By David Jones
A friend of mine once asked me if I thought praying to God worked. I said I did.
He asked because a girl he’d met said she didn’t because she never got what she prayed for. I said she drew her conclusion because her expectations about God and prayer weren’t met. We do that a lot in life.
For example, some folks sour on meditation because they do it for a little while and don’t achieve what they imagine they should—no deep insight, no profound experience, no permanent end to anxiety or sudden awakening to sublime peace. Just sitting quietly and wondering why the meditation isn’t giving them what it’s supposed to.
Like meditation, our expectations of prayer help define our experience of it.
God may not be made in man’s image, but He is certainly defined by man’s expectations. As each person has different expectations, they will also have different experiences. And if one relies on those expectations too heavily, the reality of the experience will probably be pretty disappointing.
If my boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t turn out to be what I wanted or expected, is that really their fault? If I have a family, a career, a mortgage and a best-selling book but don’t feel fulfilled or satisfied or happy, did every one of those things fail me?
If I think of God as a cross between Aladdin’s genie and Santa Claus, existing just to grant my every whim, then yeah…prayer is going to be a whole bunch of nothing.
Is that God’s fault? Does it prove that prayer is an ineffectual delusion? Or maybe, just maybe, does it simply prove that I have unrealistic expectations about some things?
An example of this at work comes from the life of the prophet Elijah told in 1 Kings chapter 19, probably my favorite account in the Bible.
Here’s the scene: Israel has a misbehaving king. Prophets have been doing their job (not foretelling the future but telling truth to power) and it has gotten all of them killed except Elijah… and he’s on King Ahab’s most-wanted list. Where is the powerful God of Israel during all of this? The one who flooded the world and microwaved Sodom and created… like, everything?
Elijah just throws his hands up and tells God he quits. “God’s not getting involved, and this job’s going to get me killed just like everyone else. I’m done! Elijah out!” He eventually makes it to Mount Horeb, a holy place. He finds a cave, curls up in a fetal position, and falls into a vision-state.
A voice asks him what’s wrong, and Elijah explains. So the voice tells him to go to the cave opening because God Himself is about to show up. Here’s what happens:
“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)
Elijah got to witness that awesome destructive power but God was never present in those demonstrations. They were reminders that power wasn’t the point—God was in the whisper.
It’s almost like He enjoys subverting expectations we have of Him.
Scientists know the importance of keeping your bias out of your experiments as much as possible. Your expectations may or may not affect the outcome of the experiment, but they’ll definitely color your interpretation of the results.
Whether we think something works or not often depends on what we think it’s supposed to do. If it doesn’t meet our expectations, it’s easy to think it doesn’t work. That can be true for a medical treatment, a job, a relationship, a movie plot, prayer, meditation, an investment plan or pretty much anything else.
Life isn’t one-experience-fits-all.
Maybe something doesn’t work. Maybe it works just fine. Maybe it works for others but not for me. Maybe it works but not the way I want it to. Mindful consideration helps us learn the difference, and that’s a path of growth and wisdom.
Editor: Dana Gornall