Overview:

To Jesus, prayer was a simple affair—ask and receive. Why then all the complications? Why get others to hear your prayer, pray to a saint, light a candle?

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St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, Austria has a curious box. It’s for prayer requests (see below). The English appeal is, “Lord, hear our prayer!” (Besides German, the other languages are French, Polish, and Italian.) In the front, there’s a worn slot labeled “Drop in” for written prayer requests. In the bottom right, we read, “My intentions will be prayed for during the following Mass:,” and a handwritten note on a piece of tape identifies that time as “Donnerstag, 29.9, 19:00 Uhr” (Thursday, 9/29, at 7:00 pm).

Prayer request box in St. Stephen cathedral.

Why is this prayer box here? Presumably, the idea is that more congregants hearing the prayer (and perhaps murmuring an amen) will speed it along to heaven or nudge God to listen to it. Or maybe the hope is that Cardinal Schönborn, whose seat this cathedral is, will be present and put in a good word.

(By the way, a cathedral isn’t simply a church that exceeds a certain size or a certain amount of grandeur. A cathedral is the seat of a bishop, rather than a priest. For example, Paris’s Sacré-Cœur and Sainte-Chapelle are both magnificent, but neither is a cathedral.)

More is better for prayer?

It may be natural to think that if one voice is good, many are better, but Jesus didn’t say this about prayer. Here’s what he did say.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you (Matthew 7:7).

Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (Mark 11:24).

You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it (John 14:14).

If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer (Matthew 21:22).

These verses may be hard to believe since we know prayer doesn’t work this way, but they’re easy to understand. Despite what the church says, Jesus is indeed claiming to act like a vending machine or a genie, and you don’t need a megaphone to amplify your prayer.

But what about this passage?

Truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matt. 18:19–20)

Why the mention of “two or three”? Does this mean that more is better?

No. This is part of a larger passage (verses 15–20) instructing how to discipline someone who sins. First, approach them yourself and encourage them to stop. If that doesn’t work, try again with one or two additional people. And if they still won’t accept the correction, make their sin public in the church.

So these verses aren’t saying that two or three Christians are necessary for Jesus to answer prayer, but if you come as a small group to correct a sinner, Jesus will be with you.

The rules for prayer

Jesus gives rules for prayer in Matthew 6:5–15, and there’s not much to it: don’t make a public show of righteousness but pray in private. Don’t babble on and on but get to the point since God already know what you need. And forgive others so that God will forgive you.

So then if you pray as Jesus dictates, will you receive whatever you ask for in prayer? If you seek, will you find? Will the door be opened to you?

No more than if you hadn’t prayed. And that’s where the prayer box comes in. If “ask and you shall receive” (John 16:24) doesn’t work, despite it being the promise of Jesus, maybe getting more people involved is the ticket.

Or maybe you should pray through heavenly intermediaries. If God or Jesus don’t seem to be listening, then pray to Mary or one of the saints. Incredibly, there are more than 10,000 saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. If your prayer still isn’t answered, maybe try a different saint.

Does your church have a relic? They’ve been said to be responsible for miracles. Maybe work that into your prayer somehow.

St. Stephen cathedral makes room for lots and lots of candles.

Maybe you need to light a candle. The photo above is also from St. Stephen. Candles to carry a prayer to God mimics the Old Testament’s description of sacrifices as a food offering, with smoke carrying the magic up to heaven.

If that doesn’t work, have you tried ending your prayer with “This I pray in Jesus’ name”?

Or think up some other ritual to add a little complexity to your prayer.

Jesus is indeed claiming to act like a vending machine or a genie, and you don’t need a megaphone to amplify your prayer.

Jesus promised that a simple request to God would be sufficient. These extra complications preserve the church’s good name and support the hypothesis that it’s always the petitioner who was at fault.

In an environment where evidence isn’t valued, endless excuses can be found to protect the words of Jesus from critique, and endless excuses can be found for Christians to maintain their own shaky beliefs. Faced with the obvious explanation that prayer doesn’t work because Christianity is made up, Christians are usually eager to shore up the weak parts and move on.

See also: The last thing Ukraine needs is prayer

Prayer:
God isn’t a vending machine,
he’s a slot machine.
— commenter Hector Jones

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...