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In 2014, I attended a lecture by a man who had written a book about his experience with loss and grief. His infant daughter had died suddenly in 1990, and nine years later his wife died from a heart condition. Six years after that his 13-year-old son died of brain cancer. He described his spiritual response as follows: 

Like most Americans, I was raised with a traditional Christian understanding of God, but I could not accept that a loving God would do this to me, so I sought the help of other gods. When my son was diagnosed, I asked every god I’d ever heard of to help me. I went to Catholic mass. I meditated with Buddhists. I participated in Native American ceremonies. I took my son to Chinese medicine practitioners and Shamanic healers. I uttered positive affirmations and visualized my son whole and healthy, calling on the laws of attraction along with the healing blood of Jesus. I prayed. I fasted. I cleaned my chakras and confessed my sins. But the kid died anyway.

This man’s experience may be the ultimate example of religious pluralism, and while it did not produce miracles, it did show him alternative ways to find meaning in his losses. His quest not only led to expanded spiritual awareness, it also launched his career as an author and lecturer with a large following of bereaved parents. 

His prayers—and the prayers of the other bereaved individuals mentioned here—are a form of “petitionary prayer,” in which the petitioner makes a specific request of entities such as gods, angels, or human beings who have special status, such as saints. Petitionary prayer may help the person doing the praying feel like they’re taking action, but does it make a difference to God? In other words, can it influence the outcome of events? 

It is generally believed that a prayer is considered “answered” if it produces the desired result, assuming that without the prayer, the outcome would have been different. The same formula applies to “intercessory prayer,” in which someone prays on behalf of someone else, for example, when a community prays to help a neighbor, or a hospital chaplain prays for a patient. 

From my personal experience with petitionary prayer, I will share a story that I refer to as “the tree lesson.” One weekend during my first year as a seminary student, my little house in the northern California redwoods was being battered by a fierce storm. The winds were so strong that the tall trees surrounding the house were swaying and bending, and the day before, the top half of a 30-foot cedar had fallen across my neighbor’s driveway. I remember looking out my kitchen window at the trees blowing in the wind and saying out loud, “Please don’t let a tree fall on my house.” 

Who was I talking to? I immediately recognized that I was asking an imaginary third party to intervene, and I had to stop and ponder what it actually means to make such a request. I realized that my “prayer” was really just a way to express my fear. My heart was simply saying, “I’m vulnerable and afraid.” 

I remember looking out my kitchen window at the trees blowing in the wind and saying out loud, “Please don’t let a tree fall on my house.” 

Who was I talking to?

I recognized at that moment that giving our fears a voice produces a mild sense of comfort and relief, and also triggers a sense of personal responsibility that can empower us to seek concrete solutions to the problem. Conversely, directing the prayer outward — to something “out there”– can be a way of pushing the fear away so we don’t have to face it or feel it. 

In another personal example, I once witnessed a very strong act of intercessory prayer at a community food bank. Before the food was handed out to the needy, one of the organizers led a group prayer. She called upon Jesus to help all the people in the room, and specifically, to heal Mr. Brown’s arthritis, help Mrs. Green find the money to get her roof fixed, to make sure Mrs. Jones has a healthy baby, and to bless Timmy Thompson on the occasion of his high school graduation. 

Perhaps it was her meek, pleading tone of voice, or perhaps it was her assumption that impassioned entreaties can make things turn out the way we want them to, but I found her prayer to be very disempowering. It presented an image of humanity as confused, helpless sheep who are lost without a shepherd to take care of them. While the analogy of sheep and shepherd is a common Christian theme, Pastor Greg Laurie recognizes that being compared to a sheep is not a compliment, because, as he bluntly states it, sheep are “the dumbest of all creatures.” They have no survival skills and cannot fend for themselves, so they are completely dependent on the shepherd. While the people at the food bank certainly depended on the food distributed there, a prayer that confirms their sense of powerlessness does little to lift them up. If it were up to me, I would have offered a prayer of gratitude for being part of a supportive community, and a meditation to connect them to their hearts, their innate divine nature, and their ability to tap into inner strength. 

Perhaps this is best explained by freethinking Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who explains, “The intervening God who answers our intercessory prayers is a comfortable fiction that is no longer worthy of our worship… The Santa Claus view of God keeps us in a childlike state, but if we can allow ourselves to grow up, we can own the beauty and power of our humanity as we explore new definitions of faith for the 21st century.” 

A god that punishes us 

Mythical stories have immense value for unifying communities and establishing a shared set of beliefs and moral codes. When myth can be separated from meaning, and stories understood as metaphors and allegories, a culture can gain wisdom and spiritual guidance from the messages 

within the stories. But that value can easily be missed when the stories are interpreted as literal, historical events, and our view of what could be a vast spiritual panorama becomes narrow and one- dimensional. When taken literally, the depiction of God in the Hebrew Bible presents a father figure who is easily angered and demands absolute, unwavering obedience. The slightest infraction can result in catastrophic punishment, not only for the perpetrator but for thousands of innocents who happen to be standing in the line of fire. 

Most of us who were raised in Judeo-Christian theology were introduced to this god as children, and some of us grew up feeling that we were flawed, unworthy, shameful and even despised by God. Language that could be considered nothing short of terrorizing became firmly seated in Christian culture based in part on the words of Jonathan Edwards in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Edwards made the case that the “wicked” ancient Israelites deserved God’s wrath and were justifiably punished for not observing the laws faithfully enough. He warned his congregation that we are all vulnerable to this sort of punishment, because “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” 

For bereaved persons who think their losses are punishment for some sort of wrongdoing in their lives, the good news is that not all Christian ministries believe in divine punishment… at least not for their own flocks. Many of today’s contemporary Christian teachings denounce the belief in a punishing God, and one Jehovah’s Witness website even poses the very astute question, “Why would Jesus heal sick people if God was punishing them?” 

But these messages are confusing because if we scratch the surface of some of these statements, we find that according to some interpretations, the reprieve from punishment only applies to followers of Jesus. A headline on the GraceLife International website proclaims that the idea of God punishing people is a myth. But further down the page, the author, Mark Maulding, states emphatically, “God does not punish us who are in Christ! He cannot! Because all of His anger for our sins was placed on Jesus on His cross.” Maulding further explains, “We were tried for our crimes of sin and found guilty. Our sentence was death, but Jesus took our place and died for us. As a result, we cannot be found guilty again by God.” 

What is a bereaved person to make of this? Especially if the person does not identify as being one of “us who are in Christ?” Does this mean that only the followers of Jesus are spared from God’s wrath, but everybody else deserves it? Even if the griever is a devoted Christian (as in Kelley’s examples), why would they still feel they are being punished, despite the doctrinal assurance that they are immune to punishment? 

These questions create cognitive dissonance for even the most educated and astute among us. Imagine the burden this kind of thinking places on someone who’s just lost a child in a school shooting, or a spouse to suicide. 

Excerpted from Grief and God: When Religion Does More Harm Than Healing by Dr. Terri Daniel

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Dr. Terri Daniel is an inter-spiritual hospice chaplain, end-of-life educator, and grief counselor certified in death, dying, and bereavement by the Association of Death Education and Counseling and in...