In a recent letter to the editor (“Prayers and higher plans”, published March 22), the question was posed, “Why do Christians pray?” And in particular, when prayers are not answered as we request, are those inactions attributed to God’s will? I will try to answer this question, but first, let me provide a bit of my own story.
When I was fifteen years old, on April 21, 1995, my mother, Marilyn Marshall, did not wake up. She died unexpectedly in her sleep, sending shockwaves throughout my family and the broader Enumclaw community. She grew up in Enumclaw, graduated from Enumclaw High School, and worked as a Teachers Aide at Westwood Elementary School at the time of death. I still remember to this day how many people from this community filled Calvary Presbyterian Church for her memorial service. The outpouring of love, support, and prayers was overwhelming.
Along with tremendous support and care, I remember well-meaning people saying her death was, “All part of God’s plan” and ”God needed another angel.” I know now people said those things to provide comfort, but I could not stomach those platitudes then and still cannot today.
I know my mother’s death was not part of God’s plan… period.
I would not worship a God who is so cruel, who would take a mother from me and my brother, a wife from my father, a beloved friend to so many people in this community, a beautiful soul whose passing caused the world to shine a little dimmer.
I bring up the experience of my mother’s death because it informs how I view and treat prayer.
Prayer is not a genie’s lamp; if I pray the proper prayer, God is bound to act as I demand. This thinking turns prayer into some kind of cosmic transaction between God and me. Meaning if my prayers are not answered, then I have done something wrong, God is not partial to me, or they were not part of God’s plan.
This relationship with prayer is problematic. For example, when we treat prayer this way, and we pray for the healing of a loved one, yet they die, or for a natural disaster to pass by, but it causes great destruction, those deaths and tragedies can be attributed to God’s plan. I reject that attitude wholeheartedly. Death, destruction, and human suffering are not part of God’s plan. They are the result of us living in a broken world, which through Jesus Christ, God has come to redeem!
Therefore, returning to the original question: Why do I pray?
I pray because prayer is about a relationship.
I pray for the same reason a child comes to their parents and asks for things. For example, there are times when a child comes to a parent to share with them about something good going on in their life. The child’s joy is overflowing, and they want to celebrate along with their parent. Sometimes, a child goes to a parent asking for something they need. “Dad, can I have dinner?” The parent willingly fulfills the request. There are also difficult times in life when a child comes to a parent in tears. “Mommy, why is grandma sick? Can’t you do something about it?” In those times, a parent’s role is to provide comfort, support, and care for a child’s broken heart.
Therefore, at the heart of prayer is a relationship with God in which we share our joys and thanksgivings, seek forgiveness, share our needs, and pour out the sorrows of our hearts. Does prayer also result in the answer we desire? Of course not…because that is not the point! Prayer is a way to connect to God and, by extension, other believers. There is a beauty and power in knowing your prayers are gathered with the prayers of others regardless of language, age, race, denomination, etc.
Through prayer, we are connected to God; in doing so, we become more attuned to what God desires for our world. We begin to see the world more as Christ does. And when that happens, we realize prayer is not about changing God’s mind or convincing God to do what I want, but maybe….just maybe….through prayer we are changed. Through prayer, we listen and begin to reflect the love of Christ. Through prayer, we become aware of how God is already active and present in our world. Through prayer, our hearts begin to break for the things which break God’s heart, too. All of which leads us to act, love, seek justice, and serve not as a means to earn a reward but because God is leading.
My mother’s death was a pivotal moment in my life. There is not a day I do not miss her. Her death led me to ask big questions about life and faith. Those questions led me to faith, eventually becoming a pastor, and now serving back in my hometown as the pastor at Hope Lutheran Church. Did God cause my mother’s death to lead me to this point? No. Rather, God gathered my shattered pieces, surrounded me with loving people, and claimed me as His own. Then through prayer and seeking answers to the unanswered question of death, God changed me, and for that, I am ever thankful.