Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Truth About Prayer

Something about the way David so agonizingly cries out, How long, O Lord, resonates in the depths of our modern souls, and yet, we are a people who struggle to make this cry ourselves. Rather, we are a people more often discouraged, defeated, and betrayed by prayer.

Or so we think.

Gather a room full of Christians, convince them to be honest, and an overwhelming number of them will convince to having felt these things in prayer. We become discouraged because God does not answer us, which leads us to believe that perhaps we have not prayed "right" or fervently enough or consistently enough or whatever, and we think that we really did give it our best shot but it wasn't good enough, which means we will never be good enough, which means we might as well just stop praying because, well, we suck at it. 

We are defeated because no matter how hard we try, we never get the sense that we're getting any better at it. As time goes on and our prayer is not answered, it becomes the standard by which we judge all of our prayer. If this one is not answered, no other prayer will be, for this is the one that originates in the inmost places of our being. And if the prayer that is most important to us goes unanswered, then certainly, there's no use praying anything else. (If we did, and if that prayer were answered, we would think our God simply cruel. And, ironically, we would blame ourselves here, too, for our unanswered passionate prayer, thinking that maybe we're too passionate about it. Or that it's selfish. Or....) 

We are betrayed because this God who says He hears us doesn't hear us. This God who says He answers doesn't answer. This God who says He would move heaven and earth to come and be with us is nowhere near at all. For most of us, the ache of how long moves through this phase, where we are certain that it's God's fault and failure and not our own.

Although, interestingly, almost all of us come back to blaming ourselves. 

Asked how we feel about prayer in general, a surprising number of Christians would answer with some variation on what I've just given voice to. If that's you, you're not alone, not by a long shot. Take heart.

But know this, too: it's a lie.

Actually, it's because it's a lie that human beings don't easily give up on prayer, often coming back to it even when they are discouraged by it. Secretly praying as they lie in their beds at night, giving it one more chance, holding onto one more hope. It's why human beings who don't even claim to be Christians find themselves praying anyway. There's something about it...something about it, indeed.

It should come as no surprise that in the world we live in, various sciences have taken up the study of prayer to see what it really does for us, what it's really worth (as though scientific studies could somehow qualify and quantify the mystery of a loving God). Here's what they found:

In running brain scans on persons of prayer, they find increased activity in areas of the brain that indicate joy and peace. Really. Euphoria. Connectedness. They found decreases in levels of stress and loneliness. I'm not kidding you. 

One study had participants take their stresses and channel them through letter-writing, either writing letters to themselves, to strangers, to loved ones, or to God (as prayers). Guess what. The group writing prayers demonstrated greater increases in comfort with their own stories, even in healing from the trauma of their own stories, than any other group. There's something about prayer. 

The truth about prayer is that, in the immediate sense and in short-term gains, we're talking huge benefits. Human beings who pray are, in that moment, more at peace, more optimistic, more hopeful, more filled with joy, more connected to themselves and to the world around them, less lonely, and better able to handle the stresses of both everyday life and extreme variations on it (trauma, etc.) 

Yet, talk to a room full of Christians about prayer, and you'll hear story after story of discouragement, failure, disappointment, betrayal, uncertainty, shame, etc. 

Maybe our problem is not that prayer is hard or difficult or discouraging; there's no evidence to that effect, not even from a science that has for so long seemed hostile to faith (and would thus relish the attempt to destroy it by disproving one of its most fundamental practices). Maybe our problem is that our memories are too short. 

For some reason, we just can't seem to hold onto the hope that we know we find in prayer, the hope that even science confesses is there. 

Yet, we keep coming back to prayer anyway, which means - praise God - that we just can't seem to let go of it, either. 

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