, but ended up heading south and missing us completely. Before the open mic night started, they opened with prayer. In the midst of thank you’s an and you are awesome’s someone started to pray about the storm. They started to praise G-d that their prayers were answered and that G-d caused the storm to miss our area. Everyone erupted in a cacophony of amens and hallelujahs. I sat there in shock.

Now, from an egocentric viewpoint, this prayer request and fulfillment was completely just.

1. I am going to get hit by a dangerous storm.

2. I do not want to be hit by a dangerous storm.

3. I hope G-d saves me from the dangerous storm.

But what are we really asking for here? Are we asking G-d to quell the carnage of the storm? Were we celebrating the removal of chaos? No, we were merely displacing it. So, what ends up being prayed is “G-d, hurt

our neighbors directly south of us. Wreak havoc upon their community, so that we will be spared.” In that open mic, we were celebrating the fact that a dangerous storm hurt numerous people. Is this something we should be praying for? Because if you step outside of yourself, you find that many times, when you pray that something good happens to you, you are praying that something bad happens to someone else.

Here is another example I have been musing over for a while. Let’s say you are currently unemployed and are desperately seeking employment. You have submitted applications to countless businesses. After a long and painstaking wait, one of those companies finally responds and gives you an interview. You go through the interview, tell them exactly why you are the best man for the job, and are now sitting at home a few days later, waiting for a call. You know it takes them a few days to make their decision, and that they are probably mulling over the decision right now. You close your eyes, bow your head, and start to pray. You pray that G-d will guide their decisions. You pray that G-d will bless you with this much-needed job. You thank him for his blessing, and end it with a powerful amen. Afterwards, you have a sort of forced hope that something good will happen. You feel like you have to, otherwise you will be doubting G-d, and your lack of faith will not be rewarded.

Now, what is really going on here?

When praying that G-d would give you the job, you are also inherently praying that G-d will not give the job to someone else. You are praying that many people will have to endure the rejection of not being employed, so that you can. What if one of those people was more qualified than you and you just asked G-d to give the job to you instead? You have just asked G-d to hurt the company you are hoping to work for. What if one of those people is about to lose their house, and this job is their last chance? You have just asked that G-d take away that chance from that person.  The biggest problem I find with the modern vending machine model of prayer is how

egocentric it is.

We are not at the center of the universe. There are others around us all the time. We need to realize what we are really praying for, the next time we pray that G-d gives us a close parking spot, or a favorable outcome to a game. We need to think more critically the next time we “pray away” a storm, or ask G-d to bless us.

It’s time we realize who we are cursing when we ask for blessing.

I don’t want the Father; I want a vending machine
I don’t want the Father; I want a vending machine
I know what I want, if you know what I mean
I don’t want the Father; I want a vending machine

(Derek Webb-The Spirit vs. The Kick Drum)

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