Thursday, November 4, 2010

My Experience with Prayer: Planning an Escape Route

There was a long season of my life, about ten years, when , under the influence of the writings and teachings of the revivalist Charles Finney and his modern-day endorser Keith Green, I made daily prayer a matter of intense discipline. I enjoyed, yes thoroughly enjoyed, at least an hour a day of early morning prayer on my knees. I followed the ACTS outline: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, and I felt it incumbent on me to spend as much time as possible on adoration and thanksgiving so that God would not deem me an annoyance—always asking for things. But, even in my supplications and petitions I asked not for my wants or needs but rather for the advancement of God's glory and the conversion of individual souls: co-workers, family, friends.

When I was "baptized in the Spirit" in my sophomore year of high school and discovered glossolalia or "speaking in tongues," my prayer life changed and became more infused with zeal and sincerity. With my bedroom in the basement, I added dancing and singing to my prayers. I would literally "dance before the Lord" with all my might, singing praise songs and signing out in tongues. No one could hear me as it would be early morning and I was at a distance with my family upstairs and me in the basement, dancing on the concrete floor. I would dance. I would cry tears of joy, tears of repentance, and tears of supplication. I was sincere; I was zealous; I was the real thing. I looked forward daily to these times with God—they were very much a part of me.

Never, in all my time supplicating and seeking God, did I ever experience an answer to prayer. Yes, there were events that I attributed to God's providence or even to the miraculous, but nothing that now in retrospect I see as God's doing. I have never experienced an answer to prayer. During these early years of my faith, in my zeal I faulted myself for unanswered prayer. I often thought upon John 14:14, "If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it." I reasoned that if God was not answering my prayers, then the fault is not God's but mine: my disobedience or lack of faith. This rationale was fueled by I John 3:23 which conveniently states, "And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight." Hence, if God was not giving me what I asked, I knew it must be because I was being disobedient in some arena, some secret sin.

When my Father was sick and dying with cancer in August 2003, we gathered together a group of believers around him. I anointed him with oil and called upon God's promises to heal the sick in response to the prayer of faith. I felt that any doubt in my heart that God would not heal my Father would jeopardize my prayer's efficacy. I fasted that day, and I confessed extra long that morning of any sin, real or imagined, that the "Holy Spirit" would convict me of. I expected God to show. My dad died thirty days later. God did not show.

God does not answer prayer. Prayer may have a place—it might console a person or be a practice that quiets the heart from the bustle of daily routines, but it is not efficacious in the real world. I have never seen an undisputable answer to prayer. For the Evangelical and the Christian believer, God has an eternal regress—an escape route that will always exempt God from answering prayer. This excape route is you. You are why God is not answering your prayers, and, despite how pure you might think you are, there will never be an answer to prayer that cannot be attributable to other than God. God does not answer prayer.


dar.fieberg said...

This makes me sad in a somber sort of way. I'm not really sure why, since it's a sincere reaction to your own experience. Maybe we can talk about next weekend. MISS YOU!

Peter said...

Hey Dar,

Thank you for your feedback.

As you correctly observe, I am extrapolating a conclusion based on my personal experience with prayer. I make the attempt to demonstrate the authenticity of my prayer life and the joy, not rote, that characterized it. I realize that others will claim a different experience with prayer; though, I doubt that there is any objective evidence to illustrate the cosmically external efficacy of prayer. I could be wrong.

Though, I am not denying that there are benefits to prayer. I do not regret, for example, having had a prayer life. I know that the time I spent in prayer had a profound psychological impact on me both then and now. Who can deny that “blessing one’s enemies,” for example, can militate against grudges and negative emotions that hurt the host more than the “enemy.” There are benefits to prayer, and prayer can take on different permutations than that of a petitioner before a king.

I know that exercise correlates for me with eating healthier. After investing 90 minutes at the gym I have a hard time eating junk food and so undoing my 90 minute time investment. Praying and asking for help against undesirable behaviors is likewise an investment of time. In this analogy from my personal life, I feel that prayer does change me and how I behave. In a similar manner, praying to a God that one envisions as external and outside of the mind can afford the petitioner with an external perspective. Such a perspective can help the petitioner recognize aspects of her own behaviors and thoughts that might be hurting others—behaviors that from a first-person perspective might be much more difficult to recognize.

At my church there are times for “prayer” or “meditation.” The church intentionally keeps the use of such times open to the individual. Some pray to a personal God. Some pray to a pantheon. Some of these two categories consider such actions purely symbolic and internal; others see it, no doubt, as externally efficacious. Others use the time to empty their minds and to enter into a contemplative mood. Others use such moments to savor the ambiance created by the quietude, the beautiful building, and the smells. I mention the above to illustrate the various models of “prayer” that can be developed.

And, of course, there is the placebo effect of petitionary prayer too.

Jamie G. said...

Peter... your last few posts have hit home for me... we share a lot of similar experiences... thank you.

Andrew T. said...

Peter, just curious, but what were your experiences with prayer while you were involved in Judaism? Were you underwhelmed by the liturgical approach to prayer?

Peter said...

Hey Andrew,

Liturgical prayer was different for me. I came to appreciate the need for liturgy in corporate settings, and I accepted it by principle There were times while in shul when the prayers and the singing/chanting were beautiful enough to bring tears to my eyes, and to the degree that I was able to participate (which was constantly growing with my learning), I felt like I was participating in something much larger than me--a piety that was trans-generaltional.

Oh, and I loved the "bobbing." Adding the kinesthetic to my prayers never ceased even after my time in Judaism. There is a lot to be said for the mind-body reinforcement of thought accompanied by movement.

After my time in Judaism, I never left liturgy. For a time I put aside the Siddur and prayed monthy through the Psalms in Hebrew--the "biblical siddur" as I might have called it at the time. Yet, leaving Judaism made me aware of how different "cultures of spirituality" have value. I found that I missed the passionate charismatic-pentecostal worship of my Evangelical days, and I came to conclude that each has its place: liturtical and more free-form worship.

Presently, I am more fond of liturgical-based worship than free-form methods...but each has its place in my thinking.

dar.fieberg said...

Peter, Just know I wasn't sad about the praying or not praying, I was sad about the sickness of your father and sad because I know so many people with sick parents and family and I was just overwhelmed and all of that. But as far as prayer goes: to each to his own I'd say. Impossible to argue. Well, not impossible since no one can take an experience away from someone else, just not easy.