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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Missy's Right


An interesting scene played out on an episode of 'Young Sheldon,' as illustrated by the images I've include here. Missy, Sheldon's sister, has gotten the idea that God is like a genie, and prayers are wishes. When her mother tells her that it doesn't work like this, she asks: "Then what's the point of praying if he's just gonna do what he wants?"

Good question.

Although I won't highlight all the verses in the New Testament on prayer, here are a few that fit into certain categories that, put together, are used by Christians to understand it. These are considered promises of God. I will run through them, after which I will give my own response.

First, there's the simple 'ask, seek, knock' formula attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Here's an example:

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" — Matthew 7:7-11 NRSV

There are different elements to this statement. The proposition is that God will answer the prayers of the disciples, as a (presumably good) parent answers the requests of his child. Only the worst of us would hear the plea of a child for food and answer it with stones and snakes. The lesson that is generally drawn from this is that God will give us what is good for us, but that conversely, he won't give us what we ask for if it's bad for us. The first conclusion is more obvious than the second, but it fits.

This concept of prayer answered without difficulty is backed up later in Matthew: "Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:22) This part sneaks in the matter of having faith. Where belief can be assumed in Matthew 7:7-11, results are directly tied to faith in this verse.

In another instance of asking and receiving, we find this: "And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us." (1 John 5:1) Except, there's one thing different in that verse. Ask, yes, but also expect him only to answer if it is 'according to his will.' Isn't that special?

Do you see where this is going? Wait, there's more. If you're not a Christian, or have never spent much time around evangelicals, you might have wondered why they end every single prayer with 'in the name of Jesus. Well, that's because the Gospel of John makes a really big deal out of invoking the name of Jesus. 
"I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it."John 14:13-14 
Ask in the name of Jesus, so that through hm God will be glorified when he responds (as I take it).
"You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name." — John 15:16 
At this point we have to ask who the 'you' is here. One way to read it is that he was talking specifically to his apostles, but given the way this Gospel is addressed to everyone so that they will believe, I don't think that was the intention. 
"On that day you will ask nothing of me.Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete." — John 16:23-24
Here we're told that another reason for prayer to be answered is so that our 'joy may be complete.' Apparently, according to this, God wants us to be joyful. 

Finally, we see one small part of why it is that evangelical Christians tend to associate knowledge of the Bible with godliness: "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." (John 15:7) 'Abiding' in Jesus is associated with taking in the words of Jesus. It isn't too far a stretch in that mindset to take it from words specifically attributed to Jesus to the whole of the Christian canon.

These verses played an important role in the early life of the church, as non-Christians in the first centuries CE saw the worship of the gods in the same way humanity virtually always had. They understood it as Missy did, expect that they offered sacrifices with their prayers to get the attention of the gods. The assumption generally was that the gods existed, but you had to do something for them in order for them to do something for you. The stories of the apostles and the other disciples going out and working miracles by faith in Jesus circulated, and people were drawn in. It didn't matter whether the stories were true; all that mattered was the stories themselves. The offering of a Christian was faith and devotion, and the response promised was the answer to prayers.

Except, these verses together leave a lot of 'outs.' If prayers are not answered, one possibility is that the person doesn't have enough faith. Another is that they haven't 'abided' enough in 'the word.' Still another is that healing little Jimmy of childhood leukemia wasn't God's will. 

Honestly, if God exists, he needs to answer for the presence of every pediatric oncology unit in the world. 

Whether it wasn't God's will, faith was lacking, or someone just hasn't read the Bible enough, these are all just excuses. God will answer your prayers as long as you check all the boxes. The difficulty is that very often, faithful, Bible-reading Christians praying for good things like the return of a kidnapped child or the healing of a mother who was hit by a drunk driver do not see their answers prayed. Statistically, the results would have wound up being the same whether or not they had prayed. 

Either gods exist and don't care about us, exist but aren't able to help us, or don't exist at all. Saying that God's ways are mysterious doesn't help the child who doesn't come home, or the ones who lose their mother. 

Further, if a deity is unable to consistently and clearly answer prayers in this life, which we can see, why should we believe he will be able to deliver “salvation” after physical death, which we can't see? 

In all my years of being involved in churches, here is how I've seen prayer answered most reliably: through other people. So often someone would 'lift up a prayer request,' and after the service someone from the congregation would pull them aside with just the help or advice they needed. Christians see this as God working through his faithful. I see it as people helping people, because simple observation tells me that much. 

Gods are irrelevant. People matter. Or at least we should, one to another, because ultimately, we're all we've got.