God is Not a Candy Machine!
Have you ever visited a church and come across a particular genre of prayer, the unfailing prayer? I’m guessing you have. These prayers promise you will be answered if you pray according to an exact formula. Here are some examples I’ve found:
“Say prayer for 3 days, promise publication and favor will be granted. Never known to fail.”
“Say this prayer for 3 days. After the third day, the request will be granted, no matter how difficult.”
“Say six times a day for nine days and your prayers will be answered before the ninth day, no matter how impossible.”
“The Novena Prayer, all 4 parts, must be said 6 times each day for 9 consecutive days, leaving 9 copies in Church each day. Prayer will be answered on or before the 9th day and has never been known to fail.”
I know a priest who refers to this understanding of prayer as the candy machine model. All you have to do is put in your money and you get what you want! Unfortunately, that’s really bad Christian theology.
The notion of an unfailing prayer implies two things, both of which are inconsistent with Christian faith. One implication is that this prayer is exceptional in its ability to be heard and answered, and, by extension, perhaps other prayers are not so special, are not always heard. Yet, as the reading today reminds us, “The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal…”
Second, the notion of an unfailing prayer implies that we can control God, like a candy machine. Instead of humble supplication and childlike trust, we end up with superstitious belief that this prayer formula, like a magic spell, must necessarily move God to grant us our request. Yet, “the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right.” In other words, God is God and will decide what is best for us. If we could manipulate God by unfailing prayers, then we would have power over God, making us God; and surely we are not.
Saying all this, I am wary, now, of being like the character in Jesus’ parable who was so self-righteous that he prayed, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.” The truth is, some of the people who pray using these formulas have a prayer life that is deeper than my own. Often, they have more trust in God’s power to work miracles. They are often very faithful people, too, who will humbly accept whatever answer God gives. Their theology is a little off, but their faith is often very real—and I know which of these two things is more important to Christ.
Still, I wish we would stop using these prayers. Aside from theological errors, I am concerned about evangelization. When a young person sees these unfailing prayers, they may take it at face value and bring their very real needs to God, careful to fulfil every detail of the prescription, expecting a certain answer since these prayers are “never known to fail.” And then, when they do seemingly fail—i.e., when God says no or gives a different answer than expected—disillusionment begins to set in. Their faith is undermined. We have counter-evangelized.
I want our young Christians to know that they don’t need any special formulas to be heard by God. Jesus taught us otherwise: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8). I want them to recognize prayer as Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman did, as a loving act where cor ad cor loquitur—heart speaks to heart. Finally, I want them to know that God always hears, but sometimes says no, or not yet, or I’ll give you something better. Sometimes God leaves us feeling unheard and unanswered, giving us a dark night of the soul as St. John of the Cross taught.
A retired bishop recently preached that in these moments when God says no we are most like Christ, who prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39) and who, ultimately, in absolute trust, accepted God’s “No,” and prayed, “Thy will be done” (Matthew 26:42). We are also most like Christ when we feel the dryness of prayers seemingly unanswered and a God who seems absent, silent, or uncaring. Jesus felt utterly abandoned on the Cross and cried out, “My God, My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Teaching effectively about prayer is essential for passing on our faith. It is also much more complicated, but far richer, than simply leaving nine copies of an unfailing prayer in the pews of a church.