Prayer can be a struggle. What’s the point? If God already knows, why pray? If God really listens to prayer, why doesn’t God answer all our prayers? And why would the God of the Universe care about our measly prayers? When I’m praying with someone who’s really sick or dying, should I pray that God physically heals them? What if I do pray that and God doesn’t heal them?
After the Protestant Reformation, Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun in Spain, expressed views on prayer that seriously challenged the establishment of Counter Reformation Catholicism. While the prevailing understanding of her day was that a priest and the sacraments were prerequisite for getting closer to God, Teresa’s book, Interior Castle, was a profound guide into contemplative prayer: direct, transformative access to God. The individual grows as she learns to pray more deeply, becoming more human, more of who she was created to be, as she goes deeper and deeper into the light of God. There is great suffering in prayer, as the individual must die to herself, must let go of every material desire, and find peace and joy only in the love and grace of God. There is a movement from praying one’s desires, to waiting and listening for God, to this rapturous blending of God’s will with one’s own will and actions, were our desires are completely transformed, and we only desire the things that God desires. Today’s neuroscience has demonstrated that regular contemplative prayer actually activates the parts of your brain that give you focus and creativity, and stifle the parts of your brain that trigger fear, anger, and aggression (learn more at Science Mike’s website).
Many Christians are suspicious of mysticism in any form. And perhaps it’s most opposite form is the Prosperity Gospel of American Christianity, where Christians are taught to use prayer as a tool to get the wealth and material blessings they desire. Prayer is still used to establish a relationship with God, but it is utilitarian, formulaic, and completely self-indulging. God wants mega-church pastors to have a $65 million dollar private jet, or a $10.5 million dollar mansion. Because that proves to all their followers that they too can achieve the American dream if they just believe hard enough. Poverty and sickness are not God’s will for you, and are physical signs that your prayers and financial giving to the church aren’t strong enough yet. If it’s still not clear to you why that is just TERRIBLE, there’s a great assessment on the problems with Prosperity Gospel teaching at this link, or you should order Kate Bowler’s incredible book: Blessed, A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.
So what about you? How’s your prayer life working out these days? Is it transforming your mind, attitude, and actions to be more like Christ, or more like the perfect American dream?