God moves in mysterious ways.
God helps those who help themselves.
God has a plan!
I could list a few other excuses/rationalisations Christians use for when their prayers aren’t answered, but to me those are the top three. When you ask and receive not, it’s not because there’s noone listening, it’s not because if there is someone listening he’s ignoring you, it’s because your prayers don’t fit into his plans! It’s because you didn’t help yourself! You didn’t pray hard enough! You are stained with sin! Your prayer was answered – but you didn’t notice because God works in ways you or I or anyone can’t possibly comprehend, or because your heart wasn’t open to God!
As Christian children (I suppose I was one of those but, thankfully, not because of my parents, who have always remained neutral on the subject, except when poking fun at fundies) we are told that if we pray and mean it and if we’re good, our prayers will be answered. However, when they’re not there’s always a reason there isn’t a brand new slot-car set under the tree or that bully at school didn’t turn up in bits in a crocodile’s belly somewhere. OK, fair enough, asking for new toys and especially vengeful homicides aren’t really things you should trouble God with. How about when one grows up and cares not for such earthly pleasures? How do you know, for example, if God has actually granted you the wisdom to know the difference between things you can change and things you can’t? Hell, what if you’ve gained that wisdom through your own efforts – what if your prayer, as a vocalisation of an internal desire, flicked a switch in your subconscious that set you on the path to gaining a deeper wisdom all through your own efforts? That’s really the subject of its own post, though…
So, if God hears our prayers but doesn’t answer them because he moves in mysterious ways that we can’t comprehend, helps those who help themselves or has a Plan, what exactly are we asking for? Shouldn’t we just concentrate on helping ourselves? Should we look elsewhere for answers if the answers we can expect will arrive in a form we can’t understand – and who would answer you in a foreign language or with riddles or symbolism when you ask a direct question and expect a direct answer anyway? In the end, should we not focus on our own Plan?
Of course, your average Christian, apart from the standard apologetics, might say “Prayer doesn’t work that way, it’s not like tech support/a Santa wishlist and you can’t expect Answer B to Question A.” They may mention that if you pray with the expectation of having it answered that might work against you – you have to pray with a pure heart and the purest of motives and not be selfish. If that’s the case, why do so many evangelicals give so much money to TV preachers according to the prosperity gospel, which states that what you send out will return to you sevenfold, or tenfold, or threefold or some other biblical-sounding fold. That’s about as selfish as you can get – and pretty gullible, as the only person receiving any kind of fold is the damn preacher. If you’re meant to be pure with your question, why do so many people pray for the safe recovery of injured or sick loved ones? Surely if they’re dying they’re on their way to heaven and you shouldn’t ask God to deny them their journey home. It’s the height of selfishness to ask for that life to be spared. If they’re a good Christian they’re clearly going to a better place and you should be glad, even envious, but you’re not – you want them there on Earth with you. Some people ask God for help before a game, a race, a performance – I’ve seen many a backstage/locker-room prayer circle on behind-the-scenes TV shows. I’ve seen footage and photos of priests blessing soldiers and pilots and bombs before going into battle! Is that not the most arrogant, hateful thing you can ask for? Divine assistance in the slaughter of your enemies and preferential treatment of you and your comrades? Why should God spare your life at the expense of a soldier in a different uniform? What if that sniper drawing a bead on you is a better Christian than you? What if he’s a Muslim and his religion is actually the right one? Shit, what if he’s an atheist, a crack shot, there really is no God and he’s concentrating on compensating for the slight breeze that could divert his bullet rather than wasting his mental effort praying for a straight shot? You’re boned, soldier, that’s what.
My belaboured point here is obvious: for God to change things so YOU get a benefit, someone else – maybe lots of someone elses – may well have to suffer to make it happen. We’re familiar with the Butterfly Effect metaphor often used to describe ripples of causality (and to warn of meddling with anything when you travel back in time): a butterfly flapping its wings can start a chain reaction of events that can culminate in a cyclone on the other side of the world. For God to change just one thing to benefit you or your country or your freaking soccer team or dance troupe or platoon, whether he has a Plan or not, could – probably would – affect the rest of the world in ways we could never foresee.
Imagine the billion prayers God would hear a day, just from the various flavours of Christians. Add that to all the prayers from Muslims (who do it five times a day, which makes up for their relative lack of numbers), Jews, Ba’hais, Sikhs and many other monotheistic sects across the world. To grant just one of these would necessarily affect every other person in the world, if in no other way but simply rendering their entire religion utterly, irrevocably false. You’d think if God did exist, he’d make it abundantly and unambiguously clear which sect he’s listening to, if for no other reason than to cut down on prayer-spamming. Surely he wouldn’t entrust the spreading of the One True Word to pre-industrial Bronze-Age shepherds and fishermen and simply leave it at that for the next two thousand years. Would he? If he was deadly, godly serious about needing the world’s love, obedience and worship, would he not present himself in a clear and unmistakeable way to all of us and at regular intervals so as not to have his children constantly destroying each other over disagreements over his desires?
Final questions. First, assume that God (a) exists and (b) hears our prayers. Now, bearing in mind that apologetics such as “God moves/answers prayers in mysterious ways” or “God has a plan” or “noone can know the mind of God” will not cut it (especially that last one because most religions are pretty much based on knowing the mind, will & desires of God through their holy scrolls), riddle me these:
-Who’s God listening to? Whose prayers get heard in the first place rather than being dismissed out of hand and ignored? Naturally, if you’re religious, you’re going to say “Mine, you idiot! I have the Keys to The Kingdom!” That won’t cut it either – you have to show your work!
-Assuming, then, that you are of the Right Faith, what then are the criteria for having the prayer answered positively or denied?
-Are there prayers that God, like Aladdin’s genie, would never, ever answer? Things like “kill my enemy”, “make that girl love me”, “make me rich”? Which ones and why? If he’d help your troupe dance like they’ve never danced before, show where you left your keys, help you get out of Falluja alive or spare the life of your tumour-stricken child, why would anything be off the table?
-What if God hears everybody and grants NO wishes? What then of prayer? Would you continue to do it if that were the case?
-What if God hears everybody but cares not for the concerns of mortals at all and barely even notices our planet because he’s busy elsewhere? If he moves in mysterious ways and has a Plan – he could have a trillion planets worshipping him. Why stop at one planet if you’re capable of creating a whole universe in a week? He could have a trillion universes and we could just be a beta version, forgotten and alone.
-What if the whole concept of God is nothing but a fictional human construct, embodying all the knowledge, prejudices and ignorance of an ancient nomadic tribe attempting to record their mythology, codify their tribal laws and fix them all to a higher power in an effort to provide explanations of the natural world, keep their social order and establish a hierarchy?
Basically, obviously and finally: what if there’s no god and you’re all just talking to yourself?
That’s one question that answers itself.