Monday, December 4, 2006

Commanding versus Begging

If I had to pick one message from my personal experience which might be of the most practical help to people who haven’t already discovered it for themselves, it would be, “You’re in charge.”

That sounds unnatural because from the beginning we are encouraged to feel just the opposite. Our parents are in charge, our teachers, our bosses, our government are in charge – not even to mention the buffetings of “fate” and “chance” which knock us here and there. Even in an apparently equal friendship or marriage one of the pair usually seems more “in charge” than the other, and not because either person intends it or is even conscious of it.

For now I’m going to address how “You’re in charge” relates to prayer.

My religious indoctrination was in the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Florida. There was a great deal of bowing down and begging in prayers, which occured from the beginning of Sunday School to the end of the main service. There was even a small clique of creaky men in the “Amen Corner” in some front pews who didn’t feel that Preacher McCall’s long prayers were sufficient in length or in pleas for forgiveness or in reminders of the threat of damnation, and my child’s heart sank when one of those old scarecrows rose to address the Lord because I knew it would take at least ten minutes for the Lord to be fully informed of what presumably He knew in the first place. Meanwhile I would start a counter-prayer to make the Amen Corner's prayer shorter.

I learned that the purpose of prayer was to ask God for things, usually a long list of things, and to thank God for giving you things that you had asked for before. God apparently didn’t have a very good memory because every Sunday he had to be reminded again to bless and guide the church, the entire congregation, our missionaries, the Southern Baptist Convention, our President, our House of Representatives, our Senate, and of course to open the hearts of the heathens to salvation.

I noted that something like this was going on all over the world, all the time. How could God possibly pay attention to those millions upon millions of requests, and how did He decide which favors to grant?

I paid a lot of attention to prayer, and I prayed a lot myself, and after years I was forced to recognize that prayer did not work. Prayer as I’d learned it simply did not accomplish its purpose. A whole congregation praying for Brother Jones’ swift recovery resulted in his promptly dying. Hurricanes and tsunamis and bombs destroyed churches filled with people praying for divine deliverance. My prayers for material things proved less effective than my Santa Claus wish list.

To make it worse, it seemed that in prayer contests between conflicting nations and their armies, the side of justice lost the war at least as often as the unjust. I knew that many prayers surrounded sports events, but someone always lost.

Then, one day, it came to me: Don’t ask. Command.

I was on an ocean liner returning alone from Europe, looking forward to the voyage and the delicious food, when I was suddenly hit with all the symptoms of flu. Here I am, eager for the joys of the ocean and a reunion on the far shore, and I’m sentenced to at least a week of misery. For the first hour of fever and weakness I could hardly bring myself to stand up, but as I thought about all that I would miss -- not least the midnight buffets -- I became irrationally defiant.

I sat up and began to give orders to my body. Instead of praying to Somebody out there, I commanded all the cells of my body to bring an immediate cure. I ordered that the fever be gone, all the symptoms be gone, and that I be healthy and filled with energy.

Within minutes those things were true. Incredibly the illness lifted like fog giving way to bright sun. I felt wonderful relief. I was soon walking happily and gratefully on the deck looking forward to dinner. I was entirely well.

(I think it helped that I also tried to identify what might be going on below the surface of my mind to cause an illness. I identified something touchy I was worrying about which would need resolving after I disembarked. I didn’t need to try to get rid of it. Just recognizing it as a possible cause of illness was enough. Seeing it bob to the surface sapped its harmful power.)

Since then I have believed that an impulse to beg God for anything should be handled by strong commands rather than beseeching prayer. I now see each of us as a kind of lens which can focus the infinite power of the Source, of God, to satisfy a particular desire – whether it be for health, for love, for a job, for a home, or for safety from some catastrophe.

There is a lot more to be said on this subject, particularly because many people feel that at times an important “beseeching” prayer actually has been answered, but for now I want to conclude with a story that confirms my belief.

During the tsunami of the day after Christmas, 2004, which took thousands of lives, there must have been thousands of unfulfilled prayers offered up. But one man, a minister, tells of his experience as he was strove to escape the tsunami waves in a small boat with children from his orphanage: Instead of kneeling down and praying, he held up his arms and commanded in the name of his God, in a spirit of determination and strong confidence. . .

“With every second, the wall of sea-water came closer and closer. Something miraculous had to happen if we were going to get out of this alive. It was at that moment, faced with certain death, that a Scripture verse from the Bible popped into my mind.
And I just stretched my hands and I said (based on the strength of the Scriptures where it says that when the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall raise up a standard against it), ‘I command you [wave] in the name of Jesus, stop!'

“The wall of water that was seconds away from engulfing us began to slow down. It became sluggish, it was straining against what I thought at the moment was some invisible wall. It was trying to break free, but something was holding it back. The only force or power that could have stopped it was the power of God. And God, with His power slowed it down and stopped the wave for us, and gave us the time to get away."

Witnesses from a distance confirmed the story.


  1. Perhaps "prayer" is actually simply acknowledging the Source and Its power, and seeking to align onesself with that.

  2. I believe you have touched on some very important truths in this post.