Too often we pray as if we were supplicants in the court of the Emerald City, hoping against hope that the Great and Terrible Oz will grant our requests. Our prayers are almost always based on false premises. We confuse wish fulfillment with prayer. Mistaking wants for needs, we pray as if something were lacking. If nothing is lacking, we pray because we’re afraid it soon might be. Much of the time our prayers are nothing but fear addressed to a higher power. Do we imagine that God does not know what we need? And if God granted every request, where would we be? Our favorite team would never lose. We’d always get the girl, find the job, win the lottery. No loved one would ever die. It sounds like heaven until you think about it. In a classic Twilight Zone episode, a gambler dies and goes to a place where he can’t lose. He eventually realizes he’s not in heaven at all but in “the other place.”
Mark Twain, who was unburdened by religious belief, saw the implications only too clearly. “If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time,” he wrote. “If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.” In the midst of America’s bloodiest conflict, Abraham Lincoln observed that God cannot possibly answer the prayers of both sides when each invokes his aid against the other. “The Almighty has His own purposes,” Twain concluded. Indeed.
Our problem comes in thinking that by pious wheedling we can bend his will to our own – or even that we have a will distinct from the will of God. Only theologians well-practiced in the art of the impossible can reconcile the notion of free will with the sovereignty of God. God is God, if there is one – and in which case there can only be one. A rooster may think his crowing causes the sun to rise, but that does not make it so, any more than the earth turns by its own volition. In the end, there is only one God, and there is really only one prayer: Thy will done.
Mark Twain, The War Prayer
Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address