Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Asking for pain?

Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, "Because I bore him in pain." And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!" So God granted him what he requested. -1Chron.4:9-10 (NKJV)
Prayer is a funny thing. I've honestly been thinking about it much more lately than actually doing it, which is surely rather unfortunate for a Christian. The thing is, though, I tend to like to lean on logic and rational understanding for the most part (I realize that there are many aspects of religion that attempt to transcend such things from time to time, but that's neither here nor there), and as such, prayer has always been a bit difficult for me.

Over time, and especially in more recent times it seems, there have been attempts to scientifically explore the things religion has to offer, and see if there is an objective basis for belief. I'd tend to believe that while there is an objective truth that underlies religion, the problem in trying to understand that scientifically is that the experience of it is nonetheless very subjective. Sure, I believe that God exists, I believe He answers prayer, I believe that prayer is a worthwhile activity to pursue, but at the same time, I feel that you can't really have too many expectations of it.

Case in point, a few years ago I recall reading that there was a scientific study attempted to find out if sick people recovered faster if they were being prayed for. It shouldn't be a big surprise to anyone that the results were inconclusive. I can think of a number of reasons for the failure of such a study. In a scientific study, there needs to be a control group; and there was one, as I think I implied. A group of patients were supposed to be recovering without the aid of prayer for the purposes of the study. But how exactly can you determine that nobody is praying for them? If the group of people who were assigned to pray for the people in the study were informed that there was a control group, what would stop them from praying for that group? If they didn't pray for that group, would God honor the prayers of someone who was deliberately not praying for one person so that they could favor another? If God would honor such a prayer, is God truly good? On those same lines, is God really good if He only heals people who are being prayed for?

These are tough questions, because such can be applied to any situation involving prayer, really. Even when there is no study involved, we can and probably should ask, why does God heal this person, but not that person? And the only answer we have is the often unsatisfying, but also true statement that "God's ways are higher than our ways." In other words, we're just not going to understand, because we're not God.

As such, it can be hard at times to understand prayer at all. We can't change God through prayer, nor His will, which reigns over all that exists. So why ask for anything at all? It truly seems to be pointless, and yet the Bible seems to insist that it's one of the most important things there is! Even Jesus, who was God (the Son) spent a great deal of time in his ministry praying to God (the Father), especially towards the end of his ministry that He would send the power of God (the Spirit) to his disciples. That's mindblowing to me. Not only could Jesus not have changed the will of the Father, but we are to understand that He was 100% in accord with the Father, so He would have had no need or desire to do so anyway! Yet Jesus demonstrated that there was a clear and urgent need to keep reconnecting with God.

Do we pray only because, as many theologians have said, it changes us? Does that mean that it is impossible to have real, significant change in our lives without prayer? Does it lend credence to the idea that the effects of prayer are more a matter of psychological effect than real supernatural power? Is it even possible that the answer to that question is "Yes," and yet it still is the power of God working within us? It's a misunderstanding of the nature of miracles and the power of God to state that miracles are always supernatural. If I prayed to God to make me rich, and I then won the lottery, that could be considered a miracle despite the fact that it takes no supernatural power to win the lottery. (It would definitely be very impressive since I don't play the lottery.) It's a miracle that the non-profit Christian organization I currently work for has touched the lives of billions of people, bringing hundreds of millions to faith. It's also a miracle that my family hasn't starved on the pittance they pay me for my work. (Not that I want to sound complaining; there are people working for this organization in other countries that are probably being paid as much in a year as I make in a month, and no doubt doing a much better job of reaching the lost.)

So is it productive to pray for a miracle? In a sense, isn't that what prayer is all about? We all pray for miracles, some small, some big. I've decided to try and start praying big. Yep, for those who got it when they read my opening Bible quote, and especially those who got the joke when I dropped a little sarcasm to the idea a little over a year ago, what you may have guessed is true. I'm praying the "" this month. The book was better than I expected. I think most Christians who are skeptical of it see it as a new page from the "name it and claim it" prayer book, I know I did. But the book explained that the idea is not about making yourself rich and prosperous in worldly goods, but in increasing the scope of your ministry as a Christian. Asking God to give you His power to do whatever He wants you to do fully and effectively? That's a prayer that seems very good and spiritual.

Maybe it will profoundly change my life; maybe it won't. As the author of the book himself says, the prayer isn't a set of magical words that, when repeated, will have a specific effect. If there will be a change, the change will no doubt be within my heart first and foremost, and in a very big way, that's the most important thing of all.

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