On one level, I really like the idea of prayer. Regardless of who or what is listening in, a practice of daily reflection on the beauty of the world around us and perhaps a sincere attempt to rise above our daily cares is great, and to the degree that the manual focuses on gratitude and opportunities for daily course-corrections, I can get behind it 100 percent.
The rub for me is the idea of petitionary prayer.
This first started to break down for me in connection with priesthood blessings.
Any discussion of priesthood blessings quickly treads into some very tender places, and I know several people who have a great deal of faith in the power of a priesthood blessing to heal. Indeed, I have participated in giving blessings (even after I have lost my faith in their efficacy) that I count as profoundly sacred experiences. I hope that no one will take what I say next as denigrating or discounting their experience in any way.
I no longer have (never really had?) what most people would consider a “testimony” of many of the important truth claims of the Mormon church. However, I continue to participate in ordinances. I prepare, bless, and pass the sacrament, stand in during ordinations and settings apart when called upon, and, when asked, I help administer blessings to the sick. My bishop generally knows my position due to a conversation we had about (not) renewing my temple recommend, and he doesn’t seem to have a problem with my participation.
Sometimes I feel like I am misrepresenting myself or something by continuing to participate in these ceremonies, but in general, I don’t feel bad about it. Indeed, some of my most profound spiritual experiences have come from taking part in these rites that I barely believe in anymore, and I don’t feel as if those who are on the receiving end are worse for having me officiate.
When a friend called to see if I could help him administer a blessing to his child who had a serious accident, I was privileged to lay my hands on top of his and offer some support at a tremendously difficult time. When another friend was laid low by an aggressive cancer (to which he eventually succumbed), I was privileged to take the sacrament to his bedside, kneel down, bless and administer it. These are important memories to me and I am grateful for them, but they haven’t changed how I think about these ordinances.
(I would welcome any thoughts about the proper level of disclosure that should be made in these kinds of situations — is the doubter obligated to announce the fact that he probably doesn’t share the believer’s perspective about a particular ordinance?)
Back to the main event
With all that said, I find petitionary prayer — prayer where we ask and expect to receive some kind of specific blessing — increasingly problematic. The priesthood blessing is just one example of this kind of prayer.
Why should it be the case that a priesthood blessing has any extra power than a normal prayer? Is it really true that God would withhold a blessing that He would have otherwise granted had only it been asked for in the proper way (as the LDS Bible Dictionary seems to suggest)? That seems kind of petty for a supreme being.
From priesthood blessings, we can move on to the usual kind of ‘blessings’ that we commonly ask for in daily prayer. Is a plea for “safety in our travels” really responsible for fewer traffic accidents? (In principle, this is an empirical question… Utah roadways ought to be demonstrably safer on Sunday afternoons as church is letting out given the sheer volume of prayers that ask that we “return to our homes in safety”).
What about ‘blessings on the food’? Is Mormon cooking transmuted in some way by all of the requests that it “nourish and strengthen our bodies”?
Some of this criticism is unfair — at its best, these types of petitionary prayers direct the mind of the pray-er toward fulfilling the asked for blessing. You’ve probably heard the injunction: “pray like everything depends on God, but work like everything depends on you” (or something like that — the internet doesn’t seem to agree on the source or the proper formulation)… we are Christ’s hands in the world… it is usually through another person that God answers our prayers…. All variations on the same theme.
And so, in the end, God get’s the credit for everything good that happens, and we are to blame for everything that goes wrong. Heads, He wins; tails, we lose.
That’s kind of a downer — sorry… maybe I’ll have something nicer to say about it all tomorrow.