I had a conversation two days ago with a guy who tells me he is an atheist. He was explaining to me that prayer has been proven to be useless. His starting point was not his belief in the absence of God in the cosmos. Rather, he told me of a test where human subjects about to have heart surgery were placed in three groups – a group that received prayer for healing, a group that did not receive prayer for healing and a group that was told they received prayer for healing – but they were not prayed for. The result of the test was that there was no discernible difference between the states of health for all three groups. This, he told me, "means God does not answer prayer." To further prove his point he quoted Matthew 21:21 “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.” He then stated, "since no Christians have moved mountains, prayer does not work and Jesus' words are not true."
My response to this friend was to ask, "Why is the question of prayer so personally important to you?" He replied by saying, "I just think that if God said he would give people the power to control the world by going through him, that there should be more cases of this stuff happening."
I offered this friend a few reflections about his statements that I believe were from the Spirit of God and that I hope will give him more thoughts about the mountains in his own life and what it will take for them to be removed. However, I found this understanding of prayer very revealing and it hit very close to home. This individual was raised in the church. A large part of his understanding of prayer came from observing Christian culture – the idea that prayer is about getting God to help you get control over whatever is troubling you – health, relationships, finances, employment, education…
When I think of Jesus, I think of the thing he told me to remember about him. “This is my body given for you… this cup poured out is the new covenant in my blood.”
I am to remember Jesus, the human person, in the act of greatest relinquishment of personal control (thus the thrice asked question in Gethsemane). He gave himself over to the soldiers to be arrested, he gave himself over to the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod to be questioned, he gave himself over to soldiers to be tortured, he gave himself over to death and forsakenness.
Jesus has chosen the way he'd like to be remembered. I think at least one of the reasons Jesus wants me to remember this is because he wants me to repeatedly bring to mind that it is in the relinquishment of control to the Father that I will find the gift of freedom - freedom from having to be the god of my circumstances. I can give myself over to God and take up, with great joy, my role as trusting creature, put my hand in his and watch what he will do! When I do this, then, my prayers can be kingdom-coming, God's-will-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven prayers rather than personal bids to control my life or the life of those I love.
God, forgive us that those who observe us and our communities see us grasping for or holding onto control, and trying to use You as servant to our view of how the world should be. Holy Spirit, help us remember the relinquishment of the One we follow. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…”