How Does Prayer Work: Dispelling the Myths

Prayer. It is a weighty and loaded word. For some it is the epitome of comfort and safety; for some it means futility and a waste of time; and for most of it’s complicated. (Isn’t everything?) Humans pray. And there have been some drop dead awesome books on prayer (my favorite is by Anne Lamott “Help, Thanks, Wow”). But if you hit up Google or Pinterest and enter the word “prayer” in the search box you’ll get some really, really crappy shit along with the good information. If you are wondering how prayer works, how it doesn’t work, and why you should bother? Read on.

Prayer Myth 1: If we pray hard enough, and have faith, God will answer our prayers

So let’s start with the obvious. God is not a giant candy dispenser in the sky waiting to drop the thing we ask for into our eager little hands.  Here’s why this myth is so problematic: the opposite of it is also not true. You see, if we believe that prayer is about telling God what we want God to do then it follows that if we do it right, and we’re good enough, etc we’ll get what we want.

What about when we don’t get what we want? All too often we’re told, or tell ourselves, that we didn’t pray hard enough or we didn’t believe enough. When the serenity prayer fails to bring serenity, who do you blame? Somehow it becomes our fault that the great treat dispenser didn’t pop out the desired result. If you don’t get what you want it isn’t an indication that your faith is flawed, or that you didn’t “pray hard enough.” Because prayer is not about nagging God to give us what we want.

Prayer Myth 2: Prayer is an end in itself

This one is everywhere. It goes hand in hand with the first myth. If the point of prayer is to get God to do something then prayer is it, it’s the end. But it isn’t. I might be getting ahead of myself, but what the hell. Prayer isn’t really about getting someone else to do something, it’s about change in us.

Prayer is a call to action, for the one praying. When prayer ends without our internal and external lives being changed it is wasted words. It is simply an echo chamber of wishful thinking. Thoughts and prayers” are useless and meaningless unless they are then followed by action. That’s not a new idea.

You don’t have to look far in Jewish scripture to find God grumpily reminding human beings that prayers and sacrifice aren’t what God’s looking for from us: action to help those in need, is. So why does this myth persist?

Because action is hard. Real prayer, that which changes us, is hard. It’s much easier to say some words and hand the problem over to a deity to fix.

prayer myth

Myth 3: There’s a right and a wrong way to pray

See myth 1 and 2. Clearly you’re doing something wrong. If you weren’t God would have fixed the things you were praying about. This one sort of makes sense. Communicating with the Divine/Universe/God seems like a pretty Big Dang Deal, clearly there is a right and a wrong way to go about that. Strangely though, there isn’t. Or rather there are manymany right ways and just some general things to avoid. (Like reading your grocery list, or doing nothing but complaining, or nagging God and then waiting for God to fix everything).

There’s a huge difference between that and there being a “right” way to pray. You can pray with words, or without. If drawing is your thing, you can do that. Or you could sit in silence, or dance, or do yoga. There’s always following your breath, or watching the waves. You can join others in formal prayers, or just have a chat. And angry yelling is totally allowed, in fact there’s a bit of a tradition (see the Psalms).

Prayer Myth 4: It’s all smooth sailing from here

Of all the prayer myths (and there are more than 4 but I have to draw a line somewhere) this might be the most damaging. There is a persistent notion that you can improve your prayer life as you would your math skills. In this myth you just get “better” and better at prayer until… Well I don’t know where it goes because I’ve never met anyone for whom that is true. Y’all even the Dalai Lama sometimes struggles with his meditation. Even the Pope has days when he just can’t say another rosary (I don’t actually know if that’s true but I bet it is).

That’s because our prayer lives aren’t a staircase from novice to expert. We can’t climb right up to heaven (or nirvana, or whatever) just by practicing. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t practice our prayer and meditation regularly. But it is vital that we understand that like the shape of the year our spiritual lives also wax and wane.

Spiritual summer is a thing, where everything is in bloom and prayer is easy and it feels good. But so is spiritual winter, when the ground is frozen, and you just can’t meditate and it all feels useless. So if your prayer or spiritual life isn’t some smooth ascent but a little more like a labyrinth you’re in good company. That’s how it’s supposed to work. (This is one place where it totally is about the journey!)

prayer myth

Good Prayer Hints

  • Generally do what works for you and don’t worry about the rest.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Offer your whole, real self.
  • Be angry when you are angry and sad when you are sad.
  • Be persistent.
  • Always be open to surprise.
  • Judge your prayer not by how it makes you feel, but by how it changes the way you treat wait staff, janitors, and sales clerks.

Not A Myth

What isn’t a myth? Prayer is real. Since there have been humans, there has been prayer. It is how we connect to the Divine, and to the depths of ourselves. Prayer brings out the best in us, teaches us, shapes us. Prayer is powerful not because it waves a magic wand over the world but because of what it does to our insides and what we can do to and for the world.

Prayer is powerful because it changes us.

Looking Outward

When we pray we acknowledge and seek something greater than ourselves. That in itself is radical in a world that would like us to believe that we are the center of all things. For prayer to mean anything we have to first admit that we might not be the most powerful, the best, the brightest stars in the sky. And a little humility never hurt anyone.

But there’s more to it than that. Because prayer at it’s best reaches out not just to the Divine but to our fellow human beings. If we only ever pray for ourselves we’ve missed the boat. A wise spiritual director once told me to pray from the outside in. What she meant is that we should first hold in prayer the biggest problems in the world, war and poverty and natural disaster. All the horrendous things we felt powerless to change. And we should then move in a little closer to ourselves, the local news stories.

Then we pray for all the people in our own lives who are in trouble or distress (which if you’re praying attention is most of us a lot of the time). Only then, only when I’d prayed for the whole damn world was I to turn to my own needs. My prayers trained me to look out, to be aware, and to care and pay attention to others.

prayer myth

The Root of understanding

Praying for others isn’t always easy. In my 20s I was part of a community that was torn by internal conflict. People I loved were in the midst of the in-fighting. Jobs were on the line, and the governing body of our community was so divided and divisive that I usually left the meetings in tears. But my spiritual director insisted that I pray for those people who were “other” who were my “enemies” in this struggle.

And I did. Grudgingly. I hated every moment of it, but I prayed for them, mostly those prayers were probably a little snide. “Help those morons see how wrong they are and help them get voted out of the board, and help my side win. Do something useful, GOD!

Until one day I suspect the Mother of All had it with me. I prayed as I usually did but this time I found myself overwhelmed with the experience of how my enemies felt. Waves of feeling: fear in the face of change, confusion and loss, of powerlessness and hurt. I was overcome with the feeling of watching the world they loved change, it washed over me. I was shown as clearly as could be that my “enemies” were fellow human beings and that they struggled as mightily as I did. My prayer taught me compassion. (I’m a slow learner y’all, God often has to use a 2×4 on me, hopefully you are a quicker study.)

Prayer begets action

The greatest Christian theologians and scholars (and those of many other faiths) will tell you that prayer which does not lead to action is useless and meaningless. When we pray for an end to cancer, or gun violence, or war it is then our job to rise from our prayer mats and go do something about those things.

The greatest myth we have ever fallen for is that things cannot be changed. That we are too small, too insignificant, to powerless to make a difference. But it’s a lie. A million pebbles make an avalanche and you are no pebble. You are connected to the Divine, you are star stuff. That is weighty responsibility, and great power.

The question is not if we will use our power, but how. Will we use it to sit comfortably within the world as it is (those of us who can spare “thoughts and prayers” and go back to “life”)? Or will we use it to protect those for whom the uncomfortable truths of this broken world cannot be dismissed so easily? If your prayer does not move you to change the world for the better it is time for a new prayer.

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