The Arrogance of Prayer

Posted on June 16, 2014


Prayer makes me extremely uncomfortable.  It is at best simply superstitious words lost in an empty wind, but at worst… at worst it is a never-ending stream of presumptuous personal demands made to a Being whose power and whose nature is far beyond our imagining, much less our understanding.


It’s no secret that I can’t stand going to church.  There are various reasons, but prayer is one of them.  We supplicate God to intervene in our lives, to give us things, to take care of those we love.  We ask for health, for life, for children, for financial relief, as if it is God’s responsibility to give us those things (but only if he sees fit, mind).  Oh, and it gets worse:  we even pray for the most trivial desires, like the outcome of a game.  Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos became famous for praying on the football field, and thanking the Lord for games that went well.

I ask you:  really?  Let’s contemplate God for a moment:  if he exists, then he is a Being so powerful that he originated all of the universe from the most distant quasars and countless galaxies right down to the sub-atomic particles in your morning coffee.  He originated all life in its infinite variations, not only on Earth but on who knows how many other planets.  Physicists and astronomers have marveled at the exquisite balance of the Big Bang:

If that balance tipped even slightly in either direction, the universe would either fly apart or collapse on itself. Yet because the universe has been expanding for 14 billion years, even slight variations in the beginning should have become exaggerated by now, to disastrous effect. Dicke pointed out that for our universe to look anything like it does today, at one second after the Big Bang, the number describing the balance would have to have been within 15 decimal places of one, lying in the minuscule interval between 0.999999999999999 and 1.000000000000001.   Yet the Big Bang theory offered absolutely no explanation for how that exceedingly precise balance might have come about. It would seem crazy to assume that it was just a coincidence.

Many have taken that as evidence of God, of an intelligent and deliberate Creator. Imagine it!  A Being who could control the unimaginable mass that makes up countless galaxies with such precision!  And here we are, each of us just one of seven billion largish primates of the species Homo Sapiens, a strange creature capable of symbolic thought, on our rocky little planet in our nondescript solar system among trillions, in our nondescript galaxy among the countless other galaxies out there.

So I ask again:  why would we ever assume that such a Being is, or should be, concerned with the outcomes of our football games?  Why would we even dare to ask such a Being for anything?  Yet we routinely do.

Well, not all of us.  Back in 2010, Elizabeth Edwards passed away, making her final farewells with no mention whatsoever of God, Jesus, or Christianity.  Some conservatives criticized her for this:  “At her death bed and giving what most folks are calling a final goodbye, Elizabeth Edwards couldn’t find it somewhere down deep to ask for His blessings as she prepares for the hereafter?”

The issue was not that Elizabeth Edwards “couldn’t find it” in herself to ask for blessings; it was that after a lifetime of serious hardships – the death of her son, her husband’s very public infidelity, her cancer – she had come to the conclusion that God is not an “interventionist.”  “I don’t think I can pray to him to cure me of cancer… I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines. And I don’t believe that we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that’s what’s right. We should do those things because that’s what’s right.”


Consider this:  If someone believes in a higher Being who can be lobbied through prayer on his behalf, is that not similar to a small child’s view of his parents?  The child has an adult who shelters him, feeds him, takes care of his cuts and scrapes, and comforts him when he has been teased at school; exhorts him to do better when he fails, but is always there, loving and protecting.  With such parents, we are essentially free to fail on a regular basis; failure is expected.  And our parents will never leave us, never stop loving us, never withdraw their protection.  So we cling to the apron strings and treat God like a doting parent, and charge ourselves with no higher expectations than one would charge a toddler with.

Worse, I wonder if this view of God-as-parent actually contributes to our own foibles at times.  Consider Elizabeth Edwards’ own husband, proclaiming his faith in God even as he was carrying on an extramarital affair:  “It’s important in my case to have a personal relationship with the Lord, so that I pray daily and I feel that relationship all the time.  And when I’m faced with difficult decisions, which I regularly am, I very often go to Him in prayer.”

Consider other  hubris-afflicted proclaimers of the faith:  Mel Gibson, Jim Bakker, any number of pedophile priests.  I am sure you can think of many other examples.  Are they just hypocrites, people who only pretend to have a faith in God or Christ?  Or does their genuine belief in an interventionist God who answers their prayers render them somehow more juvenile and less responsible in their decision-making… and more prone to moral failures?

Elizabeth Edwards’ belief – that God is not there to intervene on our behalf, to protect us against our own foibles and just plain old life and chance – that it is up to us to follow the guidelines of what is right on our own, come what may, fair or unfair – is a far more adult, personally responsible form of faith, and one that would serve mankind far better than the apron-strings mentality.  If only we all would do what’s right simply because it is right, and take responsibility for our own lives.


Adapted from God’s Apron Strings, published at The Color of Lila, 16 December 2010