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Is Prayer Selfish?

Asking God to stack the odds in our favor is asking him to stack them against someone else.

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Exceptionalism:  Much of literature is devoted to the fantasy that the rules don’t apply to us. Our dream protagonists are superhuman. They are unconscionably rich, incomparably beautiful, and able to survive blows to their heads and internal organs that would leave any realistic story devoid of characters by the end of the first chapter. In children’s fiction, the  Harry Potter series plays out this sort of fantasy for several thousand pages: there are Muggles and then there are those to whom the rules of physics don’t apply. The  Twilight series offers a more titillating version of exceptionalism to love-hungry pubescent girls and their adult analogues: the fantasy that some supernaturally beautiful and powerful male who has been around for hundreds of years finds you as addictive as heroin. The ancient texts gathered into the Bible give us a glimpse of how long analogous fantasies have held appeal for people of all ages. Instead of a nubile 17-year-old, a tribe of wandering herdsmen is Chosen by the supernatural one. As he fights to protect them (and ultimately bring them into his immortality), the sun stands still, walls fall down, water turns to wine, the blind can see, and poisonous snakes have no effect.  Ask anything in prayer, believing, the Chosen are promised,  and it shall be done. And death shall have no dominion.

Desire and helplessness. By contrast with fantasy, the real world can be quite a let-down. Life is complicated. We often feel powerless to affect the things that matter to us, large and small. Parking lots get full just when we’re in a hurry. Information we’ve studied disappears when we walk into a test. Kids get hurt. Income and bills won’t line up. Hurricanes come out of nowhere. The human condition is fraught with yearning, frustration, danger, and the specter of our own mortality; and our ability to protect ourselves and those we love is limited. At the same time, most of us have some hazy memory of a time when things were different, when an all-powerful parent or even two could anticipate what we wanted and make it happen. The magic of an omnipotent caretaker kept us safe in a scary world and, when we were hurting, that magic made things better. 

Is it so bad to want such a benefactor again? Is it so bad to ask a favor now and then and to give God a little credit when things go our way? Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes.

I say this because intercessory prayer doesn’t merely exploit egocentrism and exceptionalism, it reinforces them. This is true in part because the subject of many prayers is some form of zero-sum game, football being the obvious example. Asking God to stack the odds in my favor is asking him to stack them against someone else. One team has to lose. The last parking spot can go to only one driver. If I want God to improve my SAT score, I want it improved relative to the other test-takers. In ways that are sometimes subtle and sometimes not, prayer frequently seeks advantage in a competition. It is understandable that each of us wants to come out on top, but to sanctify this desire—to make it holy--is degrading. It makes both us and the world around us a little meaner.

Ironically, the same problem holds for many prayers of thanksgiving. When orthodox Jewish men  thank God each morning that they were not made “a gentile or a slave or a woman,” the ugliness is obvious to everyone except those doing the praying. But we often miss the self-centeredness in what can seem on the surface like simple expressions of gratitude. When a man can face a national television audience and say,  Praise God, he made me late for the plane that crashed!-- what is he saying about the people who arrived on time? When a sports team gives God credit for their win, what are they inferring about the other team? When we sit around the dining table in our most slimming jeans and thank God that he has blessed us with pork roast and potatoes, what are we implying about those 26,000 kids who will die tonight for lack of a thin gruel? What is the subtext of the common saying, “There but for the grace of God go I?” 

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