Despite my functional agnosticism, I still attend an Eastern Catholic parish (side note: if you don’t know much about Eastern Christianity, you should learn about it – it will expand your world as to how broad Christianity really is). During the announcements at the end of Divine Liturgy, our priest always says something along the lines of, “Have a blessed week, and tell someone what God has done for you.” I normally let this go in one ear and out the other, but today I asked myself, “What has God done for me?”
Both growing up Evangelical and later as a Catholic, prayer was very much emphasized. As an Evangelical we were supposed “pray in the spirit” – i.e. the Holy Spirit would supposedly give us the words to say, which apparently included a lot of emphatic sighs and using the word “just” as much as possible (“Lord God, we just come to you to day to ask you to just help [insert person and concern here]”). As a Catholic, prayer was more repetitious – the rosary, ancient prayers written by saints, etc. – even my more free-flowing prayers included the sign of the cross and one or more common Catholic prayer. The thing is, while the emphasis was different, both were simultaneously personal and formulaic in their own way. And, in both traditions, prayer was a big deal. If you want to be closer to God, pray. The adverb “prayerfully” was included in any major (and sometimes minor) decision in your life. And, I prayed. Although, I was very careful to do my best to only pray for “important things” (health, salvation, etc.) and not be so presumptuous as to pray for “stupid things” (football games, parking spots, etc.).
My favorite theological ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, has noted that Christians often feel like they need to protect God. Of course, it’s ridiculous that we do this because why would God need our protection? One way I see this is in the way Christians talk about prayer. Whenever something I prayed for resolved itself, I was told, “See! God answers prayers.” If it didn’t, I was told, “It must not have been part of His will,” or, “Sometimes the answer to your prayer is ‘no.'” Well, isn’t that convenient? No matter what God comes through, even when he doesn’t. I want that job. If I didn’t come through at work and said, “Well, it wasn’t my will,” I’d be fired on the spot. If I told my kids that if they finish their dinner they can ask me for ice cream, and after finishing dinner they asked me for ice cream, and I said, “No,” or just didn’t give it to them, they’d probably not take me at my word in the future and would probably develop some resentment toward me. But, Christians defend God not delivering on his promises (that they’ve made on his behalf) or not taking action he’s supposedly capable of. But, if we used the same excuses on behalf of anyone else, people would think we’re delusional.
It’s a lot like how we’re told that everything positive in our life (money, home, spouse, job, health, etc.) is from God and everything negative in our life (poverty, homelessness, divorce, unemployment, illness, etc.) is not. Once again, sign me up for this job – I’d like to get all of the credit and none of the blame.
So, what has God done for me? Materially, nothing. When I was unemployed and underemployed, I applied for hundreds of jobs and I went to dozens of interviews – God didn’t do that on my behalf. My wife and I took the time and effort to cultivate a relationship that led to marriage and children, not God (sure, we shared a common belief in God, but God didn’t do the work for us). When I’ve been really sick, physicians utilizing modern medicine have healed me, not prayer. This is the reality. I, and those people and institutions in my life, have gotten shit done and God has gotten the credit. Of course, that I don’t give God credit for these things also means I don’t blame him for unemployment, marital problems, or “allowing” my grandfather to die. If there is a god, he/she/it is clearly pretty hands-off. And, that’s okay. But, if you’re going to give God credit for everything, you better be willing to hold him accountable for the other stuff.
About a year ago, I finally admitted to myself that prayer has not demonstrated that it can impact my life without action on my part. And the results of my actions have had both positive and negative consequences regardless of whether or not I prayed about those actions. So, I haven’t really prayed since then apart from the bedtime prayers with my kids and mouthing the words in church. And, my world hasn’t fallen apart. Actually, for the first time it’s starting to come together.