One of the most uncomfortable conversations of my life took place in a dentist’s chair.
(Yes, yes, I know…)
My dentist was a woman in her early 30s. I was already be-bibbed, X-rayed, and reclined to a nauseating angle when she suddenly shooed all the assistants and hygienists out and began with “I know you are a Christian. Can I ask you something?” (Don’t ask how she knew; I must have told her at some point). She was desperate for wisdom from a more experienced soul, and to this day I wish I’d been better prepared.
She was going through a miscarriage, she said. I’m so sorry, I said. She said that when she’d first learned the news, she’d prayed for a quick and safe completion. But then she had visited Christian message boards whose denizens had told her that she should have prayed for a miracle, and now she was afraid that God would let the miscarriage go through because she hadn’t prayed correctly.
My answer, whatever it was, was a failure of theological nerve. I found out the next week that her miscarriage did indeed complete, and I never saw her again. But I doubt I will ever forget that conversation. When I have told this story in the past, I have focused on my own incomplete doctrine of prayer, but today I’m coming at it from a different angle.
My dentist was the victim of a doctrinal hit-and-run, courtesy of the theology of convenience.
The theology of convenience, as I have defined it, is any set of doctrines whose purpose is to make the adherent’s life easier. It is easy to identify by the way it shunts responsibility off the self and onto the sufferer. It treats chronic problems as crises, which naturally have quick solutions that don’t require much time or energy (from you). And most importantly, it gives the appearance of piety without any of the substance. Prayer is an ideal lurking ground for a theology which likes nothing better than to blame the victim. Did you pray for wealth? Healing? The salvation of a loved one? Didn’t get it? Obviously you had insufficient faith. Did you really believe God would do it for you? Can you say with absolute confidence that you did not doubt? Did you pray, as you should have, for a miracle?
No? Well, there’s yer trouble.
Whenever a prayer is answered, the theology of convenience is quick to claim the credit. Stormie Omartian, Bruce Wilkinson, and a host of others have built whole franchises on the topic of how when and where to pray, for whom, for what, and on which occasion. It’s hard to imagine any venture with lower risk and higher reward. If you gain an audience, they will do most of the work for you, attributing success to your holy wisdom but blaming failure on themselves.
In addition to shrugging off the consequences of a ‘failed’ prayer and claiming credit for a ‘successful’ one, the theology of convenience further makes your life easier by substituting a few minutes of prayer — or even the announcement that you’re going to pray — for actual work. Pick any tragedy from a mass shooting to a forest fire, and among the public reactions will be the solemn intonation of “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims”. It’s harmless enough, until someone is uncharitable enough to point out that the ones who are thinking and praying are police officers, politicians, Congresscritters, etc. — you know, persons in a position to actually do something — and that this hallowed phrase is shorthand for “we have no intention of changing the conditions that caused this to happen, even though we possibly could.” The more sarcastic denizens of the internet love skewering this one, and inevitably it rouses the ire of the saints. ‘How dare you mock prayer?’ they cry. But they aren’t. They’re simply mocking the hollow, all-too-obvious convenience of it all.
What, then, is the appropriate kind of prayer? I myself I am still making my peace with the whole idea. Certainly I have heard a lot of prayers in my lifetime: saintly, sanctimonious, King-James-esque, Jesusweejus (“Jesus, we just…”), random phrases stitched together with “Lord” or “Father,” rundowns of all the world’s ills… My least favorite are the ones that tack on “God, if it’s your will” like some kind of legal disclaimer. To be honest, most of the prayers I’ve heard have been notable for their length, not their content. I don’t remember most of them. But the ones I do remember were the ones which took a risk; which could have resulted in uncomfortable consequences if answered or unanswered; in other words, prayers which were inconvenient.
A friend of mine is a Methodist minister whose specialty is hospital visits and funerals. He is grimly aware that the usual course of certain diseases is death. He has known many patients who insist on continuing treatment when hospice would be kinder. His glasses are not even remotely pink (though his socks occasionally are). But he tells me that he always prays for healing; he always prays for a miracle. I know that he must conduct the funerals of some over whom he prayed. I have not asked what happens when he meets family members who truly expected that miracle, nor what uncomfortable conversations result. But I do know that he could easily avoid that pain by praying a mealy-mouthed “God, if it’s your will, please heal ____”, and he doesn’t. He is convinced that his pastoral responsibility is to pray inconveniently. Anything less would be a failure of nerve.
A true prayer is open and straightforward. It states its needs and wants without disclaimer. It feels no need to add, “God, if its your will,” because it comes from a heart sensitive enough to hear the Spirit’s warnings when God would not will that outcome. Most importantly, it has theological nerve. When you pray, you enter the causal matrix. Let me repeat: when you pray for something to happen, you become part of the reason it happened, with all the moral obligation this entails. (Be careful what you pray for!) But we must pray. It is a direct command from the Lord. Unless we pray, some things simply will not happen. I don’t know yet how to square that with the rest of my theology, but I know it must be true.
Is it appropriate to pray for God’s will? Of course. Is it appropriate to pray without knowing what would be best, or without knowing what to say? Of course. We are told that the Spirit interprets for us even when all we can do is groan. (Rom. 8:26) But it is not appropriate to pray thoughtlessly and slap on an “if it’s Thy will” at the end. That’s just insurance against the disappointment of an unanswered prayer… or the consequences of an answered one. If you truly believe prayer has consequences, then pray reverently, pray expectantly, pray with fear and trembling. But for God’s sake, don’t pray conveniently.
Lastly and most importantly, prayer cannot substitute for direct action. Prayer is often just the beginning. Telling God to work his will in a situation might well be handing him a blank check on your time and energy. Yet, again, these are the prayers that get remembered. St. Francis probably did not write the prayer attributed to him, but that prayer has staying power because — not in spite of — lines that petition God for less comfort, less consolation. Not only is the prayer inconvenient, it prays for inconvenience. But the result is sobering and powerful. It has weight and solidity beyond all of those thoughtless calls for “thoughts and prayers,” because it has some skin in the game. And that is the beauty of holiness that wins souls.
As I have said, I haven’t entirely made my peace with the doctrine of prayer. It seems odd to me than an all-knowing, all-loving God would wait to act for our good until we tell him what we need. I don’t know what to make of the obvious inference that it makes a difference to him whether I asked — what that says of me or what it says of him. But prayer is not optional in the Christian life. And as such, it is incumbent on us to do it rightly, which is to say, inconveniently. Anything less is cheap and shallow.