Because I don’t believe in a God who intervenes in everyday life, I’m not sure why I pray to Him every night. Yet I continue to pray, and there is still so much I don’t understand. Why do we ask God’s blessings? On those near and dear to us, as well as refugees and displaced persons far away whom I will never meet. Yet I continue to ask Him.
About asking God’s blessings. If there were an interventionist God, why would He be more likely to intervene if I asked Him? He doesn’t take recommendations from me. One answer is that what I am really asking is for God to feel present in another person’s life, as well as my own. Not that he change their journey, or mine, but that He accompany us along the way. But, the problem remains. Why would God be more likely to accompany someone on his or her perilous journey just because I ask Him to? Or if a thousand people ask Him to?
What I believe
I believe that the universe is a miracle, and that my life, as well as everybody else’s life is a magnificent gift. The universe didn’t have to be. I didn’t have to be. That I am, even for a moment in time, before I become ashes and dust again, is an incredible miracle, and an incredible gift. And so I believe in the One who gave, a distant God. How distant? That puzzles me. On the one hand, when I look around the world and see so much suffering and misery, I can only believe in the God of Job. The God who created the universe out of formless matter (not ex nihilo; that’s Genesis not Job), not for our satisfaction, but for His. Or as the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it about the God of Job,
the speeches of God have brought home the fact that human beings are not the center of the universe and that not everything has been made for their service (p. 74)
Along with many theologians, I hold that Job 42:10-17 was an addition by later redactors to encourage the faithful. The Book ends with Job despising himself for his arrogance in questioning God, not with God rewarding his faithfulness.
Another way of saying much the same thing is that I believe in a God who has stepped back from His creation. It’s up to us what we make of it. The best thing we can do he help and comfort each other in a world that was not made for the human being.
I also believe in the story of Jesus, not merely that He was a good man, but that He represents that part of God who let Himself feel the suffering of humanity, and so can accompany us on our journey, for He understands it. The idea of a God who comes not in glory, but in all humbleness and vulnerability, “his strength made perfect in weakness,” is a great God story. Nevertheless, I don’t find myself praying to Jesus very often, but to that much more abstract and distant being, God.
I belong to the Episcopal Church, but attend services rarely. My favorite is Ash Wednesday, for it reminds me of my mortality, against which my modest achievements in this world, other than loving and caring for family and friends, mean little. Caring for the stranger would make me a better person, and I should do that more.
So why do I pray?
Strangely enough, for someone whose faith is so fragile, I never feel that I am talking to myself when I pray. I feel (I think) that I am helping create a relationship that wouldn’t exist if I didn’t pray. Aggressive atheism makes no sense to me. How could we know? The question isn’t whether God exists. The question is whether it is worthwhile to act as if He does, and so create a richer world, a world of wonder and humility. I rarely succeed, and my most religious experiences are often in nature. When I could still kayak, and the wind rippled the surface of the lake, I could see His face upon the waters.
What do I pray?
I pray for my wife, a couple of friends who are ill, a mentally ill relative, and then depending on what’s happened during the day I pray for the hungry, the homeless, and refugees and displaced persons all over the world. I pray for people in pain. These seem to me about the worst things, and there are so many who suffer.
I don’t pray that I give more to charity, which I should, because I would feel hypocritical. That is something in my hands, one of the few things I can control. I thank God for my existence, and generally I try not to pray for myself. Somehow it seems selfish or impolite. If I do it right, then I must always pray “if it be Thy will, then . . . ” But if it’s God’s will, then what will my pleading change? I try to remember the reason Jesus introduced what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” To keep it simple. Don’t babble on, for God knows what you need better than you do (Matthew 6:7-8).
Prayer is a relationship
I pray to create, establish, and maintain a relationship with a God who seems to have stepped back from this world. And the relationship I seek is one of felt presence. So that when I ask God to bless this or that person, or thank God for my existence, as well as those I love, I’m asking God to accompany us on our journeys, to let His presence be felt.
I don’t ask God for grace, which I understand as the unmerited favor of God, though that would be nice (Romans 3:22-24). I ask that if I am ever able to open myself to God’s presence (usually I am too preoccupied and anxious) that He will be there waiting for me.
And then I stop.
Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and The Suffering of the Innocent. New York: Orbis Books, 1987.