I think that most people, most of the time, tend to think of religion as a way of influencing events in the world around them. We offer prayers to God in the hope that they will influence God to DO something: change the weather, change our fortunes, change other people. We assume that if we say the right prayers, or believe the right things, we will somehow hit that “sweet spot” that will cause God to swing into action.
And, yet, our experience seldom bears this out. Most religious people (and more than a few non-religious people, I suspect!) have had that experience of fervently praying for something that we sense is truly good (like the healing of another, or rain upon a parched earth) and seeing nothing happen. Our friend does not get better, the rain does not come when needed. And when this disconnect between our prayer and the absence of its fulfillment arises, theology (sometimes quite bad theology) steps in to try and make sense of it all. We are told, perhaps, that God is a mystery whose ways are inscrutable. Or, we can’t properly appreciate how what we are praying for really fits into the grand scheme of things, as God can. Or, our friend was not healed because it was “her time”. The list of the ways in which theology attempts to resolve the disconnect is quite lengthy. And almost every item on it leaves most people, I think, feeling somehow dissatisfied. Though, some people may have trouble admitting to that dissatisfaction because they think it would make them appear as lacking in faith.
I think what we so often fail to appreciate about religion is that it is not primarily about the world “out there”. Rather, the focus of religion is on us, and the world “inside”. In the Abrahamic tradition (including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), each of the religions arising from that tradition experience an act of communication that moves from God toward the faith community (and the individual members thereof). This movement seeks to induct people into a transformed way of living. While Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each understand this transformation in a unique way, and using unique language and theological concepts, the essence of the transformation that each envisions is quite similar, and the bottom line is really the same: God seeks to change us.
That change, however, is never for its own sake; it is not self-serving. Our transformation is for the sake of the world: we are transformed so that we may, in turn, transform the world around us. We become the light so that we may be the light for others. And so prayer is not so much about getting God to intervene in the world “out there”, but rather is what opens us up to the grace of personal transformation. As we are changed, so are we able to change the world. The changing of our inner world creates a corresponding change in the outer world we inhabit.
The most cherished prayer in the Christian tradition is the Lord’s Prayer (or Our Father, as it is called by some). In that prayer, we pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” While people often understand this prayer in terms of the heaven “up there” being the place where God’s will is always done, and thus we pray for earth to mirror that reality, this is not the only way that prayer may be understood. After all, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is within you.” We can understand “heaven” as a state of being which corresponds with God’s will, with God’s desire, and thus we can understand that to the degree we are able to have our inner world transformed into the shape of God’s desire, so does our inner world become the “heavenly space”. And thus we may pray that this heavenly, interior space becomes manifested in the outer world, the world around us. But this does not happen as a divine intervention “out there”; it happens through us, as the change in our inner world changes the way we interact with the world around us.
I realize that this may be quite a different way of thinking than many are accustomed to. And, I realize that it may sound as if I am calling into question the many times that the Bible depicts God as acting — intervening — in the world “out there.” I am not, however, intending to do that. Rather, I think that we should see these biblical acts of divine intervention as exceptions that are not the result of human prayer but as signs meant to point us toward something. They are part of the act of communication which is moving from God to humanity, signs meant to draw us into the relationship that transforms — not the substance of the relationship itself. And to the degree that we perceive such “miracles” to be happening in our own time (such as inexplicable, spontaneous healings that are sometimes reported), we should not regard these as being the result of God’s decision to favor one person over another (or answer someone’s prayer while not another’s). Instead, we should see them as signs meant to draw us into relationship, sacraments placed in our midst. To be a bearer of such a sign or sacrament, either as a person or as a community, is surely an awesome thing. But we should never confuse the sign with the One to whom it is intended to point us, nor should we expect such signs to be given to us whenever we would like them. The sign should always pull us beyond itself into relationship with the One.
I also do not wish to suggest that we should stop praying for the people and the world “out there”. And I do think that intercessory prayer can impact other people on a kind of energetic level. But I also think that a big part of the reason why we need to pray for others is because the act of praying for another does change us. By praying for others, we learn to enlarge the scope of our compassion, to enlarge our souls, and that can open us to transformation in powerful ways.
This all very heady stuff, I suppose, and I may have lost you by this point. The bottom line, however, is that we need to stop expecting a God who will make stuff happen for us “out there”, while leaving us just as we are. Rather, we must recognize what the mystical path in every religious tradition has seemed to understand: that nothing lasting will ever happen “out there” until something lasting happens “in here.” And it is that interior world within us all — the heart, the soul, the spirit — that is the primary place where the grace of God seeks to operate.