Friday, January 20, 2006

How Different are Our Prayers from Madonna's:That we Pray or to Whom we Pray?

It has become fashionable in our culture to include all religions in our prayers, to be inclusive. Madonna in her newfound spirituality often prays before her concerts with all her dancers. They gather around into a circle and she instructs them to pray to whomever or whatever they consider God and then leads them in prayer. The message she is sending is—“What matters is that you pray, not to whom you pray.” Similarly, books are often written on the power of prayer, focusing on its innate energy and potential for change with very little concern for whom the prayer should be directed to. You may recall a study that was published about a year and a half ago on Americans and Prayer. The focus of the article was on how statistics reveal that prayer, prayer of any kind by any person to any God produces results in health concerns.[1] The survey pool included Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Atheists and Hindus.[2] The survey reported that of the 35% of those who do pray for health concerns, 69% have found it helpful in recovery. The survey focused simply on results, stripping prayer down to naked pragmatism. In addition, it avoided the more important question, “To whom should we pray?” Instead, it measured health-focused, results-centered, pluralistic petitionary prayers Similar to the prevailing popular notions on prayer, the survey's concern was that Americans pray, not to whom they pray. The focus was on the “power of prayer,” not the God of prayer. And so, prayer becomes the object of concern, not its goal or God of prayer.

All too often evangelicals approach prayer in this way. I know because I am one. Our prayers, like those of the Prayer Survey and Madonna’s prayer circle, are concerned NOT with whom we are praying but that we are praying at all. We pat ourselves on the back if we pray and kick ourselves if we don’t. Prayer is reduced to a spiritual barometer which measures the pressure of our piety. If we’re praying, the barometer reads high- no clouds and sunny skies- but if we aren’t, it reads low- thunderclouds and precipitation. Prayer loses its purpose, its direction, its aim. If our concern is primarily that we pray, what does it say about to whom we pray? What does it say about God? Well, for starters, it makes him out to be a mean-spirited boss. It depicts him as a God who is happy when we pray and mad if we don’t. But worse, if our concern is that we pray over to whom we pray, we pray like God isn’t even there.

[1] “Prayer for Health Concerns,” JAMA Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 164 No. 8, April 26, 2004

[2] 35% of respondents used prayer for health concerns; 75% of these prayed for wellness, and 22% prayed for specific medical conditions. Of those praying for specific medical conditions, 69% found prayer very helpful.