I’m a high school teacher, and school starts again in two days. I’ve come in to school to do a little last minute prep, the sun is setting fast, and there isn’t a living soul in the whole building except for the security guard at the main gate and the resident cat. As I was leaving I got the urge to pray for the year ahead. Maybe even pray over my desk and my chair (I’m that nervous) for blessings this coming year.
Then it hit me: is this prayer, or magic?
Magic, as defined by the dictionary, is the use of words or actions in order to control the natural or supernatural. And it’s quite possible my prayer life has suffered because I, like many Christians out there, don’t see prayer as prayer. I see it as magic. I see it as a way to control what’s out there, either in my personal life (what I’ve always regarded as ‘selfish’ prayer) or in the wider world (what I’ve regarded as ‘responsible’ prayer). And when it fails – because if we’re honest, prayer can often fall flat on its face – I give up, I stop praying because it did not allow me to control what was going on.
As dead as my prayer life is, I won’t even pretend to know enough about it to write a proper post. But as with so many things, let’s go first to the Bible to shed some light:
1) The Bible contains many examples of answered prayers, but also many examples of prayers that were not answered, or at least not ‘fulfilled’ in the way the petitioner had prayed.
2) Even Jesus experienced frustrated prayer – think of Gethsemane. Not because he was ‘praying wrong’ (the usual explanation given for unanswered prayer) but because God still held sovereignty. But even then Jesus seems to have understood that prayer was not magic. That’s why he said “not my will, but yours be done.”
Even when Jesus really, really wanted to change the outcome of his impending torture and murder, he readily gave God the sovereignty. He knew his Father could (and probably would) choose not to answer his prayer, but that didn’t stop him from talking to his Father.
That’s what prayer should be: talking, fellowship. If I feel that prayer doesn’t work, maybe I haven’t grasped that. To just tell him how I feel, what I want, what I’m scared of, how it’s all so unfair, what on earth are you doing. Our Father wants to hear us, because if we’re ready to talk to him, we’re ready to treat him like a Father.
I mean isn’t it one of the greatest lies that we can’t be honest with God about how we feel or what we want? We often cite the example of praying to God for a Ferrari as a bad thing. And in many ways it is – but at least then we’re treating God more like a Father (albeit the father of a stupid, stupid kid), and less like a touchy, faraway deity who, if we’re really honest, doesn’t care about where I am or what I want. In that case we’ll just treat prayer like sanctified magic: pray for justice, pray for kingdom come, pray for the gospel, but without the talking. So if and when our sanctified magic fails, we’ll be confused and bitter, because we’ve convinced ourselves long ago that God doesn’t want to talk, doesn’t want a relationship. He’s a heavenly computer that has inexplicably conked out. And in that confusion we’ll just stop praying altogether.
So I’m not going to pray blessings over my chair and my desk, I’m going to tell Dad how absolutely, pants-shittingly terrified I am, and please would you stay with me and help me do my job well.