The Problem of Prayer: Out in the Cold

–Daniel S. Ferguson

If you ask a bunch of Christians what the fundamental practices of Christianity are, you’ll get surprisingly similar lists. Go to church. Be generous. Read your Bible. Pray. Even different denominations, with all their variability, have remarkably similar elements in their worship services: Music, music, music, prayer, preaching, communion/baptism, music, prayer.

But one thing that doesn’t get asked a whole lot is a question that I’ve found is quite important, which is this: yeah…what IS prayer?

If you ask that question to Christians, you’ll hear linguistically similar responses, like “talking to God” or “a conversation with God.”

That’s good and all, I’m glad I can do that, but there’s just one problem with those definitions: GOD DOESN’T TALK BACK.

What happened to the personal relationship we were promised? What happened to the God who loves us so much He sacrificed His own Son just to be near us? What happened to being walking temples of God who carry His holy presence around with us?

Whom do I see about all that? Because, really, I’ve been praying actively since I was a kid, and I’ve never experienced any of it. And neither have a lot of people.

I think a key reason why so many people leave Christianity is because prayer feels so much like empty talk. (Click to Tweet)

Not just empty talk from us. That we can correct for. No, I mean it just feels like it’s empty, like it has no effect whatsoever. Very often, to me and to so many others, it seems like our prayers are only heard by our ceilings.

And it’s not that we don’t think God is listening. It’s that it doesn’t matter if He is. He doesn’t talk back. I can’t have a relationship with something that doesn’t relate back to me. That’s the simplest thing to explain, really. And we all believe that if we change the nouns. If I said I had a deep, personal relationship with a chair, everyone would think I was crazy. “But the chair doesn’t talk back,” one would argue.

Neither, it seems, does God. And this is the problem I have. It’s the problem a lot of people have. It’s not that God doesn’t answer prayers with action; it’s that He doesn’t literally answer prayers, not with any of the frequency, predictability, or efficacy that human beings require to call something a relationship.

It’s odd that the very thing we tell people begins their relationship with God, a prayer, is the most unreliable way of connecting to Him. (Click to Tweet).

Some well-meaning Christians have told me (and will likely tell you) that God answers prayers through Scripture, through relationships with other Christians, and through circumstance. Those are great, and I value those. But they’re not a relationship. That’s no more a relationship than if my marriage consisted only of love notes and my wife’s friends, without ever actually interacting with my wife.

And this is why people think such weird things about prayer. If you sit with any group of people and ask them what they want prayed for, they’ll rattle off things that are wrong with their life: illnesses, deaths in the family, problems at work or at home. It’s as if they think of prayer as some sort of panacea for problems instead of connecting with the presence of God. And I do the same thing; it’s only natural. But it is…strange. Strange that the only thing we can think to pray for is for God to fix problems rather than for God simply to be in the room with us.

I’d much rather have all the problems if only I could have God in the room in a way I can understand and relate to. (Click to Tweet).

Now, none of this is to say that prayer is meaningless or stupid. It’s just to say that it’s a problem. If you took a poll, I don’t think a lot of people would say that this is the reason they left the faith.

But it certainly doesn’t help, and it’s one of a series of things that present a real problem for doubting believers. After all, if God doesn’t show up for the people who love Him and want a real relationship with Him, then does He show up at all? Can He? Is He even real? And if not, what’s the point of all this?

That’s the problem that sticks in the heads of people like me, and in the heads of people who have left. It’s not that prayer is pointless; it’s that we don’t know the point if God’s not going to talk back. After all, where can the relationship exist if not there?

So the next time somebody is bold enough to ask you about prayer, try not to give a canned answer. Try not to explain away the problem or say that they just have to seek harder. Try to empathize. Try to sit with them, maybe even pray with them, so at least they know they’re not alone. I have a feeling that will go a long way.


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