Demystifying Faith – How Prayer Works
“I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
― Mother Teresa
The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind. The purpose of prayer is to manage our internal orientation and focus. Prayer changes things from the inside out. Prayer and meditation can create profound changes in our mental state, level of awareness, focus, and self-control.
Peter Kramer in 1977 wrote a seminal work entitled Listening to Prozac. The theme of the book could be described as the remaking of the self.
Shortly before this book came out I had my own transformative experience linked to the use of Prozac. I had been in therapy for several years trying to deal with the trauma of childhood abuse. The talk therapy was not working because I could not go deep enough to get at the root causes. Prozac for therapy was like Novocain in the dentist chair. The Prozac allowed me to work through the pain and to complete the therapy.
Under Prozac I had a profound and surprising sense of “self.” There was a “self” there that was different from the painful things I had experienced. Under Prozac my “self” awakened. I could separate my “self” from what had happened to me, and from what I had done in reaction. I found myself saying, “I did that, but that is not who I am,” or “That was done to me, but that is not who I am.”
Peter Kramer went on to explore our mental states. He wrote that everything that we are, our emotions, our mental state, even our personality and character, are all products of our brain chemistry. This sounds like the ultimate reductionism, but it resonated with the experiences that I had undergone.
Kramer writes that controlling our brain chemistry controls everything about us and our inner lives. It controls our actions, our feelings, and even our personalities. He goes on to say that there are two and only two ways to regulate our brain chemistry. We can do that through chemical intervention or through our own mental hygiene.
The effect of chemical intervention is obvious. There are many forms of psychoactive medicines such as Prozac or Valium. There are mood altering substances such as pot, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. There are also many forms of illegal drugs can cause extreme psychological trauma as well as physical damage to our bodies and our brains. There are diseases such as syphilis or streptococcus infections that can radically alter personality and behavior.
The notion of mental hygiene is a little less obvious. The main premise here is that wherever our thoughts dwell, that is who we will become.
It is easy to give our minds over to various addictions. For example, a man might become engrossed in pornography. He gets drawn to casual sexual hookups. He hangs out in strip clubs or other sex industry sites. He develops a constant craving for more exciting and dangerous experiences. He starts groping women or even involving children in his perverted fantasies. His needs are insatiable. His addiction usurps all of his money, time, and attention. He loses his job, his home, his family, but still he cannot stop. The changes to this man’s brain chemistry are as real as if he were abusing drugs. This is why addictions are so hard to break. Every time he breaks through another boundary there is an addictive rush. He lives to experience those highs and will sacrifice his whole life in the process.
Real, authentic prayer takes us in the opposite direction. Instead of unmanageable cravings we find inner peace. Prayer is reaching for the transcendent. Prayer is touching something greater than ourselves. Prayer lifts us out of the muck of our daily existence and fills us with something much greater than ourselves. In prayer we connect with the divine transcendence and through that we connect with all people in love. Prayer connects us with the infinite power of love. This love transforms our inner reality and alters our very brain chemistry.
Real, authentic prayer is available to all regardless of his or her religious affiliation, or lack thereof. There are universal factors shared by all human beings in our DNA. There is a brain chemical called DMT or “the spirit molecule.” Preliminary research has shown that many people, regardless of their spirituality, or total lack thereof, experience what can only be described as a transformative divine encounter when tested with DMT. The research is still in the development stage and I believe it unwise to draw any conclusions about what is happening. But this research does offer some interesting preliminary insights into the human brain and its faith encounters.
It would be hoped that anyone on a spiritual journey would connect with others on the same journey. In this way experiences could be shared, help and support freely given, and a sense of a common direction might emerge. A group united by prayer can then pool their energy and resources to accomplish more than any one person could.
Pope Francis recently made a stunning statement about prayer. “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
Prayer does not end with ourselves. It begins with a transformation of brain chemistry but it does not end there. Prayer connects us with an infinite reservoir of love. It gives us power that is beyond anything that we can understand. When working together with other prayerful people we can multiply our powers and achieve the truly miraculous.
What Prayer is Not
Prayer is a very powerful tool, but few Christians understand much about it. Churches have not wanted to be honest about prayer. Rather, churches have spent their energy polishing the prayer illusion, often for financial gain. Most churches would no more give up the illusion of prayer than a casino would get out of gaming, or coffee shops stop selling coffee. The prayer illusion keeps churches in business, much to the loss of their members.
Before I can describe what prayer is I must first clear the decks and tell you what it is not. Prayer is not a way to persuade God to give you a better outcome. God is not your fairy godmother, not a genie in a bottle, not the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain. Praying for your Aunt Agnes’s gall stones will not heal her. This is not what prayer is about. It is not how God works. I am sure that many people out there will want to dispute this point. They will cite anecdotal “evidence” that God did indeed heal their Aunt Agnes. Many Christians prefer a comforting illusion over hard reality.
People are easily duped because they really want to believe. It is like when you see an advertisement for a new weight loss formula that guarantees you will lose 40 pounds in your first month. And you think, you have been fat your whole life and someone has finally come up with a solution! It comes with a money back guarantee so what can you lose except for your excess poundage.
But such a naïve and childlike understanding of prayer can also cause much grief and hardship. How do you explain it when prayer fails to get your intended results? In the same way, please do not say that God allowed your loved one to die. God had nothing to do with it. That is not how God works and it is not how prayer works.
There is a story about a man who attended many faith healing services. He noted that he had seen many crutches cast aside, but somehow no one ever cast off an artificial leg. The healer will tell you that if the miracle you are seeking has not happened yet it is because you have too little faith, or have not paid enough into the collection plate. The evangelist will happily give you these reasons as he strives to keep the frenzy going in order to line his own pockets and to advertise his great spiritual “power”.
Only a fool prays for rain when the wind is in the east. (Please adjust as necessary for your own climatological situation.)
This is the reality. Everyone dies. Everyone gets sick. Everyone faces endless tragedies and uncertainties throughout their lives. They lose their loved ones; they lose their jobs, they lose their money; they lose their health. Prayer will not change this, although it may make it easier for the person praying to cope with adversity. Aunt Agnes will not be healed through prayer, and therefore I would never pray for her healing. I do not believe in practicing deception or in polishing the illusion of the genie in the bottle that will come forth to grant three wishes. If you believe in that sort of God all I can say is, “Grow up!”
I will pray with and for Agnes and her family, but not to heal or to preserve her life. I will pray that the family is embraced by God’s love and feel God’s presence in their time of sorrow. Some might tell me that even that is an illusion. But it is a far different order than trying to command the fawning service of God.
There has been a long standing practice in church circles that it was possible to pray someone into heaven. If your uncle of dubious character passed away, one way to insure his place in eternity would be to endow a priest to say mass for your uncle every day. In this way, the priest received a stipend and your uncle just might spend less time in purgatory.
In the world of mega churches and televangelism, prayers can be bought. Some of these charlatans will encourage you to call their prayer line to pray for Aunt Agnes’ gall stones. When you call they might even say that they will pray for a particular fee. The less transparent “ministries” will simply use your prayer request as an invitation to include you in their fundraising campaigns.
There was a story of an elderly couple who attended a mega church run by a well-known televangelist. They were about to lose their house due to extreme financial difficulties. The preacher asked them to bring in their family budget and he would pray with them. When the preacher saw their budget he told them that there was not enough money in it for Jesus. They needed to greatly increase their contributions in order to prove their faith commitment. In this manner the shyster-preacher tried to scam the elderly couple out of their last dollar. And of course that dollar was not going to Jesus, but to the shyster and his own pockets and his “ministry.”
Prayer never changes God’s mind. You cannot bargain with God, and you cannot gain his support and attention by any form of prayer that you can think of. God does not barter.
Clergy prayers have no special powers. Prayer is not about making fancy speeches or magical incantations. Having the whole church pray for Aunt Agnes’ gall stones will not change the situation, although you and Aunt Agnes may receive support from your fellow worshippers through prayer. Impossible prayer is still impossible, no matter how much you gussy it up.
Prayer is not about the worthiness of the pray-er. It does not help to recite bible verses, use magical incantations, or flowery language. You do not need to “butter-up” God before you begin because God does not have an ego.
Prayer is not about directing God to do the right thing. It is not about calling for help so that God will notice your plight and then help.
God is not your handmaiden. Instead of holding on to this illusion to get you through times of trouble and stress – grow up and adopt a less infantile notion of God.
- Be as strong as you can.
- Be as knowledgeable as you can.
- Learn to help yourself, your family, and others.
- Learn what real, grown-up prayer is.
- Learn to accept life with all of its chaos and caprice.
- Expect turbulence and learn to swim in it.
- Realize that whatever happens, for good or ill, it is not about you.
- You are not the center of the Universe. You are thinking of God.