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When Prayer is Depressing

One of the depressing things about prayer is just what will catch media attention. In this MSNBC.com article, we’re told about Stuart Shepard of Focus on the Family praying that it would rain on Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. I had seen this at the time, but it came back to my attention in the last couple of days as we discussed praying about hurricanes. I’ll get back to the hurricanes in a moment.

The article notes:

A couple of weeks before August 28th—the night that Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for President, in a Denver football stadium—Stuart Shepard, the digital-media director of the lobbying arm of Focus on the Family, one of the most powerful organizations on the religious right, posed a question to his Internet viewers. “Would it be wrong,” he asked, “to pray for rain?” Shepard’s answer, apparently, was no, because he proceeded to do just that. He prayed for there to be rain—abundant rain, torrential rain, “rain of Biblical proportions”—in Denver on August 28th. “I’m praying for unexpected, unanticipated, unforecasted rain that starts two minutes before the speech is set to begin,” he said, adding, “I know there will probably be people who will pray for seventy-two degrees and clear skies, but this isn’t a contest.”

It’s a good thing for him that he said it wasn’t a contest, because if it was a contest, he would have lost. But it also presents a depressingly bad picture of prayer. Is it any wonder that prayer has a bad reputation with many people. Praying is for kooks and bigots. It is supposed to serve to get us what we want and to make sure our enemies don’t get what they want. It’s supposed to provide us with special information from God so that we can be one up on our neighbors.

And while I’m at it, let me detour to the silly response of many to Barack Obama making a speech before 75,000 (and actually more) people. If it was a Christian gathering, we wouldn’t think the speaker was crazy, or over the top, or egotistical (at least any more than is required for becoming president.) Barack Obama speaks well. He attracts large crowds. It was the logical action to take. There was no particular reason God should send rain on his crowd any more than any other.

But the problem I want to address is the picture of prayer that all this type of talk presents. Prayers that curse certain people, prayers that wish harm on others, prayers that are simply said in order to get one some material benefit, are not really the kind of prayers that Jesus presented. Yes, I know he talked about faith and moving mountains, but one has to ask just how his disciples heard such things. We note that they neither moved any mountains nor did they complain that they couldn’t. People deride “spiritualizing,” but sometimes spiritual statements are, for some reason, spiritual.

All this came back to me as Hurricane Gustav approached the Gulf Coast. Of course I would prefer that the hurricane not come to Pensacola. In my own very selfish way I like comfort. But at the same time, is there any conceivable reason I should pray that God send a hurricane over to New Orleans, which is largely below sea level, in order to spare Pensacola, which is largely above sea level, merely to spare my precious (to me) body, which is incidentally parked there?

I think it’s silly, and even beyond that, nasty and thoughtless. Of course, I don’t actually believe my prayers steer hurricanes in any case. I think hurricanes follow God’s natural laws and go where they’re supposed to go. It would be much more constructive for me to pray that my own attitude toward other people would be changed, and that I would, in turn, change the attitude of many other people.

In fact, I believe that change of attitude is the primary benefit of prayer. Somebody, somewhere is going to accuse me of not believing in the power of prayer because I said that. They’ll say I don’t believe in a supernatural God. I can always answer that I do believe God performs miracles sometimes. But that’s not the main point. I’m more interested in God performing the miracle of changing my attitude, which is continually in need of adjustment, and doing so on a regular basis. Personally I think that’s power!

Yet many Christians in places that don’t get hit by a hurricane will be praising God that it missed them, while ignoring the people who got hit. I really don’t think most of the folks who do it actually have any bad attitude. They’re just thankful, and that’s good. But I think we need to be more conscious of the times when our good fortune means hardship for someone else.

I recall one hurricane, though I can’t remember the name, that we thought might come to the gulf coast. Lots of folks were praying that it would go somewhere else. Well, it missed us, where it would have most likely killed a few dozen people, and it went to Central America where it killed a few thousand.

Perhaps we should take greater consideration of the Lord’s prayer, praying for God’s will on earth, rather than our own, and of Paul’s admonition in Philippians 2:4, to look not after our own interests, but after the interests of others. That is, after all, what Jesus would do.

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  1. I’m surprised you resisted noting the irony (though I would not suggest the response of God to Shepard’s prayers) that it was in fact the Republican convention which was disrupted by a hurricane.

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