In Christopher Hitchens’ book “Mortality”, Christopher devotes a great part of his second chapter to the subject of prayer and the futility of it. With the angst of one suffering from a disease that has no cure, that would eventually take his life, Christopher writes the chapters of this book to process his life and those things that have bewildered him and those things that have made him certain. On the issue of prayer, Christopher decided: “Those of us who don’t take part in it (prayer) will justify our abstention on the grounds that we do not need, or care, to undergo the futile process of continuous reinforcement. Either our convictions are enough in themselves or they are not.”
From the “Devil’s Dictionary” by Ambrose Bierce, Hitchens defines prayer:
“Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favor of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy.”
What is missing in this definition are three very distinct issues that give coherence to the act of prayer itself.
1. To whom is the petition being given?
2. How is the recipient of this petition defined?
3. On what grounds does the petitioner pray?
What follows in Hitchens’ argument is a logical response to this definition of prayer devoid of a real definition.
I would like to propose another response to the definition of prayer with the three questions above answered through the Judeo-Christian worldview.
When one prays, who are they praying to? I have often said that “prayer is only as powerful as the god it is directed to.” In a world with a pantheon of gods all with differing definitions, power, and accessibility, prayer can become a frustrating spiritual experience in that you have to choose the right god or right saint in order for your petition to be worthy of hearing let alone answering. As stated, however, my response to fill in the answers to these questions will be framed within the context of the God defined by the Bible. How is this God defined?
The God of the Bible has through scriptures revealed Himself to humanity with definitions of His character, His desires, His power, and His eternality. God is eternal. There never was a time He did not exist, nor will there ever be. God is a Creator, and holds claim that all that has been made that we see, and even that which we cannot see, yet know exists, was made by Him. The Bible tells us that all that was created was for His pleasure. It pleased Him to make it all. In particular, the Bible tells us that when God made man, He formed him from the dust of the ground and breathed within man His own breath that brought him to life. With man, God had communion. Conversation, time together, instruction, and help were all part of the relationship between the first man Adam and God, and was his intent from the beginning.
In Genesis we see this creative God “walking and talking” with Adam in the cool of the day. We see Adam, a man fresh to the earth giving names to animals, tending a garden, and becoming a husband as God provides for him a wife. We see God caring for the needs of Adam, and we see Adam flourishing in the communion with God.
When that communion is broken it is made evident by Adam’s hiding from God with his wife Eve. We see God “looking” for Adam, and calling out to him. Adam confesses to his sin, and acknowledges his nakedness to God. God responds to Adam’s feelings of shame and makes clothes for he and his wife–at the expense of the life of an animal.
From this point on and throughout the whole of scripture we see God making himself known to mankind and offering grace, help, forgiveness and restoration to Himself. Even in the Old Testament that is often criticized by on-lookers as a seemingly vindictive portion of the Bible, if you look closer, you find God giving evil nations time and opportunity to repent of their wickedness. He never judges people that He did not before-hand offer grace to. Jonah says it best in Jonah 4 as he is expressing his anger and frustration with God:
New International Version (NIV)
2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
Later in the New Testament we read in
2 Peter 3:9
New International Version (NIV)
9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
This God loves those He has made and has spared no expense to restore the broken fellowship between man and God. Not only that, this God listens.
New International Version (NIV)
3 ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’
And Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father in heaven…” showing us that God could be approaches as a child to a Father because that is How God related to us.
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
1 John 5:14-15
14 Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.
But what about the condition of the petitioner? If he/she is unworthy, does this change how God responds?
The truth is that all mankind is unworthy. We continue with our free will to disobey God’s laws. We continue to cheat our neighbor, lie about our behavior, covet other’s possessions, harbor anger in our hearts, and lust privately or publicly in our imaginations. Yes, we all do. The Bible says that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) This includes the one typing this blog. So how is it that we can even approach God and ask for help?
I don’t know.
It certainly isn’t anything within ourselves that makes us worthy to ask God for anything. I’ve looked inside my heart and found only my chest. I have considered my greatest ambitions and aspirations, and found selfish motives lurking in all of them.
So to answer the worthiness question, we fall back on the answers from questions one and two. Our ability to approach God is entirely based on His character, and His desire for us. He has asked us to come. He has promised to answer.
A Biblical definition of prayer from: http://christiananswers.net/dictionary/prayer.html
“Prayer is conversation with God; the intercourse of the soul with God, not in contemplation or meditation, but in direct address to him. Prayer may be oral or mental, occasional or constant, ejaculatory or formal. It is a “beseeching the Lord” (Ex. 32:11); “pouring out the soul before the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:15); “praying and crying to heaven” (2 Chr. 32:20); “seeking unto God and making supplication” (Job 8:5); “drawing near to God” (Ps. 73:28); “bowing the knees” (Eph. 3:14).
Prayer presupposes a belief in the personality of God, his ability and willingness to communicate with us, his personal control of all things, and of all his creatures and all their actions.”
In this definition of prayer, it is seen that we are not just finite unworthy beings looking for a change in natural events, but we are beings created in God’s image who are engaging in conversation with a God who wants relationship with us. He loves us, He listens, and He answers.
In response to Hitchens’ thoughts on prayer, I would have to say, if I held his definitions to be the coherent example of what prayer is, I could follow his resulting argument, and forego the need to pray at all. But because the definition is begging too many questions, I first must answer the questions, and there I find that the answers contain more than what was initially given. That changes everything.
Some say “Prayer changes things.” To which I reply, “Only if your God is listening.”