I have a few questions about personal prayer: Is God listening? Why should God care about me? If God already knows everything, what's the value in my prayer? Why do answers to prayers seem so inconsistent, even capricious? Does a person with many friends praying for him stand a better chance of physical healing than one who also has cancer but with only a few people praying for him? Why does God sometimes seem so close and sometimes so far away? Does personal prayer change God, or change me?
Since no one has seen God, people who pray inevitably draw on their own imagination and experiences. However, it would seem that their internal representation of God changes throughout one's life cycle in response to other significant people and events. For example, finding a loving spouse, or holding a newborn baby, may alter an earlier, more distant representation of God.
Most people pray at moments of crisis ---- when a child is ill, or when death approaches. But those who pray only at such moments usually experience great difficulty figuring out what they are supposed to say, or whom they are addressing. Sometimes dying men and women try to bargain with God. They say, "I'll live my life in a righteous way God, if you will have mercy on me." They struggle with their preconceived notions of God. Sometimes they are afraid to lay themselves out to God. While prayer is no insurance policy against adversity, some of us do pray for forgiveness, for strength, for contact with the Father, for assurance that we are not alone.
Talking about God, which is what theologians do, is not the same as learning to talk to God. There are many ways of talking to God. Prayers learned in childhood or read from a book, are often used to break the conversational "ice" with God. However, perhaps here is the best advice: that the most important aspect of personal prayer is to "shut up and listen."
It seems to me that what matters most is not the frequency of personal prayer, but whether those who pray experience inner peace, a feeling of being led by God, or finding other form of "divine intimacy." I also wonder if those who do, are now more forgiving of others, and satisfied with their own lives?
Many Americans are raised without any habits of personal prayer, and cannot conceive of a God who would listen if they did address Him in prayer. Not really understanding personal prayer, perhaps they will intellectualize the idea of prayer to such an extent that they "bleach-out" any emotional experience.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of the best-selling "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," says he is tired of prayers that sound like a list of grievances. "We've confused God with Santa Claus," Kushner charges. Every time you have to do something hard and you are not sure you are up to it, that's cause for prayer." Nevertheless, petitioning God for favors may be one of the oldest ---- and most human ---- forms of prayer.
In the Gospel of John. Jesus himself is said to promise his disciples that "Whatsoever you ask of the Father in my name will be given to you." Most Americans who pray believe that at least some of their prayers have been answered, though not always in the ways in which petitioners have sought.
Clearly, there is a difference between turning occasionally to God for help and expecting Him to meet our every want. Jesus' own prayer to the Father was "thy will be done," meaning that God wants us to have whatever promotes our participation in His life ---- our union both now and in eternity. Yet, it is precisely this distinction that is lost when television evangelists regularly claim miraculous healing through the power of on-air prayer. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the TV listeners' prayers, checks enclosed, are posted to the wrong address.
So, what's the bottom line for those who want to draw closer to God through personal prayer? Beware! The religious purpose of prayer ---- communing with God ---- can be lost when people use it only for therapeutic side effects. For example, if my conversation with God were merely a Santa Claus list of wants. The challenge seems to be moving from trying to control God, to letting God direct us.
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage you to pursue some personal spiritual growth this spring at CPC.