False prayers

What’s wrong with these prayers?

  • “Let us pray for the safe return of our troops.”
  • “And now let us bow our heads in prayer and ask God for a bountiful harvest this year.”
  • “I’ll pray for your speedy recovery.”

They’re false and they’re destructive because they undermine the potential of a truer, more helpful way of praying.

GH-God at His ComputerI love this Far Side cartoon of God at his computer, poised to smite the dufus guy walking under the dangling piano. It’s the perfect illustration of how people who pray for future events (intercessionary prayers) view God — a Wizard of Oz’ish supreme being who can pull levers and push buttons to make things happen in the physical universe.

Read the stories of families receiving the bodies of troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Surely most of these people prayed for the safe return of their loved ones. And many of them are now having a crisis of faith because of their belief that God could have done something about it.

Just look at the prayers posted to this website: Fully Rely On God Prayer Requests. For example:

Lord, I was told to be very specific when I pray, so here it goes. I pray for financial miracles in my life. I pray that we get bills paid off. I pray that we win Publishers Clearing House, the lottery, or something to do this. I pray for financial blessings, miracles, and opportunities. In Jesus’ name I pray. I pray that we can buy a house. Lord, please provide the way and means to buy a house… Please help us, oh Lord, please grant my prayers. In Jesus’ name I pray.

It’s painful to read that. This prayer is essentially no different than me praying that the Twins win the World Series. That we get more snow. That I beat Tony in racquetball next week. That we sell our house. Those could my false prayers.

hammond.jpgThis past week, Mac Hammond, founder and senior pastor at the Living Word Christian Center in Minneapolis was in the news (see this Strib article: The Kingdom and Power of Mac Hammond).

It doesn’t bother me that the guy is rich, as long as he’s been ethical and legal in acquiring his wealth. But it bugs me that he’s preaching a ‘prosperity gospel’ in which God rewards you with wealth for good behavior. Here’s a quote from another Strib article):

“God says if you base your life on his covenant, these blessings are gonna overtake you; you can’t do anything about it, friend. [What was once] flocks and herds is in today’s parlance stocks and bonds.”

That’s bullshit. And it’s destructive.

Jesus wasn’t hesitant to criticize the way some Pharisees prayed. I sure hope some of Northfield’s more enlightened ministers will criticize Mac Hammond’s brand of prosperity gospel in their sermons this weekend.

I’ll get to work on a “true prayers” post.


  1. Nick Benson said:

    I’m very interestd to see your definition of a true prayer. Interesting topic…

    February 15, 2007
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    Thanks, Nick… I’m working on it but it’ll probably next week sometime.

    February 15, 2007
  3. Tyson Wigley said:

    *prays that you’ll enlighten us on what a true prayer is*

    February 15, 2007
  4. Tyson Wigley said:

    I always thought Homer Simpson had a good approach to prayer.

    “Dear Lord.. The gods have been good to me. For the first time in my life, everything is absolutely perfect just the way it is. So here’s the deal: You freeze everything the way it is, and I won’t ask for anything more. If that is OK, please give me absolutely no sign. OK, deal.”

    “I’m normally not a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me Superman.”

    February 15, 2007
  5. Griff Wigley said:

    Thanks for that, Tyson. I think you forgot:

    “In gratitude, I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. Thy will be done.”

    I can see I’m going to get smarter about Homer’s theology:

    February 15, 2007
  6. Nick Benson said:

    While we’re discussing the philosophy of Homer:

    “What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”

    February 15, 2007
  7. Tyson Wigley said:

    My old man will be so pleased this thread got hijacked and turned into Homer church/god quotes.

    “I’m having the best day of my life, and I owe it all to not going to Church!”

    “Lisa, if the Bible has taught us nothing else, and it hasn’t, it’s that girls should stick to girls sports, such as hot oil wrestling and foxy boxing and such and such.”

    February 16, 2007
  8. Griff Wigley said:

    Naw, I don’t mind, Tyson. I didn’t expect much conversation. It’s hard to talk about God and prayer in a critical way without worrying that people will feel insulted. And in a small town, that’s a real issue.

    February 16, 2007
  9. Buddhist bedtime prayer … in the spirit of the moment.

    Now I lay me down to sleep.

    Mindfully I delved so deep.

    If I awaken before I die.

    I’ll be lama, and that’s no lie.

    February 16, 2007
  10. In Life, the Universe and Everything, by Douglas Adams, Marvin the Paranoid Android recites a lullaby which ends with the following verse:

    Now I lay me down to sleep,
    Try to count electric sheep,
    Sweet dream wishes you can keep,
    How I hate the night.

    February 16, 2007
  11. Tyson said:

    I can imagine this being a sensitive subject for many. Especially those that pray or have prayed like that for their entire lives. To have their life long prayer methods called into question might be akin to a bucket of ice water in the face. I’d be interested to hear what some pro arguments for this type of prayer, although I’m not sure if we’ll get that here.

    While I’ve used “I pray to God..” in sentences before or as a figure of speech, I can’t recall ever saying the type of prayer we’re calling into question. I think this is mainly a product of not being brought up in any kind of mainstream religion, and I’m not so sure I could say that if was raised in the Christian, Judaism or Islamic faith.

    February 16, 2007
  12. But, seriously, folks, I think there is a big
    difference between a prayer and a conversation between God and man. First of all, if you are
    a believer, you know that God already knows what is in your heart, and just exactly how greedy you are, so there is no fooling anyone there.

    People may often sit around and start making wish lists and then offer it up to God, just to be sure He sees the updated version.

    But, true prayer is often frowned upon in this country, and some may have forgotten exactly what it is all about.

    For me, at least, it is a quieting down of my
    busy mind, counting up my blesssings and declaring my gratefulness and making sure I
    really am sincere before I even begin to pray.
    And then, I just listen. I listen to the feeling I get when I understand that we are all
    part of the same network, be it selfish genes,
    or denim jeans, or Joes and Jeans…and that we
    all have a life to live in which we will learn and understand more and more of the universe as we go along. Acceptance is key. Not that we shouldn’t try to change things, because that is part of the world’s workings. But, acceptance
    allows the energy to flow in such a way that
    we are not all stressed out and upset all the time.

    Sometimes, in a prayerful state, I hear my own voice tell me something I have overlooked and that might need my attention. That’s might be the message of the day which I was awarded with for stopping to listen.

    Americans need active prayer because we are such a productive lot. It is hard for us to stop all
    that we are doing to pray. Some of us pray through sports and some of us pray through tv evangelists. It’s all good though.

    Other than that, I cannot explain, for each of us must come into their own place with prayer
    as an aid. Maybe it’s selfish, but I figure
    if I am the best me I can be, then it will affect others in a good way eventually.

    Thanks for bringing up the subject and the opportunity to comment!



    February 16, 2007
  13. Griff Wigley said:

    Tyson wrote:

    I’d be interested to hear what some pro arguments for this type of prayer, although I’m not sure if we’ll get that here.

    I think there’s often a positive communal feeling when these types of prayers are said in a group. Bowing our heads together and asking God to bring the troops home safe or for the recovery of someone who’s sick feels respectful. It feels like we’ve contributed something. It says we care. It communicates our values about what’s important in life.

    And if there’s someone in the room whose loved one is the person being prayed for, the act of a group prayer can be a real boost to them, as they feel the caring and support from the community.

    February 16, 2007
  14. Griff Wigley said:

    In tomorrow’s Strib there’s an article on Archbishop Harry Flynn and Lent:

    Flynn: Lent is a time of transforming prayer

    Here’s a quote that resonates with me… I”ll elaborate later.

    prayer is not so much telling God how to run the world, but transforming ourselves so we will see things as God sees them.

    Update, Sat. 8:20 am: And here’s a quote from Flynn that I think is goofy.

    I’m proud that God has blessed this archdiocese with so many who are studying for the priesthood who are of such high quality.

    It implies that God has pulled a lever and said “I think I’ll up the number of seminarians in the Twin Cities.”

    Why not just say “I’m grateful.” Or, “We’ve worked hard to figure out how to attract more men to the priesthood and I’m proud that it’s working.”

    February 16, 2007
  15. Pastor Amy Gohdes-Luhman said:

    Hello all!

    I was directed to this conversation and glad I was. Prayer is complicated, personal, and communal. It is my sense that we can bring any desire, concern, worry, delight before God. It is when we think we are in charge of God that we set ourselves up for problems.

    Also prayer is a conversation with God that God covets with us. When I prayer intercessory prayer (as I try to daily) what I find is that the act of prayer leads me to some action, such as sending a note, making a visit or phone call to the person for whom I am praying.

    Griff is correct that in the act of praying communally for an individual is important and “respectful.” I would add powerful.

    Have said all of this, I want people to know that this is exactly the type of conversations we have at Talk Back on Sundays at 2:30-4:00 at the Main Street Moravian Church. I would love to have these with you face to face. It is such a fruitful and exciting time. We also talk about universal salvation and it gets quite lively as we have a theological mix of voices.

    If you seek face to face dialogue, please swing by any Sunday at 2:30. the coffee’s on! thanks all!

    February 17, 2007
  16. Griff Wigley said:

    Hey Amy, great to have you join the conversation. I blogged your Talk Back ad campaign waaaaay back in Dec. 2005:
    Good to know that it’s still going.

    What’s your take on Pastor Mac Hammond’s prosperity gospel?

    February 17, 2007
  17. Nick Benson said:

    As Griff may remember from my wedding ceremony, when my friend who was officiating said “since Nick isn’t spiritual… crap… I mean, doesn’t express his spirituality through a church…” you can infer that I’m not particularly religious. I don’t see myself as having a relationship with God, as a matter of fact I’m not even sure he/she/it exists. I try to be a good person for the sake of being a good person, and regular prayer isn’t something that fits into my spiritual outlook.

    However, when you’re in a situation that seems hopeless, prayer is a pretty nifty tool for relieving some stress. It allows you to feel like you’re doing something useful and constructive when there’s nothing else to do. The only times I can remember praying (or asking someone else to pray) have been times when a close person was either ill, or was in danger (severe weather heading towards them, etc.), and there wasn’t a single thing I could do.

    Perhaps the fact that a non spiritual guy only offers “false” prayers is evidence that Griff is right. But then again, I think the only thing that everyone will agree on is that when a person prays, if nothing else, it accomplishes something positive for the person saying it, and in that respect, I would suggest there’s no such thing as a false prayer.

    February 17, 2007
  18. Griff Wigley said:

    Nick, I think that praying a false prayer might make me feel good temporarily, but like abusing a mood-altering chemical, it sets me up for A) more problems down the road; and B) contributes to missing what good ideas/inspiration/wisdom are available to me right then and there.

    If a tornado is bearing down on me, I think it’s way more helpful to A) pray for courage and strength to deal positively with whatever happens and B) for any good ideas for finding shelter that might be available to me.

    If I’m busying praying that God steer the tornado away from me, I’ll likely miss out on both.

    February 18, 2007
  19. Holly Cairns said:

    Let us pray for the safe return of our troops.
    And now let us bow our heads in prayer and ask God for a bountiful harvest this year.
    I’ll pray for your speedy recovery.”

    I think the above prayers might be the beginnings of group prayers said so we can acknowledge pain in a together fashion. It sounds like you are suggesting it would be better to bring people together by saying something else. Interesting point of view, Griff. Maybe you are right… but maybe you are wrong.

    Seems to me, the idea of God and our relationship to God is so complex that you and I can’t decide what, exactly, is “false” prayer. We’d have to be THE authorities on prayer. We’d have to be acquainted with several types of cultures, and several interpretations of “what is God.”

    I am a Christian, but I know that there are others (even in my own denomination) who have different beliefs than I do. The idea of God is so complex that maybe we should allow for others to have their own thoughts because we can’t be the ultimate authorities. There is just too much we don’t know and can’t figure out on our own.

    That said, I can’t relate to groups like the ID group (ID seems to be glorified agnosticism and therefore completely unoriginal) and people who fight over evolution (why can’t we realize that evolution doesn’t fight with the Bible? In Genesis, there are two creation stories– in one version, the humans are created first. The very next page might be read so it is deteremined that the animals are created first. Who is to say which literal interpretation is best? Further– making teachers teach the creation story as another “theory” would be repulsive. Oh, now that’s a different discussion.)

    Anyway, to come right out and label prayers as “false” prayers might be too bold (but a good and tricky ploy to get discussion).

    If we want more discussion and I’d like to hear from pastors about this: the (terrible!)part about dead bodies returning from Iraq might lead to a discussion on predestination and how that idea relates to prayer. Seems to me that Griff believes in predestination. Right? Otherwise prayers asking for altered states of what might be “God’s action or design” would be acceptible and appropriate.

    In other words, –Please bring home my daughter safely– would be an acceptable prayer and would suggest that I believe in something other than predestination. My apoligies if someone already talked about predestination and why prayer might be best as “conversational.”

    Just having some Sunday fun with your blog.

    February 18, 2007
  20. Just thought I would add a comment about two of my favorite stories about prayer. The first is that everyone should read Mark Twain’s War Prayer which, although an indictment of war, is actually a great lead in to one of the great scenes in a modern movie, which is when Mel Gibson’s character, when asked by his daughter about the prayers of his enemies, adds a postscript to his own prayer asking that god “ignore their heathen prayers and help us blow those little bastards straight to hell.” Can’t have it both ways, Mel, unless you want to fight this war as an epic battle of the gods.

    Of course, for me, who believes in this war (Iraq, 1991-2010) like my father believed in WWII, the whole thing would be just another fantasy script if it werent for the heavy blood price we pay for letting people have these beliefs (like believing in prayer as a conduit to god rather than just a path to your own mind) unchallenged. This dialog seems to be a good beginning toward making that clarification.

    February 18, 2007
  21. Holly Cairns said:

    Hi Bruce,

    Good read = War Prayer

    War with Iraq: What is the connection with religion, again?

    I think the Peace of Westphalia entered us into what is known as the modern world… let’s not forget what brought us tho that agreement (Assuming we’re part of the “modern” world).

    February 18, 2007
  22. Griff Wigley said:

    Glad you mentioned Mark Twain’s War Prayer, Bruce.

    Holly wrote:

    Anyway, to come right out and label prayers as “false” prayers might be too bold (but a good and tricky ploy to get discussion).

    Holly, I disagree on both accounts! I genuinely believe in false prayers. Fervently, even. 😉 And I didn’t label this blog entry “false prayers” as a discussion ploy.

    I agree, the idea of God is complex but that doesn’t mean I can’t label human behavior related to it as mistaken.

    Most of us would agree that a blatantly selfish or hurtful prayer is a false prayer. A child might pray, “Please, God, let something happen that he breaks his leg because he was so mean to me.”

    It gets a little murkier if we say a prayer for the recovery of Franscisco Lariono’s arm, which, on the surface, sounds laudable. But if what’s in our heart is hoping that he comes back healthy as a Twins pitcher so that we beat those damn Yankees, then it’s not much different than the kid wanting God to get even for him.

    Now you might say it’s trivial/childish to pray for the Twins to beat their rivals. But it’s really no different to pray that our team (American armed forces) beat their team (terrorists, insurgents, etc).

    And from there, it’s just a short leap to pray for a member of our armed forces to come home safe, which could mean all sorts of horrific things for the other side, as Mark Twain so eloquently illuminates in his War Prayer. Or it could mean the soldier comes home safe and then commits suicide, like the awful story in today’s paper.

    So any way you look at it, praying for God (whatever one’s idea of God might be) to intervene in the physical universe is just false, mistaken thinking… and ultimately destructive because it blocks the path to an understanding of and practice of prayer that’s genuinely helpful.

    And no, I don’t believe in predestination at all.

    February 18, 2007
  23. Holly Cairns said:

    Hi Griff,

    Hmm, are you sure you don’t believe in predestination? You think it is futile to ask for God to intervene… In my mind the two are related.

    Let me ask you this, then– Assuming you believe in God, do you believe he has the power to do whatever is His will?

    February 18, 2007
  24. Holly Cairns said:

    By the way, I agree with you about your idea of proper prayer methodology– except that I might add that we don’t understand the Will of God and so that makes me wonder if one prayer could make a difference…

    I followed your link, and this is the connection between predestination and your thoughts on “false” prayers:

    In a predestined universe the future is immutable and only one set of events can possibly occur”

    February 18, 2007
  25. There is so much to be agreed upon before we can really ask about false prayers. For example:

    IF you believe god exists (without defining “god”, we will assume the usual super-being) THEN

    FALSE prayers could be defined as those that cannot be answered, e.g., “dear god, please make a rock so big you cannot lift it” or “dear god, please let me win this xyz without hurting anyone else” and TRUE prayers are those that god can answer, e.g., “dear god, give me patience” or “dear god, kill my enemies“.

    Conversely, if you do not believe in god THEN

    FALSE prayers are those that you cannot make happen, as in “dear god (who does not exist anyway), please make me smarter” or “dear god, please let me win the lottery” andTRUE prayers are those that you can make happen, e.g., “dear god, help me to become more informed” or “dear god, let me work smarter and earn more“.

    The false prayers are available to both believers and non-believers, representing requests for events that cannot happen, either because they are logically impossible (the large rock example) or physically impossible (the actor is incapable of doing the task requested).
    The true prayers are those that can happen, and are available to both believers and non-believers, it is merely the actor that is called upon to make the outcome happen that is different.

    February 18, 2007
  26. Okay, I have to jump in here! I have an online writing site that includes a quantum-mechanical description of free-will and the non-deterministic nature of the universe that postulates (in a way, at least) that the deterministic view of the universe died with the development of quantum theory. It’s at http://soleil.nfldinet.com/web/brucem/simcash/Writing/QuantumSoul/

    I followed that with a Rosetta stone version that used images, mathematics and prose/poetry to get the same idea across at http://soleil.nfldinet.com/web/brucem/simcash/Writing/SoulOfChaos/soul_of_chaos.html . I’d love to re-open Geek night at the Contented Cow with a discussion of the nature of free-will in the quantum universe.

    February 18, 2007
  27. Griff Wigley said:

    Holly wrote:

    Hmm, are you sure you don’t believe in predestination? You think it is futile to ask for God to intervene… In my mind the two are related. Let me ask you this, then – Assuming you believe in God, do you believe he has the power to do whatever is His will?

    Holly, I don’t believe in God as a being so therefore I don’t believe in an attribute as “God’s free will” which would allow him to intervene in the physical universe.

    But rather than debating beliefs, I think it’s more interesting to discuss which beliefs seem to be most helpful to people, both personally and collectively.

    I think it’s much more helpful to interpret the words of Jesus re: “the kingdom of God” and “I and the father are one” to be a spiritual one, ie, “God is within you.”

    Lots of interesting perspectives summarized at:

    February 20, 2007

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