By David Benner
As the firstborn child growing up in a seriously religious home I took my childhood religion seriously – in retrospect, far too seriously. Daily personal prayer was a stable part of my life for several decades until the fact that I had not allowed my understanding of prayer to mature caught up with me and led me to abandon worded prayer.
Looking back, I’d have to say that it was my view of God that set this up. The God I was relating to now seems to have been a cosmic Santa Claus who was prone to falling asleep. If awakened by persistent prayer, I thought I had a chance of getting petitions and intercessory prayers answered. But God’s chronic sleepiness was definitely a problem.
This appeared to have been what was going on when in my early forties I experienced a major financial loss that was compounded by the fact that my parents had followed my lead and invested and lost all their life savings through the same fraudulent scheme. It seemed a good time for God to intervene – if not for me, at least on behalf of my parents. But, urgent prayer for several years while the fate of our funds was unclear and before the investment broker went to prison turned out to be one of those times when God appeared to be snoozing.
The problem, however, was not with God’s apparent somnambulism but with my understanding of prayer. Updating that understanding did not come for a while. At first, all I could do was to give up worded prayer – at least in terms of petitions and intercessions. I didn’t abandon my faith and I didn’t stop sharing my inner experience with God. But, I did abandon the cosmic Santa Claus who I had been taught could be moved into action on behalf of oneself or others by persistent knocking on the gates of heaven.
Slowly I came to see that prayer is supposed to change me, not influence God. But how does this work and, if this is correct, why should we bother to pray at all?
The reason prayer has again become central to my spiritual life is that I have come to understand the unique way in which it allows me to open deeper and deeper parts of myself to God. I pray in order to give God transformational access to me, not for me to coerce God into doing me special favors.
I do believe that God acts in the world in mysterious ways but now suspect that this is primarily through humans. Prayer slowly brings our self into alignment with God’s self. This allows us to be attuned to and participate in God’s healing, reconciling and transforming work in the world making all things more whole and more conscious of their existence in Christ.
It turns out there are very good reasons to pray even if prayer is designed to change us, not God. And, if you have read my book on prayer, Opening to God, you will know that prayer can and should be much more than praying. In fact, all of life can be prayer when it is offered in faith and openness toward God. So, if you have been doubting the efficacy of prayer as a way to get God’s attention and favor, don’t abandon prayer.
But do be prepared to adjust your understanding of it. Viewing God as a cosmic Santa Claus may not be a problem in the case of a young child but it is a tragic view of God for an adult. Allowing your view of God and prayer to develop could just save you from having to abandon praying and it might just lead you to a point where you discover the possibilities of all of life as prayer.