What is prayer? Is it magic, mystery, or something else
Prayer is not magic. Contrary to a widely held misunderstanding, prayer is not a means of manipulating God to produce a desired result(s). No formula, no action, no degree of sincerity in asking God to do something is assured of achieving the desired result.
The occasions on which prayer leads to the requested result are serendipitous. The results are actually attributable to other causes and not to God if the full picture is accurately understood. Concomitantly, chalking up failed prayer to receiving a “No” from God simply avoids the actual, underlying issue of correctly understanding prayer.
Magic, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary is “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces, mysterious tricks performed as entertainment.”
Believing that prayer is a means of obtaining specific results from God has three major theological problems. First, the person praying becomes de facto more powerful that God. God is reduced to the means of gratifying the desire(s) of the person praying.
Second, prayers of this genre (e.g., heal this dying individual, cure this person’s cancer, give me food for my starving child, etc.) are sometimes answered and sometimes not. Consequently, God appears capricious allowing some to die, some to eat, and so forth. If God genuinely loves all people equally, then God would logically act lovingly toward all, thus ending much suffering and death among both Christians and non-Christians.
Third, prayers of this genre typically require God to intervene in the natural order in a way that contravenes natural law. Illustratively, weather patterns are determined by geo-physical forces and other natural factors. God bringing rain to parched portions of California now ablaze with wild fires would requiring altering one or more of those ongoing natural processes.
If prayer is not magic, is it mystery?
Conceiving of prayer as mystery is less problematic than are the forms of prayer more akin to magic than genuine prayer. We advantageously approach prayer as a human endeavor rather than attempting the impossible task of discerning the presence or acts of the ineffable divine.
Thus, prayer may be talking (the verbal activity most commonly identified as prayer), acting (as in performing a loving deed), or meditating (practicing Christian yoga, for example). These acts may be therapeutic for the person praying: talking to God may relieve emotional stress or provide clarity about one’s ideas; acting may redirect the course of one’s life, prove redemptive or restorative, or help to form virtuous habits; meditating has health benefits demonstrated in repeated scientific studies. All of the above may offer signs of God’s presence or activity if we posit that God desires and promotes both human well-being and flourishing.
If God mysteriously acts to promote human well-being and flourishing in ways that (1) do not entail any problems connected to understanding prayer as magic and (2) are not directly discernible by finite humans because of God’s ineffable infinitude, then perhaps prayer becomes dialectical (God’s response to human talking, acting, and meditating) when humans receive gifts of wisdom, courage, and strength to grow in love for God and neighbor. Wisdom may connote what Whitehead called God luring a person toward a particular direction, a direction which is always loving and life-affirming. Courage may signify the assurance of God continuing to lure the person God-ward after that first step, an interpretation that helpfully links courage with hope. And strength may point toward a sufficiently strong luring to overcome human inertia against moving in the God-ward direction, thus linking strength and faith.
Approaching prayer as a mystery rooted in love, hope, and faith coheres with a biblical understanding of God as light, love, or the ground of being and with a twenty-first century scientific worldview.