If you’ve ever watched a pool hustler, you know that it’s difficult, but possible to get four balls in four different pockets, with a single shot. In a similar vein, it’s possible that with a single question, I will succeed in pissing-off not just atheists and agnostics, but religious moderates and zealots alike. That’s actually harder to do than you might think. And yet here I am and there you are, examining another taboo topic in a category of things never to be questioned.
The Disclaimer: First, this is not…I repeat…not one of those glib, rhetorically snarky questions. I would sincerely like to know much more about a topic which has confronted me for a long time, close to 50 years.
The Ground Rules for this Discussion: For the purpose of this particular discussion, we are going to assume that 1. There is a God. 2. God is omniscient. 3. God is omnipotent 4. God is timeless. (He exists simultaneously in the past, present, and the future.) 5. We are going to assume that God is merciful. Lastly, I’m taking this question seriously. I expect you to do the same.
For me, the conundrum began in my sophomore year at F&M. I had a heavy schedule, Constitutional Law, Abnormal Psych, Ethics, some mid-level course in Integral Calculus, and Logic. Strangely, Con Law and Logic turned out to be the real b-busters of the semester.
On one fateful night in the dorm, I put on a new Doors album, entitled Soft Parade. The title song came on and I began playing it at normal volume. But then, half-way through I picked up the needle and put it back in the first groove… then cranked the volume up to 10. (Millenials, ask your folks what all this means.) Imagine Jim Morrison’s voice whispering the first lines and then raggedly ramming-home the last one. Apparently Morrison had some questions of his own as you see in these lyrics:
“When I was back in seminary school, there was a person there who put forth the proposition that: you can petition the Lord with prayer…petition the Lord with prayer, petition the Lord with prayer! YOU CANNOT PETITION THE LORD…WITH PRAYER!”
Well, that got everybody’s attention. Doors flew open. What the F**K? I gotta study! was yelled down the hall. One of the two actual seminary students in Atlee Hall came in my room, plopped down in a chair, and looked question marks at me. I figured two smart guys should be able to make short work of this one. Apparently not.
Once again, keep in mind that for the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming a wise, all-powerful, all-knowing, beneficent God. Imagine, if you will, a conversation between God and a person making the prayer, for what is a prayer other than an “intimate conversation” with God.
Dear God, I most desperately need your help. My most darling puppy of ten years has cancer all through her body. They say she’s going to die and I can’t bear to live with that. Please, please intercede on my behalf. She’s a good dog, never did anything to anybody…nor have I. I’ve been a good Christian. Please do this one thing for me. Thank you, God. Amen.
Even the most kindly and forgiving God, just might well be within His or Her rights to ask a question or two in return. He might ask, “Do you not trust me, Sue?” Oh… Of course I trust You. I didn’t mean to… “Do you think that I’m unaware of any of the things you’ve just said? Do you think me to be unknowledgeable, Sue, or worse, stupid?” Heavens no. I wouldn’t think that for a second. “Last question, Sue: Do you think you’re in a better place to make these sorts of decisions than I am? In short, do you think your solution is better than mine? Do you think you’re smarter than God?” Of course not. Well…possibly in just this one instance. I know You’re very busy… I just thought… I’ve been very loyal, I’ve never missed a day in church. I thought…You could do this one favor for me.
I’m sure that I haven’t succeeded in capturing the precise way in which you pray, but I think you get the concept. What is a prayer? It is an attempt by man to communicate directly with God. It invariably takes one of two forms. It asks for something: Please do something for me. Save my wife, save my child, please make it rain so we can save the crops. Please let my daughter get accepted at Stanford. Please let my son get 1400s on the SATs. Please let the Miami Dolphins win this division game… Or it thanks God for something that was asked for previously: “Thank you GOD!!! 725 on the math! 7oo on the verbal!”
Going back to that last lyric in Soft Parade, I don’t think you can or should petition the Lord with prayer. Or…if you do, and God is as all-knowing as we know He is, you are, most definitely, insulting Him. You are saying, sorry, God, but the way You were going to proceed, needed a bit of tweaking, a small correction. I’ll give you a hand. Thanks for taking to my suggestions, and doing what I asked you too. And I’ll let You know if I need anything else… Amen.
If we are to assume that this is literally how things work, and each one of us has a single, individual, intimate “in” with God, then we are forced to step back for a second and wonder, how does God handle the personal petitions from the 7.1 billion other souls on this planet? More than that, what about the billions of conflicting prayers? You want your son to get 1400s on his SATs. But every other high school junior is praying the same thing. You want your candidate to beat all the others. Sorry to say it, but it takes me back to when I asked my mother exactly how Santa Claus managed to visit every little child on the planet in about six hours. That was a hard one to fathom. This one is even more difficult.
If for a moment, it sounds like I’m making light of this conundrum, I am not. A point of fact is that many people pray for much smaller and much less noble things than board scores on an SAT test. We, as a highly flawed, self-centered, and often illogical species, often pray to God to help us actually do harm to our enemy or even our neighbors. For anyone who is religious and has been in the military or fought in a war, this is absolutely how it is. Look at the very common footage, not just of Japanese Zero pilots, but our own Hellcat pilots in WWII, praying on deck of their prospective carriers for God’s help to shoot the other SOBs out of the sky.
It should, as they used to say in college, be obvious to the most casual observer, that if God wanted to obliterate one country, culture, race, nationality, He would be able to do so with a nod of his head.
So…the question remains. What is praying? I personally believe it is mankind’s attempt to not feel completely helpless on this planet. There are times…and I’ve had a large handful of them this particular year, where if I believed in the sort of avuncular, anthropomorphic God that many imagine, I would have said, “Just do this one thing for me, save Pamela’s life and I promise, I’ll change my ways. I’ll go to church every day. I’ll do whatever you like. ” And yet, even in my deepest sorrow, I would not ever presume to have greater wisdom than God. For me, that would be supreme arrogance on my part. I’m not sure how or what God thinks about praying.
Accomplished and well-known writer and lecturer, Sam Harris, made a point several years ago, only in a slightly different way with this fact: “Nine million innocent children die every year before they’ve reached the age of five.” (That’s 24,000 children a day or 1000 children an hour…dying.) But then think of the parents and families of these children. Demographically, the drastic majority of these parents and families are religious and have prayed to God for their child to be spared. The prayers of 24,000 God-fearing children go unanswered…every single day. How does that fit in with someone praying that they get into the college of their choice???
It might be argued, though I think it’s a slim argument, that God works in mysterious ways. That exact statement is plugged-in for almost everything to which we would otherwise, throw up our hands in desperation Nine million Jews died in prison camps. 25 million Russians died in WWII. 60,000 at Antietam, in our own Civil War, Our two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of civilian innocents. Earthquakes, volcanoes, plagues, tsunamis, nuclear annihilation, genocide, all part of some master plan? He just works in mysterious ways… However, God intimately listens and responds to your prayer that your husband gets the raise over the other two candidates. If that is working in mysterious ways, those ways are very mysterious, indeed. It would seem that God is either incapable of saving these nine million innocent children or He is indifferent to them.
I’m going to share one rare moment where I did fall apart once. Strangely it wasn’t to do with me or my family, it regarded my best non-human friend on this planet. His name was Oogie and he was just wondrous. If you’ve had an animal you’ve loved, you understand. Oogie came down with epilepsy and became our special boy.
Seven doses of medicine a day and watching him like a hawk. Still, he had seizures when he would just go nuts or take off. One afternoon in late January it happened. He was out for one second to pee and then…gone. We called everyone and spent the rest of the afternoon in sub-zero weather tramping all over the mountain we live on.
Toward evening we got flashlights and kept on. Somewhere around 11 pm we were exhausted, trotted inside, downed a hunk of cheese and went back out. It had started to sleet…freezing rain. Oogie’s fur was the thickness of the fuzz on a peach and we were freezing even though bundled up. We were both out till 1:3o am and then the winds came up and everything just started to freeze. No creature without fur could have survived. And then my flashlight went dead. And then I lost it. I remember looking up at the blackness and screaming, “Is this one of Your jokes? He didn’t do anything to You. He never did anything bad. Why don’t You pick on someone Your own size???” I believe I said some expletives as well.
I would never, ever, ever presume to advise anyone else in a category as serious as this. It’s just too important and too personal. I would, however, make an observation or two. Of the handful of major religions and thousands of lesser known religions, if one God obviously stood above the rest of the others, then you would be seeing entire nations spontaneously bursting into flame. Think of Islam vs. Judaism vs. Christianity alone. If the Islamic religion had the one and only true path to God and it was Islamic, most, if not all of the United States would be scorched or burning in flames from all the prayers to Allah for its destruction. And to be fair and accurate, a similar fate would befall much of the Middle East. Israel, I have no idea as to whom they hate more at this point. With all the factions and layer-upon-layer of hatred, I can’t keep track.
With all this in mind, and with my seriously trying to empathize with what God would think of all this, I would accept whatever the God I believe in does and try to cool it with helping Him out or informing him of things He might have missed. If God can condemn me to eternal hell for not having been born in the “correct” culture, and by that I mean: if you were born in Iraq, chances are you aren’t Baptist and if you’re born in Oklahoma, chances are you aren’t a follower of Islam, I can only imagine how He might feel, hearing me tell Him how to do His job. I know it would annoy me a whole lot.
When I was a little kid, my mom had one thing she always said, “When the winds fail…take to the oars.” I seriously try to live the Golden Rule and help my fellow man in every way I am capable. As far as praying for things, or special advantages or consideration, I leave it up to higher powers to decide how to handle me. For me to presume that I have better ideas than God would be arrogant.