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national day of prayerBrethren, I will speak today on the gospel of John, the sixteenth chapter, verse 24. Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive.” As the National Day of Prayer approaches (May 5, 2016), this verse is both relevant and unambiguous.
But perhaps it’s too unambiguous. Apologists like to water down this verse (and others that declare prayer’s effectiveness) to say that they don’t mean what they obviously mean, so let’s be sure we have this right. Here is this verse in context. Jesus said,

I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete (John 16:23–4).

A few verses later, we read,

Then Jesus’s disciples said, “Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech” (16:29).

Clearly, we are given no choice but to consider it at face value. “Ask and you will receive” means just what you’d think it means.
National Day of Prayer
The National Day of Prayer task force (“Transforming our Nation Through Prayer!”) is eager to harness this power. It says

[The 2016 National Day of Prayer] is an unprecedented opportunity to see the Lord’s healing and renewing power made manifest as we call on citizens to humbly come before His throne.

Is this just feel-good handwaving, or are you making specific, testable predictions?

This recitation will create a huge wave of prayer, flowing from one coast to the other, illustrating the unity of God’s people and acknowledging His dominion over the circumstances facing us. Source

I’ve always wondered why many prayers are more powerful than one or why we even need to pray at all. Doesn’t God understand the problems and the best solutions already? Or is he not paying attention? Is he deaf?
What specifically does the task force imagine will happen with the Day of Prayer (besides strengthening the Christian brand, I mean)? I understand that there may be a benefit to the person praying. Prayer can be beneficial in the same way that meditation can. But when you’re praying for someone else, that’s not the point. The idea behind person A praying for person B isn’t for person A to feel better, it’s for something specific to happen to person B! Give me evidence that this happens.

At this crucial time for our nation, we can do nothing more important than pray.

Did prayer gives us cell phones, GPS, or the internet? Antibiotics, anesthesia, or vaccines? Modern farming techniques? Did it eliminate smallpox or predict hurricanes? Maybe they’re thinking of science and technology. Prayer is easy, quick, free, and lets you pretend that you did something useful. But if you actually want to improve society, you need to stand on your own two feet and do something about it. God obviously won’t.
Last year’s message had an obligatory but meaningless applause line:

[We emphasize] the need for individuals, corporately and individually, to place their faith in the unfailing character of their Creator, who is sovereign over all governments, authorities, and men.

Not in the U.S., pal. Religion operates as it does because, and only because, it is permitted to by the Constitution. You can pretend to elevate your deity above government, but let’s be clear that it’s the Constitution, not the Bible, that actually governs this country.
This year’s national prayer also makes some factual blunders.

The very ideals upon which this country was founded were based on biblical truths, no matter how some try to rewrite history to deny that very fact today.

Wrong again. Read the U.S. Constitution—it’s one hundred percent secular. And that’s a good thing, since fallible Man has created far more moral institutions than the barbaric attempts by the god of the Old Testament.
In America, the buck stops with the Constitution, not the Bible. Why is this hard to understand? It’s simply unpatriotic to push society in a way prohibited by the Constitution (more here and here).
The prayer also gives a nice hug to God, who’s apparently going through a rough time:

Our hearts are … broken over how You continue to be marginalized and dismissed by both our people and our institutions.

Poor baby! Yahweh is able to create all matter and space, but he just can’t seem to make friends. I picture him standing alone in the playground while the other kids call him names like “Yah-wimp.” Maybe it would help if he actually existed and didn’t need apologists like this group standing up for him.

[Help us] publicly declare and live out Your truth in a spirit of love so that You feel welcome in our country once again.

Who knew humans could be so powerful? We couldn’t hurt Superman, but we can shut out the omnipotent creator of the universe.
I can’t leave this topic without pointing out one conspicuous contradiction. At the National Day of Prayer’s web site, they give its history:

The National Day of Prayer is an annual observance held on the first Thursday of May [since 1952], inviting people of all faiths to pray for our nation.

People of all faiths? That sounds pretty inclusive. But poke around a bit, and it’s clear that this is an exclusively Christian event, from Bible verses to voter registration appeals aimed exclusively at Christians.
Does prayer work?
In Matthew, Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” In Mark, Jesus says, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” In John, Jesus says, “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do.”
The New Testament unambiguously claims that prayer works, but we all know that that’s wrong, or, said charitably, prayer doesn’t work that way. Apologists handwave that prayer works … for the person doing the praying. Or we’re told that prayers are always answered, but “not yet” or “maybe” are valid answers. This reinterpretation of reality is worthy of North Korea or Animal Farm.
It’s like Harriett Hall’s Blue Dot cure, where the doctor paints a blue dot on the patient’s nose. Suppose the patient gets better. Great—the blue dot worked! Or suppose the patient gets worse. Ah, the doctor says, you should’ve come to me sooner. Or suppose the condition is unchanged. The doctor recommends continued treatment (and it’s lucky we caught it when we did)!
No outcome will make this imaginary doctor reconsider the treatment. Reality is redefined so that the doctor is immune to evidence that shakes his preconception that the cure works.
If the roles were reversed and it was Christians critiquing the supernatural claim of someone else’s religion, I imagine they’d be as skeptical as me. The simple explanation is that there is no God to answer (or not) your prayers. Prayer is simply talking to yourself. There’s no one on the other end of the phone. (More on prayer here and here.)
I’ll close with the wisdom of Mr. Deity:

Mr. Deity: Prayer is not for me, okay? I mean, I like it and everything, I think it’s sweet that people think of me, but I’ve got a plan, and I’m staying the course. But it’s great for them, it gets them focused on what’s important, it’s meditative, I hear it does wonders for the blood pressure. Plus it’s a chance to connect to me. How’s that not going to be good? You should know.
Jesus: Oh yeah, yeah. So what you’re saying here, sir, is that you never answer any prayers?
Mr. Deity: Not really, no. There’s just no incentive. I mean, look—if somebody prays to me and things go well, who gets the credit? Me, right? But if they pray to me and things don’t go well, who gets the blame? Not me! So it’s all good. I’m going to mess with that by stepping in? Putting my nose where it doesn’t belong?

Thus endeth the lesson for today.
See also: National Day of Actually DOING Something 

Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day; 
give him a religion, and he’ll starve to death while praying for a fish. 
— Anonymous

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/1/13.)
Image credit: Wikimedia

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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...