Bobby Knight, who won three NCAA national championships as basketball coach of the Indiana Hoosiers, was once asked why he never led his teams in prayer before games. "I'll tell you what," he replied. "I watched the guy that hits a home run, and he comes across the plate, and he points skyward, like thanking the Almighty for the help to hit the home run. And as he does that, I say to myself, 'God screwed the pitcher.' And I don't know how else you look at it."*
Abraham Lincoln expressed similar sentiments – albeit much more eloquently and under much graver circumstances – in his Second Inaugural Address. With a long and bloody war winding down, he might have been expected to indulge in a bit of chest thumping at the impending defeat of the Confederacy. Instead, he called into question the whole notion that God was on the Union side or anyone’s side, even though the North was fighting to abolish slavery. Both sides, Lincoln said, “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” He added, “The prayers of both could not be answered.” Lest Northerners think the outcome somehow vindicated the justness of their cause, Lincoln went on to declare that God “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.”
There is something deeply disquieting about the view that God takes sides, whether on the ball field or, even worse, on the field of battle. If we win, it somehow means God loves us and not our opponents -- and if we lose, then what? As a parent, we don’t play favorites with our own children -- or shouldn't. Why would we pray that God would do so with his? Yes, we want to win. Our cause may even be just, as such things are reckoned. But who can we presume to understand God’s purposes in such matters? “The Almighty has his own purposes,” Lincoln concluded after four years of unimaginable carnage on both sides.
I have lived through many wars, and the outcome is almost never as clear-cut as their proponents would have us believe. We’ve lost wars (Vietnam) and fought others to a bloody stalemate (Korea). And even the wars we have won decisively, like the first Gulf War, merely served as the prelude to another war against Saddam Hussein that arguably shouldn’t have been fought at all. This is not to suggest that all wars are bad or avoidable, merely that we should hesitate before invoking God’s aid against the other side.
For years I wrestled with the broader question of whether invoking God’s aid in any undertaking is justified. If God is on our side, if he truly loves us, then he would want good things for us and will do what we ask – or so we’d like to believe. Not long ago I saw a demonstration of this kind of thinking when my granddaughter lost her first tooth and wrote a letter to the tooth fairy asking for $100. My granddaughter had an excuse: she was only six. But many people apparently never outgrow the notion that God is the tooth fairy writ large. Their prayers are essentially a wish list. Or they become fearful about some unfavorable circumstance in their lives or in the lives of their friends and relations, and they pray that God will intervene. Greed and fear undergird much prayer.
It is true, of course, that we have real needs and that we sometimes face circumstances that make us afraid. There is no sense pretending otherwise, no matter how much faith we think we have. As I have gotten older, however, I have learned to relax a bit about the inevitable vicissitudes in life. I don’t pray for a home run when I am in the batter’s box, and I don’t think God is screwing me if I strike out. I tend to think batting practice, rather than prayer, is the answer to poor hitting.
I am mindful of what Jesus once said about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, in which he criticized those who “heap up empty phrases,” thinking “they will be heard for their many words.” As far as Jesus was concerned, the less said the better, for “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Lest there be any doubt on that score, he went on to say, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
How then should we pray? The example Jesus gave, which we now know as the Lord’s Prayer, seemingly covers every circumstance, no matter which side you are on. There is no mention of any particular outcome, whether good or ill. It implicitly recognizes that the Almighty has his own purposes. Once that is acknowledged, there is not a lot left to say. The prayer is a model of concision; indeed, the heart of it can be expressed in just four words: “Thy will be done.”
Interview with Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, March 2, 2013