A few days ago, I ran into a hilarious post on SBC Voices (archive). It was written by a pastor who was sick of hearing Christians use the phrase I prayed about it as an excuse not to do something. Indeed, Christians are caught between the rock of a solid cultural mythology around prayer and the hard place of what prayer actually does in the real world. I wanted to explore those choppy waters a little more. Let’s see how Christians use (and abuse) prayer as an excuse to get out of doing stuff they don’t wanna do—or to rationalize doing stuff they really want to do but know would get a lot of side-eye from their fellow pew-warmers.
(This post first went live on Patreon on 1/19/23. Its audio broadcast lives there too! If you’d like early access, please consider becoming a patron – thank you!)
I prayed about it: Prayer as an end to debate
In Dave Miller’s January 16th post, he complains that “I prayed about it” can be “both comforting and annoying.” He writes:
God isn’t giving us anything but day-by-day, step-by-step guidance. We should not make decisions without praying, seeking the guidance of God’s word, and being led by the Spirit. Praying about things is important in our walk with Christ.
Still, there is a problem when we act as if saying “I prayed about it” or “After much prayer and consideration…” gives our decisions an unquestionable divine imprimatur on our actions. [. . .] They heard from God, who are we to argue?
And he’s not wrong. Anyone who’s tangled much with Christians, especially evangelicals, has experienced something similar. Once Christians declare that they totally prayed, the debate’s over.
Maybe we even did that ourselves once. I sure did.
Back when I was Pentecostal, I was already child-free. That means I never intended to have children. In Pentecostalism, I might as well have said I liked Satanic orgies. It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
Whenever self-important, self-styled prophets tried to tell me that Jesus had told them to order me to have kids, I shut them down in by describing the prayer I’d done about it. It was actually pretty funny to see my tormentors writhing and wriggling under our culture’s mythology about prayer. I told them to pray instead that Jesus would tell me what he’d told them, and then we could talk. Until then, I held my prayer as more powerful than theirs, because I’d experienced it myself.
At the time, I really thought I had. In retrospect, I can see how I subconsciously drew upon our mythology to end these men’s attempts to hijack my life and make my most intimate decisions for me.
I guess it was only a matter of time before Christians began to gripe about people doing exactly the same thing to get out of their control-grabs and away from their judgmentalism. After all, it’s just about the only street-legal way to escape.
Complaints in the wild about how Christians use prayer as an escape from control
We’ll return in a moment to Miller’s stunningly brilliant plan to short-circuit that escape. For now, let’s see how similar Christians make similar complaints.
If it is common sense – don’t pray about it.
If you just want to escape responsibility and accountability – don’t pray about it.
Ah, okay. Earlier, he’d told us that he had spent time in prayer regarding his future wife and starting a new church. But neither of those involved responsibilities and accountabilities he wished to avoid. They were things he desperately wanted. So he knew better than to pray about them. After all, what if his god had said “no” then? Gosh, what would he have done?
So if it isn’t necessary, and it does harm…should we pray about whether or not to do it?
When you put it that way, it sounds absurd. We shouldn’t pray about whether or not to do something harmful and disrespectful to our sons and to God’s wise design. Nor should we say “Well, I prayed about it” as an excuse to end the discussion when we are now aware of the harmful aspects of circumcision.
Prayer is not a magical experiment, where you state your plans to God and then God zaps you and magically gives you the correct decision (which happens to be what we wanted to do in the first place).
And an atheist ran headfirst into claims of prayer as an excuse (archive) when his Christian girlfriend claimed Jesus had first told her to break up with him, then to get back with him. One commenter succinctly laid out her possible reasoning:
“Prayed on our relationship” is code for her friends don’t like you and wanted her to break up with you.
After spending time away from you she realized that was a stupid ass decision and started to regret it.
Jesus is just a cover for her own spinelessness.
Hooray Team Jesus!
How to figure out where responses to prayer even come from
When Christian leaders in particular complain about Christians using prayer as an excuse, they know whereof they speak. The problem they’re facing is a dealbreaker, for sure:
They’ve established prayer as a real communication line between Christians and their god.
But there’s no way to tell if their god’s responses are really coming from him. Responses can also come from the flesh, meaning from the praying Christians themselves, or from the enemy, meaning Satan and/or demons.
Some Christians use the Bible as a litmus test—meaning that responses must line up with one of its thousands of verses somehow. Alas, as any skeptic could tell them, anything can be (and has been) justified and rationalized with the Bible. So as a test, this one falls flat.
Others use what my Evil Ex Biff used to call “a fleece.” The idea comes from a charming, picaresque tale from Judges 6:33-40. In it, Gideon needs to test something Yahweh told him about winning an upcoming battle. He decides to lay a sheep’s fleece on the floor. If it’s wet the next morning, then he heard Yahweh correctly. And it is, indeed, wet the next morning. So the next night, Gideon runs another test: he lays another fleece on the floor. If it’s dry the next morning despite the floor being wet with dew, then he heard Yahweh correctly. And again, the test comes out right.
Interestingly, Yahweh doesn’t mind being tested at all, it seems. Gideon wins his fight. In fact, the next day Yahweh makes absolutely certain that everyone watching that fight knows how unlikely the win was.
So when modern Christians talk about “laying out a fleece,” that’s what they’re doing. They’re asking Yahweh to give them a tangible sign of what they think he’s told them.
No, Christianity’s not pagan at all. Stop looking at me that way. It’s unique among all religions! Totally! (/s)
Christian leaders really don’t like these fleece tests, though. So Christians are back to tallying responses against the Bible and searching their subjective feelings. Literally, that’s what Christian leaders tell them to do!
Using prayer as a trump card
So considering the two street-legal ways to ascertain the source of a prayer’s response, Christians can say almost anything is totally Jesus answering them if they really want to do that. And they can say he told them to do (or not do) anything at all.
I could not design a better system to exploit if I had a hundred years, a budget, a crack ninja team, and a mission statement to do it. Once a Christian declares that Jesus himself said this, then nobody can go against that pronouncement. Not their peers, not their spouse, not even their pastor can gainsay that claim.
There’s no other way to disobey a superior Christian without facing serious repercussions. But this one’s so good that even a pastor risks being perceived as acting against Jesus if he (yes, he; this is the flavor of Christianity where we most often find this behavior, after all) persists in demanding the congregant change course. For those closer to the Christian’s social level, they’re allowed to be sad about Jesus’ command, of course, but they can’t argue about it at all.
And sometimes, the person doing the rejecting doesn’t feel safe in owning their own decision.
Prayer as an excuse: “Sh*tuff Christian Girls Say” Edition
That’s why we so often find assertions of prayer in Christian breakups, especially those initiated by women. In fact, this exact scenario led off a viral video from 2012, “Sh*tuff Christian Girls Say“:
“I just feel like God is leading me to break up with you.”
“I just feel like Daddy God wants us to take a break.”
“I’m just so fearful of being unequally yoked.”
“The other day in prayer, I had a vision of the man I was supposed to marry. And well, he’s not you.” (I’ve heard about Christian men saying the opposite, of course, especially when their real reasons for initiating a breakup might be viewed as superficial or shallow by their community.)
There are lots of ways to use prayer as a trump card to get out of taking responsibility for one’s decisions. And Christian daters of all sexes know exactly what’s being said when their partner uses it:
It’s over, and there’ll be no debating this decision.
Soft vs hard rejections
Most people don’t like confrontation. Some go to extreme lengths to avoid it. And sometimes, they actually need to do that.
I learned this truth when I worked at call centers. Often, the companies I worked for had policies that they knew their callers wouldn’t like. So the people answering the phones walked a delicate line between deferring to authority and making an angry caller feel that escalating wouldn’t help at all.
If we told an angry caller something like “I can’t refund that fee,” then the obvious next response would always be “Then let me talk to your manager” (unstated: who presumably can). That’s a fast way to pop a sup call—er, to escalate the call to a supervisor.
Instead, then, we learned to defer to much higher authority: “Our company does not refund that fee without receiving the request in writing,” or whatever the Hail Mary pass might be. (And it must be accurate, of course.) The customer might still escalate, sure. But the expectation’s been set. They probably won’t go much higher, and the sup call will end a lot faster.
My past in Pentecostalism made me a natural pro with call center work. I popped almost no sup calls, if you’re wondering. In fact, eventually I was the one taking them for other reps.
The hard rejection involves taking personal responsibility for the rejection we’re issuing:
- I don’t want to do that.
- I have no time to help you with this project.
- I’ve decided to end this relationship.
Soft rejections involve deferring to authorities far above our heads:
- Fate has led us in different directions.
- Jesus told me to break up with you.
- The CEOs of my company have set this policy.
In social situations, either rejection approach works—or doesn’t, depending on how much the other person wanted to hear a “yes” and is willing to steamroll the rejecter to get it. But someone who doesn’t feel safe giving a hard rejection can always hide behind a soft one.
Christianity trains believers, especially women, to say yes rather than no
The more authoritarian the flavor of Christianity, the more its leaders emphasize obedience and compliance with their demands. These flavors tend to be extremely hierarchical in nature, with very clearly delineated lines of power radiating down from the lead pastor to the lowliest child warming the pews.
In these churches, congregations employ a sophisticated (but usually unspoken) intersectional calculus to figure out each person’s status in any given situation. Perceived wealth, race, profession, appearance/dress, skills, age, marital connections, extended family connections, and more go into these calculations.
When someone at a higher level of power makes a request of someone lower on the scale, that lower person isn’t supposed to refuse, ever. This is why church volunteers burn out: they don’t feel that they can reject these requests, so they keep accepting more and more obligations until they exhaust themselves. There’s no shortage of advice columns in the Christ-o-sphere about that burnout, but there’s no sign that the situation’s getting better at all. It might even be getting worse, thanks to how most congregations shrink more every year nowadays.
At such a point, that lower person needs a way out. And “I prayed about it” is the only soft rejection that the higher person must accept without a single bit of pushback.
If Jesus himself told them in prayer not to take the assignment, then what kind of Christian would the request-maker be to try to jump that chain of command?
(Our Firefly Mourning Support Group meets, um, all the time.)
So don’t expect to see things change any time soon. As long as Christians feel that they can’t safely take responsibility for their yeses and nos, they will defer as hard, or rather as softly, as they can.
Dave Miller’s galaxy-brained solution to solve prayer as an excuse
I promised we’d get back to how Dave Miller thinks he’s totally solved his problem. Let’s do that now! Miller ends his post by trying to set brand new ground rules for prayer. He thinks these new rules will destroy his flock’s excuses. See, evangelicals are just praying in the totally wrong way! He writes:
We ought to continue to pray diligently and fervently, but our prayer ought to be that the Father would change us to be like Christ. We don’t pray so that God will bless our plans but so that the mind of Christ will become ours. We must fight with the powerful weapons of warfare Christ has given us – love, joy, peace, forgiveness, patience, kindness – not with fleshly swords that never work.
I know this is true.
I prayed about it.
In the Jack Chick tradition, HAW HAW! Isn’t he funny?
So instead of asking Jesus if he wants them to do this or that, or not do it, Christians need to be asking him only to make them more like him. That’ll totally fix the problem, because then there’s no chance that they’ll make mistakes about what Jesus wants. They’ll know, because they’ve been making themselves his mini-mes all this time!
To sell the solution, Miller relates a story found in Luke 22:39-53. It concerns Jesus’ final night alive in the Garden of Gethsemane. Miller zeroes in on verse 49. Here it is in the New International Version:
Those around Jesus saw what was about to happen and said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?”
It looks like Miller’s using the New King James Version instead, but the sense is much the same. Miller conceptualizes the disciples’ direct question as a prayer.
How that story fails to do what its creator wants it to do
In fact, Miller wants his readers to accept the disciples’ direct question to Jesus as the wrong kind of prayer. The disciples have asked Jesus directly what he wants them to do. However, they don’t wait to hear his answer. Miller equates this part to modern Christians thinking they’ve heard already from Jesus when they haven’t. Acting in haste, one of the disciples hauls off and cuts off the ear of one of the priests’ servants. Jesus answers them after the fact, telling them that he doesn’t want swordplay right then, then heals that guy’s ear.
The order of operations seems very relevant here. Christians get told to ask Jesus about everything in prayer. Then, they supposedly wait for his response, and then, they supposedly obey. This is the order of operations they learn from the moment they convert.
The problem here is that Miller’s trying to completely redefine how Christians pray, in what manner, and how to deal with any responses they think they’ve gotten. And he’s doing it entirely to stop hearing “I prayed about it” as an excuse not to do stuff he’s asked them to do. But in this equation, even if Christians obey him and only pray to be more Jesus-y from now on, then they can still easily justify whatever they want to do. And they can still get out of anything they want.
He hasn’t solved his problem. He’s only moved it over another step. The real problem is that Jesus isn’t answering anybody.
In the absence of real two-way communication, it’ll always be easy for any Christian to fake the voice on the other end of the line.
How you can support Roll to Disbelieve
Thanks for reading, and thanks for being part of our community!
And now, here are some ways you can support my work:
- Patreon, of course, for as little as $2 a month! I now write Patreon posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with patrons getting early access 3 days ahead of time.
- Paypal, for direct one-time gifts. To do this, go to paypal.com, then go to the personal tab and say you want to send money, then enter email@example.com (that’s an underscore between the words) as the recipient. It won’t show me your personal information, only whatever email you input.
- My Amazon affiliate link, for folks who shop at Amazon. Just follow the link, then do your shopping as normal within that same browser window. This link adds nothing to your Amazon bill, but it does send me a little commission for whatever you spend there.
- And as always, sharing the links to my work and talking about it!
Thank you so much for being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!
(PS: I once saw a long-term rep at one call center get fired by deliberately popping sup calls whenever she wanted an extra break. The agents at that company had to listen to their supervisors take the call, but they were always muted. So the agent got a little time off the phones while her supervisor had to deal with the customer she’d deliberately aggravated. Eventually, someone figured out her pattern. The one certain way to get fired at a call center is malingering to get time off the phones.)