Jesus said: ‘Do not be like non-Jews, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’ Matthew 6.8
Prayer has been in the news quite a bit lately. Not, of course because it’s suddenly started working, but because prominent Christians have been pretending, yet again, that it does:
Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has been telling us just how important prayer is. He prays for others while he does the ironing.
The pope has been praying for victims of Islamic State.
Churches in Glasgow have been praying for the victims and families involved in last Monday’s terrible accident there.
Bishops in Australia prayed for victims of the Sydney seige.
Christians inherit this futile behaviour and empty posturing from Jesus himself. He believed that talking ‘in secret’ to his god-in-the-sky could actually change things down here on Earth. This God, according to Jesus, knew what his children wanted even before they asked.
His children were not, however, Christians; they were Jews. The phrase I’ve interpreted above as ‘non-Jews’ is ‘Gentiles’, which means exactly that – outsiders who weren’t Jews. These outsiders, Jesus implies, just don’t get prayer. Only the chosen people, the Jews, do. Only they know how to talk to the big Sky Daddy properly and it’s only their needs that he knows about beforehand. He isn’t interested in others, their needs or their prayers.
But if he knows the needs of his chosen before they even ask him, why doesn’t he simply meet those needs? Why does he have to be asked? What sort of perverse and twisted version of a loving father is this, who insists on being asked before he will consider acting? I’m only a fallible and flawed human being but when I know my children’s needs, I don’t wait to be asked to meet them.
Maybe God isn’t really as magic as Jesus seems to think. Maybe he needs time to let things happen by chance so that he can then take the credit. Because there’s absolutely no evidence prayer works. The opposite is the case; there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the supposed results of prayer are no more likely than if they happened by chance.
As if this weren’t ludicrous enough, many of the examples of prayer we’ve heard about recently are prayers after the event; appeals for the victims and survivors of disasters once the disaster has struck. So did God not know those involved ‘needed’ not to be killed or tortured or bereaved? If he didn’t already know this, then Jesus’ claim is, like so many others he made, utterly worthless. And if God did know, why did he not do anything to prevent the loss of life, the hardship, the devastation? Because he wasn’t asked?
It’s likely though that he was asked, by those believers who were caught up in appalling circumstances. So then, why didn’t he act? Why didn’t he meet those needs he knew so much about beforehand?
Perhaps he just doesn’t care or he’s not able. Or, more likely, maybe he doesn’t exist.
And if he doesn’t exist, then Jesus was wrong in everything he said about him. He was wrong to think God was there in Heaven, taking an interest; wrong to think he cared. It also means Jesus certainly wasn’t the son of any such god. Nor was he the human manifestation of a make-believe Sky Daddy on Earth.