Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Hostility to Prayer, or the Sharing of the Results of Prayer

I was thinking about the unfortunate spiritual reflux reaction that some people have to faith-promoting stories about prayer. The pattern goes like this:
  1. A believer faces some problem and prays for help. The problem is minor, even trivial, on a global scale.
  2. A solution is found, and the believer shares the experience to express gratitude for the undeserved blessing received.
  3. Critics and skeptics guffaw, saying how dare someone think that God would answer a prayer about solving a trivial personal problem when thousands are dying and millions suffering all over the globe.
I thought of this frustrating pattern tonight as I was briefly contemplating the Lord's prayer. In this prayer, the Lord teaches us to pray for big things, like the coming of the Kingdom of God, but also minor personal things like bread to eat, as well of some personal issues of a deeper spiritual nature such as forgiveness of our sins and implicitly, help in forgiving others. So I'm wondering how often, over the two thousand years since Christ taught the Lord's prayer, have hungry believers who received God's help in feeding their families were scoffed at when they shared their witness of God's grace in helping them with that problem. "How can you think that God would bless you to find food or get a job when there are much bigger problems in the world?" Somehow that cynical attitude strikes me as very recent. Though I am sure it has been present in many ages, it strikes me as an especially modern result of being so easily in touch with the big ugly problems of the world coupled with the dark influence of big ugly thinkers without a spiritual foundation to understand how God can love mankind in a mortal world where all die and many suffer, a world where we have the terrible freedom to reject God and hurt or ignore one another.

Are things really different now, or has the testimony of believers who feel that God answered a personal prayer involving cosmic trivia always elicited angry reactions from others? I am just wondering if prayer has always been so offensive to non-believers? Or is my perspective overly skewed by the few loud voices one encounters on the Internet?

25 comments:

Zerabp said...

You are not alone in noticing it and sadly it is not just non-believers who do it. I have met countless Christians member and nonmember alike who share in this attitude and think there is a such thing as a trivial sincere prayer. I tend to lean more towards it being a more modern thing though at the same time I'm sure that it can't be. The Devil hasn't changed his bag of tricks after all, but just become more adept at using them.

Paul said...

Great question, Jeff. I must admit that I've found myself in the camp you describe from time to time. My wrist has been appropriately slapped!

In the end, who are we to question another's answers to prayer, the ultimate personal spiritual experience. And if someone wants to give praise to God for good that happens, who are we to stand in that way, either?

Anonymous said...

I find it odd that LDS only believe prayers are answered if they agree with what LDS believe. A JW getting an answer to their prayer that they are in the right church is trivialized by LDS and counted as not really an answer. In fact, a LDS would tell that JW to go read the BOM and pray about it, and if he did not get the answer that it was true, then he was not sincere, or, wasn't worthy of the Spirit or had not listened to the Spirt or etc etc etc. If the answer does not agree with what LDS believe then it is tossed aside. Yet, here Jeff is talking about others when he might have used his time to talk to LDS about their attitude concerning non-LDS and how the Spirit witnesses to them as well. Last I checked, the LDS Church did not have the market cornered on the Spirit of the Lord.
Be well.

erelis said...

Is it just me, or has the level of strawman statements of what LDS believe or don't believe jumped through the roof on Mormanity over the past few days?

Anonymous, your argument hinges on a faulty assumption of what I believe about others' answers to personal prayer. I'm weary of you and various others on the web trying to speak for me or my LDS beliefs and failing so miserably.

C.J. said...

Erelis, I've noticed that, too. And, agreed! I'm happy to debate doctrines, issues, or anything else with anyone who's interested...but if you're starting from a set of assumptions about what I do and do not believe, that's not real debate. What bothers me the most is this rigid, inflexible attitude--it's fine if, in ignorance, you think "all LDS believe" this or that, but if I, or someone else, tells you different--I don't, in fact, believe anything I've been told I believe, here--why not listen? Why so much emotional and intellectual investment in what Mormon folks supposedly "all" believe?

Paul said...

CJ & erelis:

As a life-long LDS I have to agree that the sentiment anon expresses is pretty accurate regarding the predominant belief held by fellow LDS and especially its leadership. Whether or not you or I share that belief specifically is irrelevant to a discussion of Mormon beliefs. Anon is more than justified in raising the issue and an honest apologist would directly address that issue. It may be a straw man but it's a straw man built and maintained by church leadership.

Alan said...

When I studied with the JWs, they did not tell me to pray. They pointed out exactly where in the Bible it said that they were right. That was over thirty years ago. Have they changed since then?

Thank you, Jeff, for the sermonette on prayer.

C.J. said...

Paul, you make a good point. I certainly don't mean to invalidate anyone else's experiences or concerns; I certainly know, from personal experience, that people (of all religions) can be dismissive jerks.

Honestly, though, my personal experience, at least on that front, has been very different. Particularly, I remember how, during law school, many of our RS talks, and (the activity formerly known as) enrichment activities featured non-LDS people, events, and subject matter. One talk, in particular, focused on the life, works, and social influence of Mother Theresa. Our speaker made a big point of addressing how, denomination aside, Mother Theresa was an extremely holy person and a highly worthy role model. You don't need to actually be LDS, necessarily, to represent LDS values; ideally, these values are universal. We might think we have the best way to practice them, but that doesn't mean they only exist within our church.

The attitude you describe, Anonymous, I guess I've experienced the most (or at all) directed toward other Mormons--especially in matters of tithing. I think the whole, "do x, reap the rewards" attitude is pretty universal within the church, and if you do "x", but nothing good happens, then either a) you weren't sincere enough, b) you weren't worthy enough, or c) the promised blessings just haven't arrived yet, or in the form you were expecting. But in my experience--and again, this is only mine--that's a beam we tend to turn on ourselves, as opposed to people of other religions.

rquinn said...

Jeff--

I have, at times, been one of the guffawing skeptics, believing as I did, that people got themselves into trouble by seeing God's hand in all things. I perceived that the flip side of such faith was to blame God when things went wrong; thus, in the interest of avoiding such a mindset, I took a deistic approach, believing that God wound up the world, put in His hand when it was necessary for some large scale need, but left us to work out the details.

I no longer hold to that belief, though I have found that "blaming" God is not the inevitable result of seeing God's hand in all things. Experience has taught me that God's love for me is evident whether any particular turn of events is what I would prefer, or not. Truly, I am dependent upon God for my daily bread, my breath from moment to moment, for every trivial and global thing that affects me, yet this does not mean that God is both evil and good, nor that God is capriciously playing with my feelings.

In all things, whether perceived to be good things or bad, God is calling me to come to Him, teaching me He loves me, and imbuing my heart with a portion of His love for me to return to Him, and to share with others in my life. In that sense, there really is very little difference between things large and small, for when I see God's hand in all things, all things then come together to bring His Kingdom into reality.

I don't know whether the tendency to not see His hand in all things is a recent phenomenon--I recall His admonishment about recognizing His hand and not trusting in the arm of flesh coming from much earlier times as well.

As to the friend who perceives an LDS bias against God answering the prayers of others in a way that does not uniformly lead them into the accepted LDS pattern, I would offer my own assurance that I, and many that I know, do not think that way about the relationship God has with all His children. Yes, I do believe God has restored His church on the earth and that that restored church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. However, I do not assume to know what God will say individually to each of His beloved children. I humbly recognize that His ways are not my ways.

Creek said...

Interesting discussion. I have to admit I am skeptical at times about personal prayers, especially when the benefit of the prayer could have come at someone else's expense.

For example, last week I received a newsletter from a Protestant church I attended in Alabama years ago. The feature story told how a bad storm hit the church during services and they had to stop worship due to tornado warnings. The congregation huddled in interior rooms and paryed for the storm to miss them. In the newsletter, the pastor said, "Praise God the storm moved north of us!" I have to wonder how the people north of the church who were hit by the storm would feel about that prayer!!

I'm also skeptical when athletic teams or coaches pray for victory. Aren't they also praying for their opponent to lose? Not very Christian IMO.

Anyway, I do believe God answers personal prayer, but sometimes it's not in the way we expect.

Jared said...

I think the problems discussed in the post and comments can be attributed to not understanding church doctrine. This is true no matter who has the misunderstanding, member, non-member, or church leader.

A couple of points to consider:

1. I know of no church doctrine, based on scripture, that says all members of other churches would join the Mormon church if they were properly taught.

2. I do know of church doctrine that says the righteous are favored. Exactly how that comes into play can be hard to pin down because of others doctrines that teach the Lord will have a tried people. In any given case the Lord will bless or try His people based upon His will.

3. I do know of church doctrine that teaches that the Lord has given mankind agency. This must mean that no lone is forced into a given situation. Those who are born in all sorts of conditions that are considered deplorable apparently agreed to it before they were born.

In my experience the Lord has given us answers to the perplexing problems we encounter. We need to go to the scripture and with the aid of the Holy Ghost we can find answers--but this is conditioned on qualifying for the Holy Ghost to begin with. Without the Holy Ghost the scriptures can be understood in a 1000 different ways. Thanks be to God for prophets, but even then they are not infallible.

This is a fallen world and it is a long ways from easy--but then again, that is why we came here.

gasbo said...

ANON-I know that at times some LDS get over enthused about the prominence of the Church but we are all at different levels of understanding.
God answers ALL prayers from those who believe in him.
If JWs have prayed to God if they should stay in their church,then that is where they will be best suited.
Not everyone can sustain the type of spiritual pressure that is required to reach exaltation.

gasbo said...

oops what I meant to say was that God answers ALL who pray no matter what their religious affiliations are.cheer

Bookslinger said...

Oh the irony, hypocrisy and hubris of non-believers who claim to speak for God, or even who posture that _if_ there were a God, then _they_ would know such a God's plans, priorties and feelings.

Oh the irony and hypocrisy of a non-believer dictating to a believer the mind and will of even a supposed God.

How crazy it is to dicate the nature of some being you don't even believe in!

Bookslinger said...

And by "non-believers" I don't mean non-Mormons, I mean atheists.

Anonymous said...

"I find it odd that LDS only believe prayers are answered if they agree with what LDS believe. A JW getting an answer to their prayer that they are in the right church is trivialized by LDS and counted as not really an answer. In fact, a LDS would tell that JW to go read the BOM and pray about it, and if he did not get the answer that it was true, then he was not sincere, or, wasn't worthy of the Spirit or had not listened to the Spirt or etc etc etc. If the answer does not agree with what LDS believe then it is tossed aside. Yet, here Jeff is talking about others when he might have used his time to talk to LDS about their attitude concerning non-LDS and how the Spirit witnesses to them as well. Last I checked, the LDS Church did not have the market cornered on the Spirit of the Lord.
Be well.
"

Some LDS may well believe that you have to be LDS to get answers to prayer, however, all the ones I know of do not..
And considering how many say to pray to recieve an answer about the book of mormon, i'd say that the majority also don't believe that you have to be LDS to get an answer to your prayers.

LuckyMatt said...

I think a lot of confusion about prayer comes from misunderstanding its purposes. Prayer is not generally intended as a means to suppress the agency of another human being; thus man's inhumanity to man continues. Prayer was never intended to change God's mind, either; thus we don't always get what we want. Prayer is not to ensure that none of the trials of life will ever strike at our hearts--the very trials that God intends for us to pass through for our own growth and good.

Prayer is for securing blessings--whether great or small--that God is already willing to give to us, but which are made conditional on us asking for them. Prayer is for exercising faith on behalf of others that the Holy Ghost will strive with them and gently persuade them to change. Prayer is for requesting that God will do what He can, generally without infringing on the agency of others, to bless us, whether that be healing a sickness, putting a thought into our minds to guide us, putting a thought into someone else's mind to help us, or even occasionally to temper the elements of the world around us. But my personal feelings are that most of all, prayer is for worship, repentance, cultivating gratitude for the bounty God gives us, and for softening us so that we will voluntarily bend our wills to His.

I believe God answers some of our smallest prayers so that we will reach out to Him in faith when we are confronted with much bigger problems and stick with Him even when answers to some of our bigger prayers are "No."

C.J. said...

Beautifully put, Matt.

Tyler said...

Well put Matt.

seekthetruth said...

I am new to the blog and must say that I am impressed with the civility, poignant and provoking thought etc. I do need to ask this one question however and I wondered if it had been noticed by anyone else until now. Why do you allow anonymous posts? I rarely find any value in the comments of one who, hiding behind the mask of the unknown, rarely contributes to the flow of the thread and shows no real desire to participate other than antagonizing the other participants, thereby making himself barely more than a simple troll.
Matt, I don't think I have ever heard a better definition of the purpose of prayer.

LuckyMatt said...

Thanks for the kind words. Much of my thoughts about prayer are merely a paraphrase of modern prophetic teachings (such as Elder Oaks' recent talk about Love and Law), from the LDS Bible Dictionary, various scriptural passages (like Alma 33:3) and memories of things others like C.S. Lewis have said. Perhaps I should have included citations with the original comment. But they are all "my words" now too, as they have been proved out by my own experiences. God surely does hear and answer our prayers according to His wisdom and our needs!

Zerabp said...

@seek the truth

He allows it because some of us often take a controversial stance that's not necessarily antagonistic to anyone but would lead to others judging us based on that stance in an unrighteous way. This way someone doesn't value more or devalue your view based upon your other posts yet allows you to say it. I think you'll find that here some of the best comment can be made by someone remaining anonymous while some of the worst have the persons handle proudly posted next to it. So thank you Jeff for allowing anonymous posts, and I hope this helped you seek to understand as well. I'd also like to point out that seek the truth maintains your anonymity as much as posting anonymously does.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure I have ever seen this on the blog before. Someone saying how great and civil the discourse is and then go on to say something like this "I rarely find any value in the comments of one who, hiding behind the mask of the unknown, rarely contributes to the flow of the thread and shows no real desire to participate other than antagonizing the other participants, thereby making himself barely more than a simple troll."
Wow, thanks, and who are you? What is your name? Clicking your name shows nothing, not a blog or a bio. Nothing, so I would say you are just like an anonymous poster. In fact, I see your point above. You are most likely a troll and you sure have added nothing to the discussion by a few back slaps here and there.

seekthetruth said...

My post is simply this. When seekthetruth posts once or twice or twenty times you will always know that you are conversing with the same person who will have hopeful made contributions to the thread. When you see my name, you should be able, after time to place those comments into context with my previous thinking. A hundred different individuals may peruse through the blog anonymously dropping commentary that is never connected to anything more than just "someone said." Granted, often times those comments are thought provoking and very insightful, but how does one connect your thinking from yesterday to that of next week if thirty others also posted with the same name? I meant you no ill personally, but my experience is that anonymous posters often do so, only to antagonize other participants.

seekthetruth said...

Now I seem to have hijacked the thread. I apologize to all.