Long, long ago I fully believed in the power of prayer. I believed that a real live god stood by to receive my prayers, then granted them out of love for me—except, of course, when he didn’t grant them at all. In this way, I was like most Christians today. Without even recognizing that I had, I absorbed a number of rationalizations around unanswered prayer. Christians still absorb and parrot those rationalizations today, with the aid of countless websites, sermons, ministers’ exhortations, and even books. But they must. They all hold two completely contradictory beliefs in their minds about prayer, and these two beliefs must be kept compartmentalized at all costs.
(This post went live on Patreon on 3/28/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, and it should be available by the time you read this. <3)
How Christian prayer began in the Gospels
In the four gospels of the New Testament, Jesus talks often about the power of prayer. To hear him tell it, prayer opens up a magical conduit between believers and their god. That god, Yahweh, is standing by to receive his followers’ prayers—and to answer them. Answers take many forms, of course. But most often, Jesus taught his followers that those answers will always be a firm and unequivocal YES.
Kevin Halloran is a Christian guy who wrote a whole book about how hard it is for Christians to pray. (Of course, he isn’t telling anybody anything they didn’t already know on that score.) The book offered tips Christians could use to get into the habit of prayer. In addition to writing a book on the topic, he’s also thoughtfully collected all of Jesus’ own statements about prayer in the four Gospels. He seriously thinks that these Bible verses will extra-inspire Christians to pray more often.
Yes, it’s another as the night the day belief: If Christians learn what the Bible says about any topic, then adopt perfect beliefs about that topic, then they will go on to behave in the most correct ways. We’ve seen this error many times.
Alas, that’s absolutely incorrect. In truth, most Christians rarely pray beyond reflexive blessings before meals, brief prayers performed in church or before bedtime, and ritualistic chants before starting the car.
At least his list seems complete!
How Christian prayer began in the Gospels
I won’t reprint all of the verses he’s collected in his post (relink). Instead, I’ll summarize the important parts:
- Pray in private, not in front of heathens. If you swan around in public, Yahweh won’t reward you. (Matthew 6:5-15; this means prayers garner rewards.)
- Whatever you ask for will be given to you. Period. Whatever you seek, you’ll find. Whatever door you knock upon in prayer will be opened to you. Every Christian who asks for something will receive it. (Matthew 7:7-11)
- If two or more Christians pray together and agree on what they want to see happen as a result, that result becomes even more guaranteed. (Matthew 18:19-20)
- The only requirement for getting stupendous, miraculous prayer results is faith that it can and will happen. (Matthew 21:21-22; Jesus’ example has prayers resulting in Yahweh literally casting mountains into the sea at his followers’ request.)
- Really seriously, all you need is faith and no doubt that your request will happen. Believe it can and will happen, and it 100% “will be yours.” (Mark 11:23-26)
- You know how squeaky wheels get the grease in the real world? Yahweh’s like that too, except even more so because there are way more wheels squeaking at him at all hours. (Luke 18:1-14)
- You know all those miracles Jesus totally performed in the Gospels? Thanks to prayer, his followers will do all of those same miracles and bigger ones besides. (John 14:12-14)
- Oh, and another drilling-down on prayer requests always being answered. Whatever his followers ask of their god in prayer, “it will be done for you.” (John 15:7; John 15:16 reiterates the same, as does John 16:23-27.)
It sounds so impressive, right?
But Christian prayer didn’t look like that in the rest of the New Testament
Of course, the Gospels were written between about 66CE-110CE. At the time, plenty of Christians were completely positive that the world would be ending Any Day Now.™ It’s entirely possible that the Epistles (letters to various people and congregations, usually ascribed to the Apostle Paul) were written even earlier than that, perhaps around the 50s-80s. The Acts of the Apostles probably got written around 90-100CE, along with Revelation.
The Epistles have always felt like hands-on early Christianity, while the Gospels have long felt like mythmaking attempts. To me, the Gospels are how Christians want Christianity to be and feel, but the Epistles reflect how early Christians actually were: fractious, divided, arguing all the time, focused on the wrong things, and almost entirely hypocritical.
It’s obvious that real-world early Christians realized early on that the Gospels’ promises about prayer did not look like their experience of it. So we start seeing a lot more weaseling and rationalization in how they think prayer operates and why those promises never seem to come to fruition in lived, everyday experience.
The asterisked terms and conditions of prayer have entered the chat
But along with those promises, they get a great many asterisks. (This short list comes from OpenBible, a great source for stuff like this.)
- You didn’t get what you wanted because you didn’t ask for it, you big ol’ dumdum. Or you asked “wrongly,” or wanted something for selfish reasons. Tsk tsk. (James 4)
- Yahweh caught you doubting that you’d get what you wanted. (James 1)
- You’re too sinful for Yahweh to hear you. (1 Peter; 1 John 3:22; this was Ray Comfort’s entire point in his own recent book)
- If you’re a man, you’re too mean to your wife. (1 Peter 3:7)
- Are you sure you’re reverent enough? (Hebrews 5:7)
You’ve probably noticed something important about that list of asterisks:
They all blame the people praying for Jesus-ing incorrectly somehow. Incorrect Jesus-ing unravels the magic spell. Christians must cast their magic spells just right if they want to see results!
And how Christian prayer is going nowadays
1800-ish years later, Christians have had to mangle the New Testament’s stories and letters into something that could last the test of time. Generally speaking, their list of asterisks has collapsed into a uniform list of accusations. Most of these come from evangelicals, of course, since they’re the ones who most need their beliefs to be objectively true.
- A guy on Sermon Central offers a listicle: Unanswered prayers happen because of unresolved conflicts with other Christians, off-limits requests, or sinfulness.
- TGC just lectures evangelicals about being upset about unanswered prayers.
- Someone on Medium tells readers the same old yes/no/wait bullshit—and then tells them that maybe Yahweh did answer, but they just weren’t “paying attention” right then.
- Some pastor offers seven different reasons, all revolving around sinfulness, conflicts, off-limits requests, doubt, and my favorite: forgetting to ask at all.
- Crosswalk offers almost exactly the same accusations.
- BibleInfo offers, beneath a banner image of a man screaming in rage, the same asterisks: making the wrong requests, having unconfessed sin on one’s conscience, not praying enough, and not recognizing that sometimes Yahweh plans to perform the request much, much later. Then its writer blames Christians for not “trusting” their god enough.
- Got Questions and this op-ed offer all the usual blahblah and blame.
- JD Greear, the Southern Baptist megapastor and former president of his denomination, offers exactly the same remonstrations—though he somehow manages to sound way more accusatory than the rest of our sources combined. Yikes, this guy is the worst.
The implication we find everywhere in Evangelical-Land is simple: Prayers get answered, except sometimes you get the opposite of what you asked for or it happens after years of asking for it. If Christians think Yahweh flat rejected their request, then it’s always because of something they did wrong in casting their spell.
Prayer offers endless ways for Christians to beat themselves up
Christians have never presented any solid evidence of prayer doing anything magical in the real world. That said, prayer may subjectively benefit the person doing it in various ways. Also, group prayer might make its members feel more cohesive. But it won’t make anything miraculous happen, any more than shouting Harry Potter spells and waving a wand will make something levitate.
But Christians can’t admit that truth, not even to themselves. Instead, the ones who most need divine help beat themselves up for all the wrong things they must be doing that prevent that help from reaching them.
It’s heartbreaking to see.
I’ve lost count of how many Christians I’ve heard agonizing about what might be keeping their prayers from being answered. They’re all positive they’ve confessed and made amends for their sinful misdeeds. They’re sure that they don’t have any unresolved conflicts with anybody else. Naturally, they’re certain that the requests are acceptably holy and selfless.
And yet the magic spell fails to work.
These requests cover a huge range of needs from healing chronic illness to finding a much-needed job to magically making a new church grow extremely quickly. It’s impossible to understand why a loving god would want a church to fail, or a bright, charismatic pastor with a growing family to succumb to a swift-moving cancer. It’s even more impossible to guess why a loving god would want a child to suffer a fatal disease or unthinkable abuse. Despite endless prayers, though, it all happens anyway.
The Christian love flows yet again
When any Christians finally accept the reality of prayer not being magical at all, you can count on this, too:
The tribe will blame them for not waiting long enough to get magical aid. Yes/no/not yet, after all! The magic might be almost there! But whoops! They left the arena too early! It’s all their fault. They just wanted a Jesus-pony and are mad they didn’t get it! Ugh, they treated Jesus like an ATM! Of course he wasn’t gonna make with the magic pixie dust for them!
But.. but.. that is exactly how Christians of all stripes advertise prayer. As we just saw earlier today, that’s also exactly what the Gospels have Jesus saying about prayer. Evangelicals don’t yank out their blame game and asterisks until someone complains about the marketing hype not being true. If they advertised it truthfully, that supposed magic would sound a lot more pedestrian—perhaps like “Kissing Hank’s Ass.”
Me: “So what makes you think He answers your prayers?”
Mary: “Well, He always answers all prayers. He just might not do what you want right then. Or he’ll decide not to do it at all. You won’t know either way. But maybe you’ll get a good feeling inside, or maybe you’ll see a news story or hear a song that reminds you of your request, or maybe you’ll discover a bank correction in your favor a few months later that exactly covers the bill you wanted him to help with. You might have to ask him for years and years even for something minor, so you always have to watch for these signs.”
Me: “None of that sounds miraculous to me. Do you not know how bank corrections work? Or deja vu, or confirmation bias, or even just feelings?”
John: “But Hank lets you to know he heard your prayer! Unless he decides not to.”
Me: “I’m sorry, but you’re making Hank sound incompetent or evil, or both. No, thanks.”
John: “But you’re turning down the chance of divine help from the god of the whole entire universe! Can you really take that chance?”
In many ways, prayer works a lot like gambling or multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs). In these predatory industries, addicts and the sheerly desperate can get strung along for decades as they await their big score.
But what else can Christians do?
Back in the mid-90s, I finally confronted the differences between Jesus’ direct promises in the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament’s mangling of those promises, and how my own tribe of fundamentalists engaged with prayer in our everyday lives.
That confrontation broke my brain and shredded what was left of my faith. It turned off all of the last trickling taps feeding water into my faith pool, forever. If I couldn’t trust the Bible to give me an accurate accounting of how prayer worked in reality, then I couldn’t trust it anywhere else or about anything else.
I’m so glad it happened, even if it hurt a lot at the time.
By then, I’d spent almost two and a half decades in Christianity—my entire life up to then! Moreover, I’d spent almost ten years of that time in fundamentalism. Fundamentalists tend to make huge requests in prayer, but then they completely forget those requests if nothing happens as a result. They’re experts at memory holing things that don’t fit into their belief framework. It’s like prayers-in-reality and prayers-in-belief live in two completely separate parts of their minds, and (at least ideally) never the twain shall meet.
When I finally got a look at what I’d subconsciously ignored and rationalized for years, it overwhelmed me. I still don’t know what-all I stuffed into that memory hole. It probably contains a lot more than I will likely ever remember.
Suddenly, the world made sense again
Once I accepted the truth about prayer, suddenly my world made sense again. It was such a relief.
If I prayed and it felt like nobody was listening, that was because nobody was. But if I felt a huge emotional rush while praying, that was me working myself up to those feelings. On the many occasions when I felt nothing, I just wasn’t able to work myself up at those times. Some people were much better at working themselves up to those heights than others were, and I wasn’t especially good at it. And many Christian leaders, especially in fundamentalism, are grandmasters at working a crowd up into those highly-emotional states.
If I prayed for something and it didn’t happen, that’s because prayers were just me talking to the ceiling. So if I wanted that thing to happen, I had to make it happen or hope someone else in the real world could do it for me.
At last, I could trace what I thought were divinely-answered prayers to see that they weren’t really miracles at all. Someone had made them happen, or random chance had favored the praying person for a change. I could even sense the streaks of selfishness and self-preservation in claims of divine miracles, especially regarding magical healing and escapes from natural disasters.
But best of all, I no longer had to beat myself up over unanswered prayer. Nor did I ever have to blame myself for some hidden flaw or doubt in myself that had caused Yahweh to ignore my prayers.
If someone’s never been evangelical or Catholic, they might not understand the sheer awesomeness of that last thing. For me, it was like shedding a funeral garment at last. Like stepping out of a cocoon. Like breathing freely for the first time in decades.
Finally, at last, everything just made sense. My world fell into neat, tidy lines that stretched all the way to the horizon in every direction. I finally understood why prayer had always seemed so crazy-making and inconsistent and incoherently understood.
Yes, of course. My beliefs about prayer hadn’t been true, that’s all!
Prayer as a compartmentalized belief
The more fervently a Christian believes that prayer creates magic, the harder they must work to keep that belief away from reality. In a very real sense, they keep their beliefs compartmentalized away from reality.
If their conflicting compartments collide and bust open, the results are never pretty. But such collisions are necessary if we’re to escape false beliefs.
I don’t think living a compartmentalized life is really good for most of us. It stresses most of us out to keep those compartments’ walls secure. After all, antiprocess doesn’t happen for free. It’s a reflection of internal stress. It’s how people try to keep their stress levels minimized as they go through life encountering constant contradictions and challenges to their various false beliefs.
For my own part, I want to live in reality and to build my opinions from objective facts. I don’t want compartments in my mind holding any contradictory beliefs away from each other.
So it seems to me that a real live god who does stuff all the time in the real world will always leave objective, measurable, verifiable evidence behind of his actions. Answered prayers and miracles definitely would count as support for Christians’ claims about their god.
Alas for Christians, they’ve never been able to cobble together anything like that. Instead, they attack those who make the dire mistake of expecting Christians’ marketing hype to be real. Their response says a lot about the general trustworthiness of their hype, doesn’t it?
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PS: Earlier today, I found this interesting study about how people imagine magic works in fictional worlds and game settings. Thought y’all might like it too!