An acquaintance of mine has a teenage daughter who is obsessed with the idea of owning a puppy. She petitions her dad relentlessly. She extols the virtues of dog ownership. She has suggested that caring for a puppy will make her a more responsible person. She has bargained with the dad by offering to be more attentive to school work, household chores, and family gatherings.
Thus far, my friend has resisted his daughter’s entreaties. Consequently, the daughter has adopted an appearance reminiscent of the sad, abandoned faces of the dogs and cats depicted in the television commercials soliciting donations for animal rescue charities. I feel sympathy for both of them, as both are in similarly uncomfortable situations. Each has something that only the other can give: peace and quiet (from the daughter) and permission for a puppy (from the dad). Prayer is often thought of in these terms.
The Scripture readings today can be interpreted as supporting the notion that prayer is an address to someone who is considered to have power over a particular situation. In the first reading and the Gospel, God appears as one having control over the future outcomes of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and of the daily existence of the faithful. From this point of view, prayer amounts to petitioning God for specific results in situations that are not under the control of the petitioner. There is a real problem, however, with this definition of prayer.
In the ancient world, most of what happened in people’s lives was entirely beyond their control. In one way or another, everyone felt themselves to be at the mercy of forces more powerful than themselves. Farmers, shepherds, merchants, and travelers had to hope and pray for good weather. The vast majority of people suffered under the whims of the minority who held political power. Everyone lived in fear of injury, illness, and sudden death. For all these reasons and more, people prayed to some sort of spiritual power in the hope of securing help in dealing with life-changing or life-ending events.
Our situation today, however, is vastly changed from life in the ancient world. Today, farmers and ranchers do not have to depend entirely on the vagaries of the weather. Travelers have many options for dealing with difficult journeys. Democratically elected government protects citizens from the capricious acts of despots. Medical interventions preserve and prolong life, even in the most desperate of circumstances. As more and more of human existence comes under our control, we have less and less need for prayer (at least, for prayer that serves to try to control that which is beyond our power). It is not the least bit surprising that prayer is less and less a part of modern society: we’ve solved many of the problems that used to form the substance of petitions to God.
I don’t think that prayer needs to be redefined in order to accommodate our changed social situation; nor do I think that daily prayer is no longer necessary. I do think, however, that we need to re-examine some of the common assumptions about prayer.
Is the primary purpose of prayer to control events around us? Is prayer about getting things from God? An affirmative answer to either of these questions means that Abraham’s prayer failed. It also means that most people’s prayers go unanswered. I pray daily that the parishioners of All Saints will treat one another charitably. So far, . . . well, . . . it’s probably better not to address that issue now.
What if prayer isn’t about obtaining a particular outcome or satisfaction for our needs? What if prayer is about relationship rather than recompense?
During his conversation with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham had his hopes confirmed that God is merciful, relenting, just, and willing to allow repentance by the most egregious of sinners. When he instructed his disciples about prayer, Jesus described God as solicitous, generous, and thoughtful. When considered separately from our desire to control the world around us, prayer is primarily an experience of being honest about ourselves with God. Abraham was honest enough to express concern about the fate of his neighbors. Jesus instructed his disciples to be honest about their spiritual needs.
One might wonder why it is necessary to make an effort to be honest with God. Doesn’t God know everything about us – even before we pray?
I suggest that the primary and, perhaps, only purpose of prayer is to be honest with God about ourselves, about what we are requesting, and most importantly, about why we are making a particular request. This last reason is the most important reason for being honest in prayer. Being honest with God about why we are making a request in prayer requires first that we are honest with ourselves about what we want. Specifically, it requires us to be honest with ourselves about the fact that no created thing we ask for or receive will ever satisfy us fully; only God can satisfy fully the hungers of the human heart. Very simply, honesty with God leads to honesty with self and honesty with self leads to the realization that love of God alone can satisfy our longings.
Jesus said that God knows how to give good gifts to His children. (Lk. 11:13) The only value to enumerating our needs to God is that doing so can rescue us from pettiness and shallowness. We pray, not to get things, but to encounter God’s generous presence. If prayer is not an encounter with the God who is always merciful and forgiving toward all people, then we can be certain that we have not been honest in prayer.