I don’t remember the exact day that my prayers changed. But I remember the exact day that I first realized that they had.
I suspect most Christians’ prayers change the way mine did. There’s a bombastic and extremely specific style of praying that newly-converted Christians are rather prone to do that older, more seasoned Christians find alien. I was no exception. When I first found out that the Bible specifically promised that prayers to Jesus could accomplish literally anything, I was off like a bottle rocket.
Peace in the Middle East. Deserts to turn green again. Diseases–everywhere, in everyone–cured. Mental illnesses eased. Cats to learn to talk.
I prayed for anything and everything.
Then one day I realized that my prayers had changed without my even noticing. But they had. When I noticed that change, that moment became a turning point in my own faith journey.
My church was pastored by a very elderly man. People were understandably concerned about his health and talked him into appointing a co-pastor to help him.
The man he chose was called Daniel, who was married to the pastor’s daughter. They had a pair of rambunctious boys. Daniel’s name in sign language was a letter “D” run over the top of the head (like a lion’s mane), and it fit him very well; he was a powerful speaker. But he was also personable and approachable in a way that the elder pastor was not. His sermons tended to be a bit more relatable, as well, which was good as I was by then attending church pretty much every day.
Daniel wasn’t in his position for very long, however, when the news came out that he had developed cancer. And it was one of those fast-moving ones, too.
Obviously, the prayer train started up immediately. People all over the world beseeched the Christian god to heal him, and I was right there beside them on my knees, lifting my hands and voice to the ceiling to beg for a full healing and restoration of our already-beloved new pastor. I can’t even count how many people were praying for him. It had to be many hundreds of thousands of people, if not more. Daniel was from a very big-name family and had married into an even-bigger-name family. He was the co-pastor of one of the denomination’s flagship churches. He’d had a life in ministry in various other churches that were large in their own right. He was as well-known to United Pentecostals as Steve Wozniak is to computer nerds: not someone that an outsider would ever know, but who an insider definitely would.
People used phrases like “I claim a healing for Pastor Daniel!” and “I believe it’s already happened!” These are Christianese and mean Gosh I really really really hope that this time the magic spell works. I felt uncomfortable saying such things; it all seemed presumptuous somehow, like a mother telling her child “I know you’ll get your room cleaned this weekend” when the kid hasn’t even gotten started on the task yet. Either “God” wanted Daniel healed, or “he” did not, and it seemed like I was the only one who noticed this. But I prayed nonetheless because the Bible repeatedly stressed that indeed, our god did miracles upon demand for those who truly believed.
Promises You Don’t Intend to Keep.
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, 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.
Matthew 18:18-20 (NIV)
People who’ve never tangled with Biblical literalism may not actually even know just how frequent the Bible’s promises are regarding prayer or how airtight those promises are. But they are both frequent and airtight.
We were told that our god loved the sound of prayer and that it was absolutely essential to the living of a properly Christian life that was pleasing to that god. We were given countless Bible verses that lauded prayer and praised people who prayed often. We were told to ask our god for absolutely anything we needed and he would give it to us (if at least we fit into a shocking number of asterisked conditions). More importantly, Jesus had told us to pray without ceasing, we thought, and most of us fully believed that someone who prayed a lot was in the doing busily and effectively cultivating all those qualities that we saw as “Christlike” –which is to say, they were becoming forgiving, calm, kind, and generous people as well.
The more belligerent of us Christians saw prayer as a way to wage war in the spiritual/supernatural realm. We were drunk on the Christian porno fiction like This Present Darkness and saw demons behind every corner and under every shadow–and the only force that defeated demons was our god, manifested through Christians’ prayers. Prayer was the way to destroy demonic spells with our own Jesus-approved spells, and so we were encouraged to pray to do battle against Satan and his minions.
We had good reason to think about prayer in these ways. As I wrote about in “The Power of Prayer, Part Two,” the Gospels at least were almost unequivocal about the power of prayer, so those were the verses most people recited when pressed on the topic. The rest of the New Testament added all the asterisks that all Christians know and loathe: that the person praying had to be very faithful (1 John 3:22) couldn’t have any unconfessed sins on their record (James 5:13-18), and had to be asking for something that was actually in line with what “God” liked (James 4:3). From there, all the other conditions evolved.
None of that seemed to be a problem in Daniel’s case, however. Surely at least one of the many thousands of people praying for him fit the bill and could get through all the noise to our god and bring this need to his cosmic attention. (Except of course he already knew–he was just waiting for someone to ask.) And of course the healing would further our god’s plans–Daniel was a pastor, so surely that counted, and he had a family who’d be in big trouble if their primary wage-earner died, so surely our god wouldn’t leave those boys without a father or that lady without her beloved husband. And we were praying in many circles of many believers, which magnified the magic spell considerably.
There didn’t seem to be anything that might hinder our god from healing our pastor.
If anything we prayed for could ever be considered a shoo-in, this was it.
I still remember the very last sermon that Daniel preached–he was in terrible shape by then and I think he knew the end was coming. And still he clung to his faith. (I’m not the only one who remembers that night–there exist several blog posts on exactly that subject online that confirm my memories. I wonder where those writers were sitting? Was it near me? Did they know me? I don’t know. It’s a small world, though, after all.)
And yet Daniel died.
Miserably, painfully, inexorably, Daniel died.
All those fervent prayers had done nothing at all to heal him.
We might as well have not bothered with praying at all.
Adult Pretendy Fun Time Games.
Much, much later I learned from one of the church ladies who disliked me that my then-husband Biff had apparently tried to invade Daniel’s hospital room right before his death to anoint him with Pompeian Extra-Virgin Olive Oil1 and lay hands on him.2 The family had apparently chased him out and chided him for intruding upon their grief and their only chance to say farewell to their beloved Daniel. I don’t know for 100% sure that this is exactly what happened, but the accounts I’ve seen of that night obliquely reference that intrusion so I think that it did.
When I heard that from her, I was floored and shocked to hear that this attempt at a groundbreaking miracle had been denied by people who ostensibly at least believed in the power of prayer more than anyone else ever could, but now I know that they were simply sensible enough to know when to put down the adult pretendy fun time game and rejoin Reality-Land for a little while, and this was simply one of those occasions.
There are a lot of times like that. Though Christians pay a lot of lip service to Christianity’s promises about prayer, most of them are well aware that they live in Reality-Land and not Christian-Land, and they act accordingly. They vaccinate their kids and go to the emergency room when they’re dreadfully sick or injured. They buy life insurance and car insurance and always wear their seat belts in cars. They demand that their schools teach real science instead of pseudoscience and also that their childcare centers do thorough background checks on staff. They wash their hands after using the bathroom and they seek reputable counseling when they realize they can’t solve a big problem on their own. They take vitamins and they avoid eating or handling anything they think might hurt them. Everything I’ve named here is something that wouldn’t be needed if Christian-Land were our reality. Even so, all but the most fanatical Christians do all of these things without any kind of shame or nervousness, and they don’t even expect any side-eye over it.
Biff was still too new at being fundagelical to know that even the most fervent Christians put aside their religious notions in times of necessity. He still took the Bible’s promises completely seriously, whereas Daniel’s family knew that they were, at most, metaphorical and not literal promises that could be summoned by will as if they were Harry Potter spells.
And I was, despite a childhood steeped in Catholicism, also too new at being this kind of Christian to know that Daniel’s family had done absolutely nothing wrong. I was shocked when I heard about them driving Biff out. I’d already been crushed that our god had “taken” Daniel so young and after such a dreadful and painful disease. Once I heard about that incident, I was so stunned that I rushed to my Bible to try to gain some kind of reassurance. That night formed the bulk of “The Power of Prayer, Part Two.”
That was the night when I realized that yes, something big had changed in my prayer life at some point, and I hadn’t even noticed it.
Intercessory Prayer vs. Other Kinds of Prayer.
The Bible talks about a few different kinds of prayer.
Intercessory prayer happens when someone asks the Christian god to do something for someone: to heal someone, to give someone money for their mortgage payment that month, to get their kid into college, to make that boy like them (like in like like, not just like). You can see the other kinds at this Christian site, but the main ones most Christians typically do are intercessory prayers, praise prayers, and thanksgiving prayers.
The night I did that fateful Bible study about prayer, I realized that I no longer asked for the Christian god to do anything that could be tangibly seen and measured.
If I prayed for anything at all, it was generally phrased in such vague ways that any result could be seen as a divine one:
- Please let me get home safely tonight, said while driving.
- Please let me get a good grade on this test, said while studying.
- Please help me get through this day, said while heading to work or school while exhausted.
- Please help so-and-so recover quickly, said of someone who was also receiving the best medical care available.
None of that is actually a request for the Christian god to really do anything tangible. As with miracles themselves, Christians get trained to interpret absolutely any result, as I did, as evidence of their god’s magical aid. We’re going to talk soon about this notion Christians have that no matter what evidence is presented, those dumb ole atheists won’t believe, because this is where that notion comes from. Christians really and truly believe that they are surrounded by evidence of their god, simply because they’ve been taught to see everything as evidence, and they get frustrated when nobody else interprets these events as divine in any way.
And I’d pushed through that teaching somehow without even noticing it. It must have been gradual, a toning-down of expectations that kept trending downward.
This change must have happened after Daniel died; I prayed then and earnestly believed that he’d be cured because my Christian peers and I literally fit into the whole asterisked list of answered prayers. Afterward, while maintaining my beliefs, I’d slipped into a habit of asking only for things that would happen anyway, or that didn’t take a miracle to accomplish, or that were so vague it hardly mattered what happened at all. I’d stopped asking for anything specific or miraculous.
I began to think back over my years in Christianity–not only in fundagelicalism, but all of it–and looked more critically at all the ZOMG MEERKULS Y’ALL claims I’d seen and heard. There were a lot of these. Had they really been miraculous? In the cold light of day, they didn’t seem to be anymore. They were things that I could explain, or things I felt confident someone could explain, without referring to the supernatural in any way.
And that was simply not what the Bible promised.
The Gospels show a Jesus who thought, full stop and without doubt, that asking for literally anything–even moving a mountain!–in his name would accomplish the desired result. He doesn’t speak of the standard prayer mantra of modern Christians: yes, no, or not yet. He offers only yes.
And I finally saw that that promise wasn’t true at all. If the Gospels were actually true accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, then my savior had been drastically mistaken about prayer.
It didn’t take more than a moment to flit to the next question, the most dangerous question any Christian can possibly ask–and one I don’t know if I’d have asked had I not been in such an extreme situation emotionally:
If the Bible was totally wrong about prayer, then what else was it totally wrong about?
It takes a lot to get to that question. Some Christians never do. I don’t know if I would have, had I not been pushed so hard by events that’d happened in my life recently.
That’s exactly how so many really smart, educated people can end up in a religion whose source material asks believers to take seriously the notion of a talking snake, patterns on sticks influencing the coat patterns of goats, and a story about zombie Jews3 bugging people in Jerusalem after the Crucifixion of Jesus. Liberal Christians might turn up their noses and sniff at the gullibility or desperation of their more fundagelical brethren, but even a liberal Christian thinks that prayer does something for both the prayer and the prayee (if that’s not a word, it is now), even if they can’t quite articulate what.
Through a very precise process of indoctrination, just about anybody can get suckered into joining a group whose source material isn’t real, whose claims are contradicted by reality, and whose social system is totally dysfunctional. It’s helpful if that process begins very early, but not required. All that is required is that the Christian’s intended dupe has some thinking patterns that lend themselves easily to buying into false beliefs.
There is a very solid reason why Christian evangelists tend to target certain groups the most: the youngest, the marginalized, the oldest, the sickest, the poorest, the most trapped and oppressed, the confused, the least educated, the angriest, the saddest. When I was Christian I thought that the reason was a good one: because Jesus loved those lost sheep the most because they needed him the most. Now I know that it’s actually a terrible reason: because those are the kinds of people who can be won by shoddy arguments and pseudoscience. They’ll put whatever critical-thinking skills they have aside to hear that evangelist out. They’re used to false promises and can easily rationalize away any physical evidence contradicting any claims they hear–and they’ll do so well before that evidence even reaches their consciousness.
I’ve heard a lot of non-Christians talk about Christians like they’re uneducated doofuses. I resent that characterization and reject it. I wasn’t stupid when I converted to fundagelicalism. I wasn’t uneducated. I was very young (16), but even then I probably had a better education than a lot of adults in this world and quite a lot of life experiences that even many older adults hadn’t had yet. But the gaps in that education and experience were large enough for the come-ons of fundagelicalism to slip through.
The Pool of Belief.
I think of belief now like a pool filled with water. Each bucket of water represents a reason to believe. When that reason gets debunked or refuted, then it drains out of the pool. When the pool gets empty enough, then disbelief occurs.
My pool was really full, and so I believed in Christianity’s claims. As I had one experience or discovery after the next, though, my faith-pool began to empty. The only way I could have stopped it from emptying completely would have been to consciously avoid the experiences and discoveries that could drain that pool–and some Christians do exactly that by swaddling themselves in Christianity’s swag, media, people, and experiences (and then they ensure that their children are swaddled even more, grrrr). The buckets of water stand for things like the Bible’s truthfulness, the occurrence and existence of miracles, and stuff like that. And I think we all have these pools about whatever it is we believe, be it religious or earthly.
Given enough time, the pool can refill itself if a bucket is drained away, but if the water drains quickly enough and the water isn’t replaced quickly enough, the pool is emptied. At that point it’s just a matter of noticing that emptiness.
And that’s basically what happened to me. I had a lot of supports for my faith, enough of which got knocked out from under me in a very short amount of time for me to reach a state of disbelief.
If Christians had any sense, they wouldn’t push the idea that prayer does anything supernatural. But that’s a big part of why people stick around in the religion: they think they’ll get a divine leg up over everyone who doesn’t believe, one that they couldn’t get for themselves. The problem is that it’s a claim that is laughably easy to falsify, as we were talking about just today in comments on the last post by joking about a grilled-cheese sandwich materializing from pure air in front of us. That yes/no/not yet mantra only works on people who already buy into the claims about prayer; it’s simply not compelling to anybody else.
Christian leaders can’t walk back that claim, though, or they’ll enrage millions of current adherents. So instead they demonize those who call attention to the claim’s falseness by mockingly deriding them for being angry that “God” didn’t give them a pony or suchlike. We wouldn’t ever have thought that “God” could do that if Christians didn’t loudly proclaim that prayer works all kinds of miracles, so the mockery doesn’t do anything but make us even more certain that we did the right thing in leaving.
In the end, the situation with prayer is like the one with Biblical literalism and a host of other Christian claims. The fact that prayer doesn’t do anything supernatural isn’t a dealbreaker. No religion can truthfully claim that. The dealbreaker is Christians’ untruthful claims about prayer. At best, it’s a total waste of our very finite lifetimes. At worst, it’s misused to strong-arm, passive-aggressively attack, and virtue-signal at others.
At very worst–or very best, depending on your view–prayer forms the first bucket of water removed from a Christian’s belief-pool.
Man oh man, are there a lot of those pools emptying lately.
Join me next time for a look at Christian narcissism!
Some related links:
The Power of Prayer in Christian Marketing. Why Christians often think that prayer is a required element to their projects’ success–and why they’re totally wrong about that.
How (Not) to Fix Everything: School Prayer Edition. Why Christians often think that forcing children to pray during school will fix every single thing they see as wrong in American society.
The Radicalization of Jaelyn Young. Why it’s the new converts who seem to get the most radicalized in any religion.
Airline High School: Evangelicals’ Captive Audience. A case study about a public school that was forcing students to pray–how the people responsible for it lied for Jesus, got caught, and rationalized their behavior.
1 The olive oil of all good Pentecostals everywhere! Seriously, my church bought this brand of olive oil and no other–they got this oil in bulk boxes and keep a few smallish bottles around on the dais right next to the pulpit so people could grab some at need. My memories of revivals are all tinted with the scent of extra-virgin olive oil. I don’t buy that brand now, but at the time it would have been unthinkable for a UPCI household to have any other brand in their kitchen than the kind that was good enough for Jesus.
2 “Laying on of hands” is Christianese for putting one’s hands on a sick or sinful person, usually on their shoulders but officially on their head, while
praying for healing or forgiveness or whatever is desired the magic spell is recited.