Spirituality, Working With Painful Emotions

Prayer: When We Believe and When We Don’t

I have long been fascinated by prayer.

One reason for this, of course, is because prayer has been an important part of my life in one form or another since I was young.

But I am also interested in prayer for another reason.

Over the years, I have heard stories of people who didn’t really believe in God or weren’t sure if God existed. Nevertheless, in their doubt, they reached out to something, and it seems something reached back to them.

John Wesley and Augustine have stories like this. These men are in the Christian tradition. But there are other stories of people from no religious tradition. Surprisingly, these folks, full of doubt and skepticism, reached out to something and something reached back.[1]

This fascinates me for reasons I will return to shortly.  First, however, a brief autobiography is helpful in a post like this.

An Autobiography of Prayer

I first started taking prayer seriously when I was about eight years old. I grew up in the Quaker tradition and Quakers believe that everyone has an inner light that connects them with God. So, I grew up thinking that connecting with God through prayer was pretty normal.

My early adventures with prayer were both comforting and comical.

For example, there was one time when I was about eight. I was feeling confused and scared about a bully at school, and I prayed to know what to do.

Margaret Alone at Her Spinnig Wheel Frank Cadogan Cowper.jpg

“Margaret Alone at Her Spinning Wheel”, Frank Cowper

The next day, I felt like I had a clear sense of how to act, and I felt more confident about going back to school. This cultivated a firm belief that I still carry with me today that whenever I need wisdom or help, I can pray about it.

And then there was that one time when I was about ten and I was thinking of buying a bike from a neighbor with some of my allowance money.

I wasn’t sure if it was a good purchase. So I prayed to God that if it wasn’t a good purchase, that there would be something wrong with the bike brakes when I test-rode it. (I clearly did not think that prayer through).

And wouldn’t you know it, when I was test-riding the bike, the brakes started having problems. I didn’t buy it. (I still pray for wisdom about financial issues, but I usually word my prayers a little more carefully than I did with that prayer about the bike.)

Now, of course, someone might say that these instances of “answered prayer” were a result of chance or wishful thinking or tricks my psychology was playing on me.

And they very well might be.

Belief in prayer is an expression of faith. And faith means that we don’t really know something with 100% intellectual certainty. It also means, I take it, that we can’t convince other people with 100% certainty through intellectual arguments. (The Apostle writes, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”–Hebrews 11:1).

People have to believe what they think is right about prayer, and I don’t think it is my job (nor is it possible for me) to convince people that prayer works in some way.

Nevertheless, my early adventures in prayer lead me to make it a regular part of my daily practice. And, to be honest, I have often been surprised by how prayer works. It often (although not always) brings me wisdom and comfort, even when I don’t completely understand it.

So what is prayer? And how is that it can be helpful or meaningful even when we don’t know what we are doing or aren’t sure if we believe in prayer?

What Prayer is Not

Let’s imagine for a minute that God actually exists. (Note: While I believe in God, I understand that not all of my readers do.)

If this is the case, do we think that prayer is changing God’s mind and that it convinces Him/Her[2] to give us something S/He was previously unwilling to give us?

The Ascension--Ford Maddox Brown

“The Ascension”, by Ford Madox Brown (I am not certain of this title or artist attribution, as there is conflicting internet information about this painting.)

This is an odd thing to imagine.

All religions portray God as the ultimate loving, wise, powerful, and changeless Source. So, it can’t be that God is somehow stingy or withholding and that prayer changes His/Her mind about giving us good things.

And it also doesn’t seem that prayer can be about us trying to earn God’s favor by using the right words or expressing the right theology. This is how people sometimes portray prayer.

One time, I heard someone scold someone else for using supposedly “incorrect theology” while praying.

It is odd to imagine that God would be offended by someone sincerely reaching out but not quite using “the right words”. This would be like imagining a loving parent getting angry with a child stammering while asking for help.

That doesn’t make sense.

God isn’t some kind Cosmic Scorekeeper, keeping track of who wins the prayer game. And it isn’t like God is insecure and fragile or offended if we don’t totally understand Him/Her.

How could we if God is infinite and perfect? How can finitude comprehend infinity?

And prayer also isn’t some kind of mechanism whereby we get God to give us stuff—like a rubbing a lucky rabbit’s foot or bartering with God. This would suggest that prayer is a kind of trick. God is not the kind of Being that is tricked or the kind of Being that needs our metaphysical trinkets to be happy. (See Plato’s Euthyphro for one of the best explorations of this subject.)

So, if prayer isn’t about changing God’s mind or earning God’s favor with the right words or bartering to get stuff with God, what exactly is prayer?

How Does Prayer Change Us?

One way to think about the answer to this is to consider how exactly prayer helps us, even when we aren’t sure if we believe in God.

An NPR article on prayer suggests that prayer is a way that we get beyond our brain and connect with something larger and better than ourselves.

Morning Prayer by William Holman Hunt

“Morning Prayer”, by William Holman Hunt

This sentiment is echoed in another article by the Washington Post. In this article, a marriage, family and addictions therapist, Dr. Paul Hokemeyer argues that “Prayer and meditation are highly effective in lowering our reactivity to traumatic and negative events. They are powerful because they focus our thoughts on something outside ourselves.”

And this makes sense.

When we pray, we are asking for help, guidance, wisdom, greater love, and compassion. We both know that these emotional capacities and mental states exist. And we also often feel like we are lacking and need more of these good gifts. So in prayer, we reach out to something more than our current selves. We reach out to a Being or a state of consciousness that is larger, greater, and more full of goodness, love, and wisdom.

And this reaching out changes us.

Is Something Reaching Back?

And it is also not surprising that in reaching out to something bigger than ourselves, we find something reaching back.

I have always believed God was reaching back to me when I reached out to Him/Her in prayer. And once again, if we assume God does exist, it makes perfect sense that an all- loving, all-knowing, creative God would continually reach out to His/Her creation.

Divine Love (which is what God most is according to all major religions) delights in joining with and creating more love.

The Prayer by Jean-Leon Gerome

“The Prayer”, by Jean-Leon Gerome

One of my favorite philosophers is Lady Anne Conway who wrote her philosophy as a critique to Descartes. Conway also influenced the philosopher Leibniz. She was a Quaker, and I mention her here because Conway’s philosophy argues that all of creation is permeated by God’s light. (God’s light is perfect love and goodness). This light connects everything and everyone to God. And everyone is yearning to return to God.

Of course, you aren’t required to believe this at all. But I think it is helpful for understanding how prayer works in our life. Prayer acknowledges God’s light in us. And it helps us return to God, with God’s light in us guiding the way. You can read Anne Conway’s philosophy here.

Another View…

But, of course, the idea of a personal Being reaching back to us through prayer may not be helpful to an agnostic or atheist. (And if you are agnostic or atheist, you are certainly welcome at this blog.)

So why is it that even folks who are unsure or firm in their disbelief about God experience healing, transformative, and positive benefits from prayer?

An article in Scientific American suggests that prayer is a kind of social interaction with the universe, a Higher Power (even if people don’t consider this power God) or our Higher Self.

Numerous studies suggest that we function better both cognitively and emotionally when we interact socially with others. So, it makes sense that if prayer is a type of sociality, it strengthens and nourishes our intellect and emotions. And it gives us greater strength and clarity. This would explain why even devout atheists like this man experience significant personal transformation through the practice of prayer.

Why Am I Writing About This?

One of the reasons I write this blog is that I believe in the power of Love to heal and transform our lives. I believe in its power to give us more intellectual and emotional clarity. Sometimes we experience dramatic healing in areas of our lives in a moment, day, or week.

Sometimes, probably more often than not, healing is ongoing, takes a lot of intensive personal work. And some areas of our life may never experience healing in this lifetime.

Grace by Engstrom“Grace”, by Engstrom

Whether healing happens quickly or over a very long period of time or eternity[4], there is no doubt that the more we connect with Love, the more strength we have to continue on our journey towards love and goodness.

Prayer is one profound and beautiful way that people connect with Love. And whether you are religious, spiritual, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, or atheist, I believe prayer is for you, if you desire it.

And it doesn’t matter if you understand prayer or not, have a lot of faith in it or God or not, or use the right words or not. All that matters is that you reach out.


If you would like some prayers or intention to help you pray, you might enjoy these posts.

An Intention or Prayer for Growing in Light and Wisdom

And An Intention or Prayer for Women Everywhere

An Intention or Prayer for the Hopeless

And An Intention or Prayer for Illumination

An Intention or Prayer for Political Healing

You might also like this post:

When Faith Exhausts Us

[1] Some other stories I have run across like this are the story of Helen Shucman and the stories of people who benefit from 12 Step programs even though they are agnostics or atheists. One vivid story like this is of this man who is a devout atheist and also devoutly practices prayer and believes this practice has changed his life.

[2]In my religious tradition, Christianity, the male pronoun has historically been used with God. Lately, I have found it very helpful to meditate on God as our most loving mother, And so I often use the pronoun she with God. Nevertheless, God is certainly beyond gender and is both male and female. (Almost all major religions portray God as such). So I will use both genders together in this post.

[3] For example in the afterlife, And you are still welcome here, even if you don’t believe in the afterlife.

13 thoughts on “Prayer: When We Believe and When We Don’t”

  1. A beautiful piece with some amazing insights. 🙂 I’ve always been a praying person, but how I do so has gone through many transitions as I’ve gotten older. I feel like I still have many unanswered questions, and there are many times when I feel my prayers are hitting a brick wall. Still, I do it because it is a form of meditating and kind of helps keep me calm if nothing else. And underneath it all, I really do believe in God and that he hears and answers in some way or another. Thanks for posting.

    1. M.B., thanks so much for this comment! I have definitely had a similar journey with prayer. I don’t always understand what’s going on, and sometimes I have had some real dry spells with prayer. Nevertheless, it has played a really important role in my life.

  2. You always talk such perfect sense, Shelly. I don’t have a faith, but have taken comfort in ‘breathing in the Earth’s creation’ and very much believe in the healing power of love, and calm reflection. Your post helps me understand prayer, and see what an important part it plays in finding inner wisdom and clarity.

    1. Ali: This comment makes me so happy. Even though faith obviously plays an important role in my life, I have so many friends and colleagues that don’t have a faith, and I respect them so much. I always aim to write about religion and spirituality in a way that makes sense to folks who don’t have faith, too, so thanks for this.

  3. Just another small thought is that prayer is potentially a healthy form of humility in which we recognize our need for wisdom and insight and protection and other good things. Most of the beautiful art work you’ve included here seems to me (though I might be biased) to have that sense of a spiritual humility. Our world is so full of the opposite — of a terrible arrogance, and as Rabbi A J Heschel said – God is everywhere except in arrogance.

    1. Thank you for this comment, Adela. You are so right about humility and prayer. Lately, learning humility has come in the form of me realizing there is always something larger than me that I am connected to.

  4. Hi! Someone in my Myspace group shared this site with us so I came to look it over. I’m definitely loving the information. I’m book-marking and will be tweeting this to my followers! Exceptional blog and amazing style and design.

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