My thanks to David Neaum (Chaplain and Fellow, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge), for offering a sounding board for another aspect of my slightly weird theology. A good chaplain is an invaluable thing.


As a good Anglo-Catholic, I feel I am long overdue a confession, so here goes.

I have a problem with prayer.

I don’t just mean I am bad at it. I do struggle to keep focused – I end up either wanting to go and do something substantial (which is unhelpful half way through a Eucharist), or find my mind wandering to what’s for supper, or the mistake I made in the anthem. But far more than that, I am honestly not sure prayer has an impact, at least, not the way most people think.

The idea of prayer is that it allows one to develop a relationship with God. What people believe about the extent of that relationship varies – some people think that God sends signs as direct answers, or that they feel moved to act in a certain way. Some people believe in divine healing in answer to prayer, or even that praying will help them find their keys. But in all of these conceptions, prayer is reciprocal. It is a conversation.

Now, if we accept that God is transcendent (which is pretty much fundamental to the definition of God), then any relationship relies on God choosing to reveal something of His nature or will. But this suggests our prayers make God react. Indeed, in many cases, our prayers seem to be asking something physical of God – some miraculous intervention to bring peace, healing, winning lottery numbers, good weather for a wedding. Well, if God chooses to answer some prayers, why not answer all prayers? Perhaps some prayers are somehow not ‘good’ enough – in which case why is my prayer for a friend with cancer less valuable that someone else’s prayer for a successful driving test? What metric is God working from? The alternative is that God answers prayers on a purely arbitrary basis (since He could answer all prayers). We haven’t accepted that shit from our kings for 800 years, why on earth would anyone worship a God who behaves in such a way?

I can only conclude that God does not directly respond to prayer. God is bigger than that. All times and experiences are present to God, and part of what God is. He shares in all our experiences from, every mother hugging a daughter, to every three-year-old washed up on a Turkish beach. God constantly suffers and rejoices as we do. This is embodied in Gethsemane, Golgotha and the Easter Garden. But more than that, all our lives are constantly present to God, so to think of God replying is to misunderstand his nature. God will always act as God, because all eternity is present to him. We only experience God as responsive because we exist in time, and see cause and effect. Where there is no time, there is no cause and effect, only being. God is constantly giving Himself out of love for us. It is not just an experience for God, it is His nature. What we experience as a relationship is His very being.

So if prayer doesn’t change God, what is its purpose? He does not intervene directly as a result of some prayers because they are somehow better, nor on some arbitrary basis (though all prayers are present to God’s existence). Prayer does not reap some physical response, where God miraculously removes cancer cells. There is no divine voice from the clouds.

+Justin Welby, who we must assume is relatively authoritative on such matters, recently tweeted that “Prayer changes us and it changes the world around us, because it makes us more like Jesus Christ.” This may well be true. Inasmuch as Jesus was human and divine, He embodies the perfect ideal of wisdom, justice and love, and prayer allows us to cultivate such virtues. But it is not clear exactly how +Justin thinks this happens. If prayer simply offers the chance to focus our minds on what we should be thankful for, or what we need to work on, it is not clear to me how prayer is any better thank any other meditative practice.

If I want to encounter the divine, I am most likely to manage through poetry, art or music – something with a magic which can’t quite be explained. Such things are a way of catching a snippet of what God is, in an allegorical way. That seems to be what prayer is really about. Augustine believed that there was no meaningful distinction between the natural and the miraculous since every moment is founded upon the divine will of God. The music of John Sheppard, the poetry of George Herbert, the art of Hans Memling, the very buildings of Durham Cathedral, are all glimpses of, and responses to the Divine will. Prayer is an opening of the self to notice God in everything, and to make all that we are a part of this pattern.

G.K. Chesterton wrote:
“You say grace before meals. Alright. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and the pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

Every moment is an act of divine will, so all moments are miraculous, and every interaction with each moment a chance to participate in the unfolding of God’s nature. Prayer isn’t sitting back and waiting for God to answer. It is seeking the better answer in a world crammed full of God. That sounds like something I can get behind.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem of Prayer

  1. As someone who has not infrequently pondered similar issues, I found your response to it quite interesting. I completely agree with the assertion that we should endeavour to be the answers to our own prayers; this tallies well with the more traditional Jewish approach to prayer, that a prayer isn’t something one says, but rather it’s something one lives. This is something that modern Christianity seems to have largely lost.

    I’m not quite as convinced by your assertion that God doesn’t answer prayers directly – it seems greatly at odds with both Old Testament and New Testament scripture, and with both my own experience and that of many friends. My conclusions have taken a somewhat different form, and require us to recognise that God’s perspective is not necessarily compliant with our own, and that His priorities are not necessarily aligned with our own either. It might sound really harsh on a friend with cancer whom God appears to have failed to cure, but the Kingdom of God is bigger than a couple of mutant cells. While the oncologist may be primarily concerned with physical health, is it not possible that the ‘Great Doctor in the Sky’ is more concerned about our spiritual health?

    Equally, I’m not quite convinced by your notion of prayer as a discourse to God that stimulates no response (as differentiated from an ‘answer’, which I take to mean the outworking of whatever was asked for) – time and time again throughout scripture there are examples of God communicating directly to humans, often in response to a request or plea. To understand why this would appear to be a disappearing phenomenon I think we need to consider how we pray. When partaking in liturgical prayer, it’s very easy to switch off from the meaning of the words, and concentrate on reading them, or wondering what the bald chap sat in front of you had for breakfast, and we seem to have been conditioned to suppose that any unscripted prayer should follow some sort of shopping list format (frequently punctuated with words like ‘um’ and ‘just’), after which we are free to go and breathe easy. We seem to forget that we aren’t presenting a petition to a feudal lord, we are addressing a personable father figure! When I pray, I find it very useful to remember that God isn’t a celestial vending machine, and equally remember to listen – I’m communicating with a being who made and understands a world that even our finest physicists have so far failed to unravel, using a biological body whose intricacies have befuddled centuries of biologists. There is nothing which I can tell God which He doesn’t know already, but that’s not a reason to neglect our relationship. Not infrequently I hear nothing, but occasionally I’ll receive a response, sometimes in the form of a scripture, sometimes a piece of poetry or music, and even once or twice a picture (though thankfully it wasn’t a cliché – I’m glad I have a God who appreciates my aversion to images of mighty and fruitful trees growing by rivers).

    I’m not saying I have the answer either, but a similar bag of musings which I hope you find interesting.


    Jake

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  2. Dear Jake,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, they certainly are interesting.

    I can see what you mean about my view being at odds with the progress of the Old and New Testaments. In fact, I removed a section discussing progressive revelation, made complete in incarnation. If Christ is seen as the fulfilment of revelation, there is no need for subsequent revelation (though I understand that my own conception would suggest that for God, this is not subsequent). What you say about spiritual health of course has value, but I would have thought that a prayer which is not visibly answered, if that is what we EXPECT from prayer, is likely only to damage the spiritual health of the person praying.

    Nonetheless, I think the overarching point is that If we think of God as directly responding to prayer in any form, then we are not unreasonable in expecting such a response in every case. Any God who can give a direct response which will help people grow in love and faith, but choses not to do so is not a God I can get behind.

    Your comments on prayer as discourse seem to miss my point. I agree that a shopping list of prayer is never going to be effective, certainly this is a problem with prayer. But I think you have misunderstood what I mean by a response. You talk of finding an answer in scripture, but this is not a direct answer, any more than music or art are direct answers. What you are doing in that instance is exactly what I mean about finding God’s answer already in the world. What troubles me are the instances where God supposedly suspends His own created order. I am intensely uncomfortable with the idea hearing the voice of God, of healing by laying on of hands, or of speaking in tongues. Such things suggest a God who can choose to suspend his own natural order, but only does so sometimes. If revelation is made complete in incarnation, then such arbitrary action seems to me deeply problematic.

    Jack

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