Paul Ryan believes in prayer so much that on April 15 he forced the House chaplain to resign. Ryan has not given a reason for the dismissal, but many are pointing to a prayer Father Patrick Conroy offered while lawmakers were considering tax reform. The priest prayed that lawmakers would “be mindful” of economic disparities and those “who continue to struggle.” Ryan’s concern is surprising as the prayer clearly did not work.
Every once in a while scientists who cannot raise money for real research get stuck doing a study on how prayer works. Non-believers argue that wishful thinking is not a suitable subject for scientific investigation. Believers argue that the results of prayer are not easily measured.
The outcome of these studies tend to reflect the desires of whoever paid for the research. Religious researchers often find that praying for another’s well-being reduces one’s own anxiety. Non-religious researchers point out that prayers for healing are no guarantee that healing will occur.
The scientific study of prayer focuses on the things for which people most often pray — health concerns, financial difficulties, or societal problems — but the prayers we do not pray are the best evidence that prayer works.
Hunger is a subject about which we do not pray. After Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give it to the poor, we can be fairly certain that young man did not go home and pray about it.
We are careful not to pray seriously for the homeless. We find it awkward to pray for people who have no home when we have a guest room.
If we have ever given a gift to a charity, then we do not pray about our mail, because most days we get a request for money. Most are worthy causes — the Christian Children’s Fund, Habitat for Humanity, Mothers against Drunk Driving, Bread for the World, Alzheimer’s research. The message on the envelopes from Amnesty International reads, “You can help stop torture.” If we pray over that envelope we have to write a check.
There are so many situations in which we will not pray. Your boss tells a sexist joke. You know it is evil and wish someone would point it out, but do you really want to pray, “God, what should I do? Should I challenge my boss who might not take kindly to my helpful words of correction?”
We have been praying about gun violence, but we are careful. If you want gun control it is hard to pray honestly about the sense of moral superiority that may be taking up residence in your heart. If you are a Second Amendment person it is hard to pray honestly for innocent children who are dying. If we pray seriously about gun violence, we will do more than wait around for the next election.
We do not want to pray about our careers. Does the senior pre-law major want to pray about whether God would like for her to be a social worker? Does the successful businessperson want to ask God if a lower paying job might make more of a contribution to the world?
We are careful about praying for people we do not like. When Jesus said, “Pray for your enemies” he was inviting us to the kind of prayer that will lead us to say something kind that we do not want to say.
Prayers should come with warnings. Do not pray about the school system. You may end up tutoring second graders. Do not pray about human trafficking. You may end up paying for much-needed supplies for victims. Do not pray about racial justice. You may end up working on bail reform.
We like what we have — especially the vices we have gotten used to. We do not pray about our addictions — eating too much, drinking too much, or spending too much. St. Augustine prayed, “God, give me chastity, but not yet.”
Most of us, including Paul Ryan, understand that critiquing prayer is easier than truly praying. We do not avoid praying because our prayers go unanswered. We avoid praying because we are afraid our prayers will be answered. The proof that prayer works is the way we choose a life given to comfort over a life given in prayer.