A common practice in Abrahamic Religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is prayer. In Judaism they have specific prayers for certain occasions. Muslims are known for being devoted to praying five time a day at a specific times. Christians like to be more spontaneous with their prayers allowing their hearts and the spirit to guide their words. So let's look at two perspectives of prayer
The Common Perspective of Prayer
One purpose for prayer is to present a petition to God. We ask a question expecting an answer or we have a situation that needs to be resolved with the intervention of God. There is a time and place for such prayers. We must be careful about the petition becoming our primary reason and total focus.
Problems with this Perspective
First, the answering of prayers cannot be proven. Now before assembling a mob with pitchforks and torches hear me out. I know plenty of people that believe their prayers are and were answered. They asked and they received but let's look at different example. Imagine you go to a wishing well and throw in a coin and wish for money to pay the bills. You go home and on your door step is an envelope with the hundred dollars that you needed to pay the bills. It must have been your wish coming true right? Or maybe it was God? Or your friend overheard you need money and anonymously gave it to you to help out? One event following another is not grounds for proof of causation. This a logical fallacy called Post Hoc. I am not saying that God does not answer prayers. I am saying that we relay on faith that He has answered them and not on proof.
Second, God works in sometimes mysterious ways and other times in the mundane and natural. We have come to believe that Miracles means God doing the impossible or defying the natural laws. According to Professor Bart D. Ehrmanthis has not always been the case. In historic times people did not see a separation of the spiritual and physical world. They coexist together. It was not about the possibility of an event happening but the source. With this idea in mind, the surgeon the saves the life of a child could be considered a Miracle. God gave that surgeon the heart to heal, the opportunity to go to medical school, and the ability to perform surgery. What this means is God may be answering a prayer and we don't realize it. Once again we are relaying on faith.
Third, to continuously be focused on having our prayers answered could be considered rude. If the only times I call up my mother is to ask for money or for help or for her to do something for me, she might start getting the feeling of being used. Sure she will still answer the phone and help me out because I am her son and she loves me but it is still rude.
Pitfalls to Avoid
There is a trap with focusing on the answers to prayers. What if they aren't answered the way we want? What if we don't notice or hear the answer? It could seem like God is ignoring us or He hates us or does not care about us. I want to make sure we avoid this trap.
I personally have dealt with this situation. As my friends and family know I deal with anxiety on a daily bases. Sometimes this anxiety leads to episodes of intense depression. I become lethargic and zombie like. I sleep most of the time and eat and drink only enough to survive. I do activities that require minimal efforts like watching TV. During these times I would suffer from extreme emotional pains that made me want to die. The brain tends to experience physical and emotional pain the same way.
At the start of my depression episode I would go to sleep begging God to end the suffering. I wanted healing and peace. Yet none would arrive. I would then transition into asking for the Second Coming. I wanted to be removed from earth and be in heaven where there was no pain. Yet after waking up it was another day on earth. The next step was asking God to let me die. I didn't care how. I wanted anything that would end this pain and misery. Yet again the next day would arrive. Finally I just stopped talking to God all together.
Eventually I would finally cross through the storm and return to the realm of bright sunshine. The depression would be gone and I would be more like myself. I know some out there would claim that God was protecting me through the storm or that He has other plans for me and that is why I had to have the episode. Honestly I don't care because it doesn't matter. No mater what the cause or reason of my depressions I have to deal with it and each day is another day that I must deal with. So all I do is the best I can each day and have faith that God will take care of the rest. If it is by granting me strength, removing the suffering, or bringing me home to Heaven, that is His choice and my praying on the matter is not going change His decision.
In response to this event I have stopped praying in the traditional sense. I no longer ask God for help or for guidance or anything like that for myself. Since He knows my needs before I even ask, I have faith that He will take care of me. As I am resuming my praying, I have changed my perspective. Once again I want to restate that there is nothing wrong with petitioning a request to God. I am just presenting another Perspective of Prayer that I am embracing.
An Alternative Perspective of Prayer
So what other purpose of prayer is there? Why should we even bother to pray if there is no proof of it being answered and just faith? First off I want to be clear that there is nothing wrong with having faith that a prayer is answered. Faith is the foundation of all beliefs. Second, it tends to be a command and a requirement to pray. In Islam it is one of the pillars of their faith while in Christianity, Jesus expected His disciples and followers to pray. Judaism has a strong tradition of praying. So I present these alternative reasons to pray:
A Relationship with God
I cannot prove His existence. No one can but neither can they prove He doesn't exist (that is a topic for another time). By praying to God we are acknowledging His existence. We are saying “Hey You are real to me and I want to talk to You.” We are making God who at times seems distant to become closer to us. There is a saying “out of sight out of mind.” This is true about relationships as well. The less time we spend in a relationship, the more it fades. This is one reason why friendships after high school tends to disappear.
My best friend in Elementary school was Aaron. After 5th grade he moved an hour away and attended a different school. Throughout Middle School we remained friends and still tried to hangout but by the time we went into High School our friendship was gone. We did manage to reconnect a few years ago. We talk occasionally and visit when either one of us is in town but it is not the same as it was. Contrast to that, Jareth has been my best friend and like a brother to me since freshman year of High School (Happy 15 years of friendship Broski!). We talk constantly and almost everyday and our friendship has lasted this long and gone trough its own share of troubles.
The same principle applies to God who is like a friend to us (among other hats He wears). If we are not continuously talking to God, the relationship will slip away. Then when something does come up and trouble does arise in the relationships it can break apart. Besides that, it can feel kind of rude to ignore your friend. So if God wants to talk and we are like “Nope, got to run to the store then taking the kids to the park then fix up the car then I have to cook dinner then I want some time to myself before going to bed and waking up for work.” Sure God will understand the first time we say that but what about the next time and the time after that. Then when we have money trouble we come asking God for help. It does not feel like a friendship to me.
A Form of Therapy
Bottling up emotions is bad for our mental and physical health. Unresolved conflict and feelings tend to fester and eats away at us. Stress is actually a major contributor to health problems including high blood pressure and heart disease. By reducing these negative emotions and stress we can improve our relationships with others and our own health.
We can come to God with our problems and pour them out on to Him like a counselor. “But Matthew, didn't you say it can be rude to always ask God to help with our problems?” I did but here we are not asking Him to help but just voicing our emotions and feelings to Him. So instead of saying “God I need money,” we say things like “God I am scared because I don't have the money to pay for utilities. What will I do without electricity and water?” or “God my wife seems to be ignoring my needs and everything. I fear that we are growing apart or something may be wrong.” In this case we are validating our feelings and situation. We are saying this is a real situation and my feelings are real.
It also works as a sounding board. When we talk out loud to someone we hear what we are saying. This can help realize truth or lies about what we are saying. So with the example of the husband's problem with a wife, he may come to realize by continuously talking to God that he is working too much or being preoccupied and so it is affecting his wife.
It is even okay to bring forth your feelings of God to Him. Maybe it is your love for Him and the things He has done. Maybe you are mad and frustrated with God. That is okay. There has been a few times I have told God “I don't want to talk to you today.” It is not a sign of weakness or failure in faith. Moses question God about choosing him to be a Prophet. Jonah got anger and ran away from God's mission. Elijah became depressed. Peter denied knowing Jesus and Thomas doubted His resurrection. And Job continuously questions God and wonders what is going on with his suffering and punishment. Job was mad at God and at the end God still praised Job and called him His servant[8,9]. So it is okay to express your anger of God at Him. I do want to point at that although it is okay to be anger it is not okay to curse God. Job never did. In fact Job always sought after God even though he was anger. So don't ignore Him just because you are anger either.
I would like to bring attention that some situation and problems need a professional therapist or spiritual leader to help with. This is not to override or replace our need and reasons to pray to God but to assist in the situation. Think of it as like getting more help with resolving the conflict. Sometimes we should seek all the help we can get.
A Reshaping of our Minds
Our minds are like clay. They are shaped by our experiences, actions, and thoughts. This is why everything we read, watch, hear, and learn affects us; however, we are not completely at the mercy of our environment. We have free will that can allows us to have influence on how those things affect us and what we do with them. Prayer is no different.
There is a saying “Positive Thoughts creates Positive Results.” Although this is not 100% true, there are evidence to support the benefits of positive thinking. Thinking positively will not end my depression episodes. Believe me I have tried. It can help me get through the day and survive the episode. Prayer is a way to channel positive thoughts.
A common theme is to praise God for who He is and what He has done. We acknowledge His existence and what He has done in our lives. This turns the focus from the troubles to the victories. For myself God has walked with me through my past depression episodes so by reminding myself of that, I have faith He will walk with me in the next or current episode. It also changes our emotions to positive feelings. This is why people get energetic, peaceful and/or happy after praying and worshiping.
One of the paradoxes of psychology is that our thought and feelings create our actions and our actions create our thoughts and feelings. It is a cycle. With our free will we can intercede into this cycle and modify it. Prayer is a way of doing so. As we continue to pray, we are utilizing the same pathways in our brain over and over again. It then becomes easier to use those pathways. Then feelings, thoughts, and actions become more common. Growing up my high schools friends and I would curse and it would happen in front of my mom at times. We would use the excuses that it slipped. My mom would then counter with “Nope, it is a habit.” The same principal applies to prayer and the thoughts and feelings associated with it.
The other way it shapes our minds is when we pray for other people. We our consciously focusing on another person. This activates the empathetic part of our mind. The more we do it the stronger the empathy portion of our brain becomes. Eventually it will start activating outside of praying. One time I was at the store waiting in line. There was a woman in front of me buying groceries. Now I wanted to go home and it was later in the evening so of course almost all the registers were closed. I would have used the U-scan but I had a cart full. Needless to say I was getting frustrated. The lady had to pay with a gift card, spare cash, and finally her bank card. The first thought in my head was “What the heck lady, why are you using three payments?” Yes it wasn't my finest of thoughts. But something immediately happened in my mind. I was like wait a minute and thought to myself “I can't imagine how she feels knowing she has to make ends meet and pay for her food with three payment options. You take all the time you need lady. ” After that my irritation was gone and I was at peace. Now ideally that second thought should have been my first but hey my mind is a work in progress.
A Life of Prayer
Since prayer is a foundation to all of the Abrahamic Religions, it becomes embedded into our lives. Some people pursue a goal of it being a constant aspect in their lives that they do all the time when ever the can or as some have put it "A Life of Prayer." Just like in life where people are at different parts and levels of their journey, so true is it with one's prayer life. So here are some advise for wherever you find yourself with your prayers.
- For those who don't pray or not often, I encourage you get started and improve it. It has many psychological as well as spiritual benefits. There are numerous books out there already on how to pray and on prayer. Pick one up. Also ask a spiritual leader to help you out and guide you.
- For those who do pray regularly, I encourage you to embrace this alternative perspective into your current prayer life. It is not to replace but to enhance what you are already doing. It will help to give a fuller prayer life and to fill in where petition leaves off.
- For those pray warriors and experts I thank you for the time you invest and the heart you have for prayer. Never cease the praying and continue to grow in your faith. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to become a mentor to newer and less experience members of your faith. And remember no matter how "perfect" your prayer life may be, don't be pridefully and not seek when the storm blows your way.
- And finally for any non-practitioners of the Abrahamic Religions that have made it this far, I thank you for reading this article. I hope it has been a learning experience for you and brought you some enlightenment into our faith.
If you would like to share your experience and perspective on prayer I would love to listen and hear what you have to say. Maybe it was something that got you through a tough time, or a different perspective that you have other then the two presented here. Feel fear to register on to this site and post your comments below. May peace and grace go with all my readers.
1. Prayer Book: For Jewish Personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States
2. Islam Prayer Practices
3. Post Hoc Fallacy
4. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings by Bart D. Ehrman
5. Emotional and Physical pain activate similar brain regions
6. New Testament - Matthew 6:8
7. Stress Effects on Health
8. Old Testament – Job 42:5-7
9. Get angry at God, Job did, is it a Sin
10. Positive Thinking Benefits