What are Prayers Good For?

The act of praying is treated with derision by many. A common example is after mass shootings in the US. Religious folk often use the phrase “thoughts and prayers”. Secular folk will mock them for using (supposedly useless) prayers as a substitute for taking meaningful action.

Let’s re-assess though. What are prayers for?

As part of my quest to unify Science, Religion and Spirituality, I’m going to hypothesise that prayers may have some kind of positive function, though perhaps most of us don’t fully understand it.

It doesn’t make sense to me that so many humans, worldwide and as a species, would bother to pray if doing so conferred zero utility (benefit). Humans generally don’t like to waste their time and energy like that.

The first idea that occurred to me is about praying to put events into God’s hands. What function could that serve? Well, I believe it has a very important one.

If you look at Stoic philosophy, there’s a strong focus on what’s within one’s locus of control. In other words, we really only have control over our own thoughts, feelings and behaviour. External circumstances are often outside of our control. We can’t always force a certain outcome to occur because there are so many variables outside of our control.

This is why I feel that a good general approach to life is to do your best, but let go of your need to control the outcome. This is the spiritual principle of Acceptance (or Love). And it’s extremely powerful.

If there was a medication which could minimise depression, anxiety, worry and stress within a matter of a few minutes, everyone would want to be taking it, all the time! And yet, that’s the power of Acceptance.

It releases us from our need to control events outside of ourselves. And by doing so, it releases us from any emotional prisons we’ve wandered into.

NOTE: There’s often a misunderstanding about Acceptance. It is very much NOT about being passive, falling into a heap on the floor, allowing the world to kick you while you’re down, becoming a helpless victim.

I re-iterate, Acceptance is about doing the best you can, and then letting go of your need to control the outcome.

Doing this can bring a tremendous sense of peace.

For example, think about job interviews. You can give them your absolute best, but still not get the job. Sometimes there’s a candidate who beats you by just a tiny margin. You couldn’t control that (other than assassinating all other candidates before the interview!) And so it doesn’t make sense to beat yourself up for “failing” when you know you did your best. So instead, you just Accept the outcome, even though it’s not what you wanted.

This is why I included Acceptance/Love on the second version of my Tidy Your Room diagram. To do our best at taking personal responsibility and improving our lives, we need to attend to our psychological well-being. Acceptance is a great way to do this.

So, how does this relate to prayer?

Well, how do you feel after a mass shooting? Quite possibly any or all of the following: deep sadness, sick to your stomach, anger, frustration, helplessness.

Or maybe you’re just numb to it all because it seems to happen so often and yet nothing seems to change at a societal level.

These feelings, whilst understandable, can be psychologically debilitating if they go on for too long.

The truth is, for most of us, there’s very little we can do to directly affect the chances of a mass shooting happening in future.

Maybe we could vote differently (assuming we believe that would help). Maybe we could donate to relevant charities to help the victims. Maybe we could hold a protest. But, unless we happen to be a US Senator, there isn’t really that much we can realistically do.

Except, we can also pray.

God, please care for the victims of today’s tragedy. Please bring them comfort in their time of need. And I pray that such a thing doesn’t happen in my own community. I leave all this up to Your Will, my God.

The act of prayer hands over responsibility for a situation to God (or a higher power, or Fate/Destiny). [EDIT: Again, this is NOT an excuse for inaction. We should still be courageous and do what we can to make things better. Only then then should we hand over responsibility to a Higher Power.]

Praying like this is tremendously liberating from a psychological perspective. It allows us to function normally again. (See the Serenity Prayer a bit further down in this post).

I take the position that we need to look after our own mental health first, otherwise we’re no use to other people. Looking after yourself is definitely not selfish. It’s the first step to being able to help others effectively.

And, it seems to me, that prayer is an effective way of re-centering ourselves psychologically. It removes the burdens of stress, sadness and worry from us. It allows us to return our focus to the things which are within our direct control.

I’m really not sure if there actually is a divine being up in the clouds who can intervene on our behalf. But I think praying to Him serves a useful function.

Maybe prayer is a powerful way to bring ourselves to a place of Acceptance.

Bollinger, R. 2019

Of course, there are people who use prayers merely as virtue signalling – “Look at me, aren’t I such a good Christian person [smug smile].” But, I think that’s probably only a minority.

We also pray as part of the 12 Steps for addicts. It’s very far from useless. I feel it serves a similar function to that in mass shootings. It reduces guilt, fear, depression, shame, anxiety, worry, stress. It re-centers us, gets us back on an even keel, heals our hearts. Using Acceptance, it brings us back to a place where we can take full responsibility for ourselves again.

The Serenity Prayer

“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

So, again, be open-minded.

Just because something may strike you as useless, pious, weak, like an excuse for inaction… that doesn’t mean it really is.

Challenge your assumptions. Look beyond your prejudices and biases.

Assume the best of other people. We’re all human, we’re all doing our best, we’re all imperfect and we all make mistakes.

Focus on our similarities, not our differences (another important lesson from 12 Steps).

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