Letter to Martin on Prayer

I found this letter in my archives and thought it addressed questions that come up often – so here tis…

23 August 2003


Dear Martin

Last weekend was a real pleasure for me.  Besides the fantastic football, and the company of all those cool cubs, it was a rare opportunity for me to spend time with other men outside of work.  I very much appreciated your company, and that of the other men who were with us. 

We began a conversation that was, quite properly, cut short by Rik’s injury.  We were talking about prayer, a subject I’m passionate about.  Since then I’ve felt the tail end of that conversation wagging around loose inside of me, needing a conclusion at least.  Or, if you were willing, further exploration.

Some of my most treasured learning has come out of conversations such as the one we began, and if you were willing I’d be delighted to continue the discussion.  Being outside of the church, you ask the questions that don’t get asked on the inside, where everybody shares a certain set of assumptions.  Your perspective helps me to review my thinking in the light of an external auditor – and that can only be good for me! 

On the other hand, I felt that your questions were genuine.  As you said, you really do want to know, you weren’t asking me questions merely to challenge my beliefs.  I am sometimes overwhelmed with a feeling of privilege that I have, through the church, access to the traditions of millennia.  I honestly consider myself super-abundantly blessed to have the resources I do, and if I can make those resources at all available to others, I would be delighted to do so.  If I can somehow unlock these treasure chests for you, I’d be delighted – this is the sort of treasure that only makes us richer when given away.

So… if you have time, energy and inclination for such a conversation; please feel free to contact me in any way possible –we could correspond or meet in person – name the time and place and I will do what I can to be there.


Even if you do not presently wish to continue the discussion (and I can appreciate how busy you are as a father and a teacher), please allow me the indulgence of finishing what I began to say last Saturday.

You’d made the comment that it was confusing when we had two different sides praying to the same God for completely opposite ends.  How on earth was that supposed to work?  It reminds me of the prayers of the business-people in the church for a fine weekend when the farmers are desperately praying for rain!

I don’t think we’d quite teased it out, but do I remember correctly that you were also wondering about how prayer can be thought effective when there is so much going wrong in the world?  Why doesn’t prayer fix these things? 

And what about when we get people like Dubya, appearing to be a man of prayer, and perpetrating monstrosities – as do his opponents!  And of course your own schoolmasters, whose religion gave them respectability even as they abused you and who knows how many others.

And we talked about Bhuddist prayer, which is decentering and detaching, aiming to eliminate human passions, contrasted with so much of Christian prayer which is frequently very ‘me’-centred.

So, we have the problems of contradictory prayers, ineffective prayer, prayer by evil people (or evil by people of prayer) and the functions of prayer.  I know that I made some response to much of the above when we talked on Saturday, but let me try to make a more coherent response now as I pick up where we left off – the question of the function of prayer.  I think I was about to tell you the story of a pair of trousers…


You thought Buddhist prayer to have an element of selfishness in it, I think because it was aimed at assisting the individual to escape from the sorrows and pleasures of the world and achieve their own enlightenment rather than to effect any change in the world, to improve conditions for others.  That’s probably fair, but we’ll probably also agree that Buddhists tend to be relatively active in working for peace in the world, and many do a great deal of good, they just don’t see prayer as a direct means of effecting good in the world.  Christian prayer, on the other hand, is directly related to the conditions of the world; it is thought to be effective to bring about change and can be even more selfish because people can become preoccupied by praying for their own desires.  There are entire branches of the Christian family tree that puts enormous emphasis on the gaining of wealth and prosperity by prayer.  This is, I think, an aberration, and one that should be pruned as close to the trunk as possible, but it is made possible because Christians are encouraged to pray for their own needs

Here come the trousers.

When I was training to be a pastor, plunging our family back into student poverty, Carolyn was walking down the street wondering about the children’s clothes.  She’d just sorted out what they all needed for the coming winter, and our smallest boy needed new trousers.  Should she, she wondered, use some material she had to make some, or should she bite the bullet and buy a new pair?  She prayed about it.  What should she do?  When she got home, there was a bag of clothes left for us by another family in the church, and on top was a pair of trousers, just right for Pascal.  One of many small instances of a very personal and quite material need being made the subject of prayer and receiving an almost immediate answer.  So what makes this ok?  What prevents it becoming selfish and materialistic? 

The answer is ‘relationship’. 

Too many people, religious or otherwise, think of prayer as magic, as a form of ‘spiritual technology’ by which we influence and change ourselves or the world around us.  Put this code in here and the programme should deliver these results there.  It’s neither so simple nor so complicated.  Prayer is, very simply, spending time with God.  And God, for Christians, is a person – not a ‘force’ or ‘energy’ but a person.  We don’t ‘tap into’ God, but converse.  It’s a personal relationship, rather than a relationship with an inanimate or abstract ‘thing’ – so quite unlike my relationship with, for instance, the sea, which I love, and is awesome and powerful and which plays a huge part in my life, but is not a person.  And different to my relationship with ‘freedom’ which is a cause I value hugely and give time and energy to and which may be traced historically and is a continuous thread in human life – but which has no independent existence and certainly pays me no regard as a person.

So when Carolyn prays for trousers, she is talking to a person who can hear her, and respond.  And the response is not according to her will, but his[1].  And it’s perfectly appropriate for trousers to be the topic of their conversation because that’s the sort of relationship it is.  God is closer to Carolyn than I am and more concerned than I ever will be about the things that concern her.  So her worries about children’s clothes figure on his agenda. 

The Christian model for prayer is the “Our Father” – I’m sure you remember it.  It contains one salutation – which defines the relationship – and then goes into a series of petitions: for God’s rule to become effective on earth, for daily bread, for forgiveness (at least to the extent to which we’re willing to forgive), for help in facing temptation and evil.

It is a prayer of radical dependence and is thus more necessary today than ever.  In our society we have woven a dense illusion to the effect that we are all-powerful, that we can get what we want with the flick of a plastic card – and yet we are more dependent now than the meanest peasant.  We have created our affluent society around unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and unjust trade practices and it is going to come crashing down very shortly. To ask for daily bread is the prayer of peasants who are aware of their dependence on the vagaries of nature and the rich and powerful.  That’s the relationship.  One of absolute dependence.  But dependence upon God.  Nature and Society may yet be powerful, but for the Christian, who encounters God in prayer, they do not have the last word.  What makes prayer a positive relationship and not one of cruelty and exploitation is the constant assurance that God really is good and wants the best for us.


So, thus far I’ve said that Prayer is entering into a relationship with God, by which we experience and begin to live in the knowledge of our dependence

Before we leave the Buddhists behind, I want to acknowledge that Christian prayer also functions like Buddhist prayer, but via a different mechanism.  Buddhist prayer clarifies the mind by holding all things to be illusion and ultimately meaningless; human desires and fears can thus be transcended, oppression shrugged off and wealth looses its fascination.  Christian prayer places all things into a new perspective also, but it is one of relatedness rather than detachment. 

In prayer as a Christian I find myself and the world in new relationship.  I am reacquainted with the very goodness of creation and the kindness of the creator.  My fears and desires are relativised but not extinguished.  Pain does not become a mere illusion, it remains pain, but it often comes to be seen as redemptive or at the least bearable.  The objects of my lusts do not become mere phantoms, but become more real than my lusts would have them – in the light of prayer money becomes a powerful means of doing good, women become fully human, rest becomes re-creation.  Thus prayer re-orients me in the world and in myself by giving me that encounter with the fixed point of reference – the goodness of God my creator, redeemer and sustainer.


I hope this throws some light on the problems mentioned earlier.  Contradictory prayers occur because people do ask God for what they desire – and often do so with selfish motives.  In prayer, that selfishness is often discovered, and our prayers are mended accordingly because we encounter a God of goodness who teaches us to model our attitudes on his own.  But God is equally in relationship with us.  The bible say that he loves to answer our prayers and I believe it; I think he got a big kick out of Carolyn discovering those trousers.  I think he likes to show his love for us in intimate and personal ways.  Just like we do with our kids.  Trousers aren’t that important in the cosmic scheme of things, but as far as God is concerned Carolyn is, and he wants her to know his love for her.

But what about people who don’t get what they asked for?  What about ineffective prayer?  What about the people who don’t get trousers?  Or food for that matter.  What about them? 

The trousers arrived via a friend.  We thank God for them, because of the prayer (we thanked our friend too) but the point is that very few such miracles[2] aren’t completely explicable.  I call them miracles still because so many of them occur, in such a way that we couldn’t have planned it, and, apparently, in direct response to our prayers.  But the trousers didn’t drop out of heaven.  They came via a friend.

God aims to recreate Heaven on Earth.  And Heaven in Christian theology is a perfection of love; that’s what the doctrine of the trinity leads us to.  The very self of God is a perfect unity between three persons; “God is Love[3]” says St. John.  For that to happen on Earth, we need to be constantly moved out of our selves and into relationship.  We are God’s best gift to each other.  So when a prayer isn’t answered, it could be for a variety of reasons.  It could be that the prayer itself was not made ‘in good faith’ – with integrity re God.  I mean that someone may have asked for something thinking that they were putting in their request to the divine answering service and treating God like a machine rather than a person.  Or it could mean that someone was asking for something that was not right for them – Bill Waterson’s Calvin (as in “Calvin and Hobbes”) is the perfect example here, he’s constantly sending very long letters to Santa Claus asking for a variety of weapons and incendiary devices!  But far more frequently I think that the ‘angel’ God had appointed for the fulfilling of that prayer was being disobedient on the day.  George Bush is, potentially, just such an angel[4].  I wish he’d turn his spiritual ears on!  I had an experience early this winter when we’d run out of firewood and had been unable to get more.  I was about to go buy some very expensive wood when I had a phone call from an acquaintance offering me a truckload of wood, free.  After I’d picked up my jaw from the floor I asked him why he was offering it to us, and he admitted that we weren’t actually on his list of people to offer it to.  But when he’d sat down to pray, and asked God which of the five people he was thinking about giving it to he should call, he felt God saying “no” each time.  And then thought of us.  And got the “yes”. 

Why are some nations starving?  Because some people have hardened their hearts against the clear commands of God to do justice and love mercy.  And why does God let them get away with it?  Why should people die in misery because Christians (and others) are disobedient?

Well, that’s another whole topic.  I remember saying something to you about the importance to God of free will, but I don’t think I even started to make any kind of sense on that topic.  Why do babies die?  It’s a biggie. 

Better finish this here before you end up with an entire theological text-book in your lap.  Sorry if I seem to be ducking the big one.  I don’t want to, and our conversation did touch on this topic, but if we’re going to go there, I at least want to know that you want to go there, and that what I’ve said thus far makes some sort of sense to you.  I enjoy long spiels like this (one of the things that makes me a preacher!) but I don’t know if you’re going to be so thrilled to receive it. 

I’m sending this to you uninvited, and you may have no desire whatsoever for further conversation along these lines, so feel free to make no reply.  Should you want to talk more about this or any other topic, get in touch.  I would find it a real pleasure and almost certainly helpful in my own journey.  You’re a science teacher and I’d love to hear your take on the emerging argument around the teaching of creationism. 

If nothing else, I’ll look forward to seeing you around town or occasionally at the cub den.  It was great to get to know you a little better and a privilege to share this community with you. 

[1] Please excuse sexist language as regards God.  God is, of course, neither male nor female, but more than both.  Because Christians also pray to and through Jesus Christ, however, who is definitely a man, I’m using the male pronouns for the sake of consistency. 

[2] The word ‘miracle’ means ‘sign’, an event that directs our attention beyond itself. 

[3] Love – just to clarify, I’m not talking here about ‘feelings’ but a relationship of supreme goodwill

[4] ‘Angel’ means ‘messenger’, and the bible applies the word to human as well as spiritual beings.

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