I haven’t believed in God for a number of years now, but acknowledging that we are all shaped by our past, I occasionally like to talk about my former faith on this blog. Today I’d like to focus specifically on the subject of prayer.
I hope we can agree that the description of prayer found in The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett (“frightened people trying to make friends with the bully“) is a long way from the Christian understanding. But while it’s easy to talk about what prayer is not, discussing what it is requires grappling with paradoxes like why an omniscient God would need suggestions from humans. Back in the day I devoted considerable thought to theological questions like that, and I wrote some of those thoughts down in a document that I’m using as the main source for this post.
Prayer, according to what I consider the highest Christian understanding, is not about giving God suggestions. It’s more like tuning an aerial — that is, maintaining and refining the telepathic link between one’s self and God. Because God is understood in terms of moral perfection, and because there is no greater pursuit than to better ourselves morally, the Christian’s greatest aspiration is to think the thoughts of God. The point of prayer is to try to fill the mind with God’s thoughts, in part by putting into words the thoughts one believes to be “godlike” (such as compassionate wishes for other people). Deliberately focusing on godlike thoughts, it is thought, makes the mind more receptive to thoughts that come directly from God: the aerial-tuning analogy works pretty well here.
The Bible talks about praying “in Christ’s name”, which I take to mean praying for the things that Christ would want you to pray for. Quoting from the J. B. Phillips translation of the Bible: “Incredible as it may sound, we who are spiritual have the very thoughts of Christ“. Another verse, James 4:3, says that a prayer not made with the right attitude will not be answered: “And when you do ask he doesn’t give it to you, for you ask in quite the wrong spirit – you only want to satisfy your own desires.”
This overview of prayer won’t be complete without addressing the concept that prayers can be answered. The requests one makes in prayer may be attempts to articulate what God would want you to ask for, but it is also standard Christian belief that requesting it makes it more likely to happen. I came to the understanding that this is an arrangement God has worked out. One theological argument for why the world is not already perfect is that, if it were, we could not experience the yearning for a perfect world, and that the spiritual journey is impossible without that yearning. So between a world where prayers are never answered and a world where there are no prayers left to answer, I concluded that God made a kind of optimal medium, a world in which prayers are answered up to a point.
One ritual of prayer that I worked out for myself was as follows. Lying in bed at the end of the day, I would begin by reciting the Lord’s Prayer and bringing before God whatever was on my mind. Then I would bring to mind a person, or a group of people, and pray the following blessing.
Lord, I pray for everyone currently wearing a green hat.
Destroy that which keeps them from you, and strengthen that which keeps them with you.
Guide them to your image and according to your will, that they may become what you would have them be.
(Obviously the green hat is a frivolous example, but I really did try to think laterally about who to bring to mind, because personalised compassion for everyone in the world is, after all, pivotal to the Christian understanding of godlike thought.) Then I would choose some other people, and pray the same blessing until the end of my allocated prayer time. During this time I would also try to listen to God, and to respond to what I perceived as prompts from the Spirit. If I felt God calling me to recite the Lord’s Prayer again, spend a few moments in silence, sing a song, whatever, I would do that.
Towards the end of my time as a believer, I was seriously considering praying for every single person in the phone book, one at a time, over as many days as it took. Whether I would ever have got around to this, had I not changed my mind about God’s existing in the first place, is an open question.