Prayer Is Not Magic

“I prayed, but nothing happened.”

How often have we heard these words?  Maybe they came from someone in an argument about faith.  Maybe they came from a child trying to understand God’s plan.  Or maybe these words came from ourselves as we struggled with our faith.

We are often told about the power of prayer.  Christ told us to pray all the time.  He said that by prayer and fasting, demons could be expelled and miracles could occur.  And to be sure we can find stories of miraculous events occurring because of the power of prayer.

So why doesn’t it work all the time?  I mean, Jesus said that whatever I ask for in His Name, the Father will give me.  I once asked in Jesus’ name that a girl I liked in college would date me.  She didn’t.  So what the heck?

And I know that was a silly example.  Sometimes we ask for the health of a loved one or the return of a child to the faith.  Sometimes we pray for signs of God’s existence seem to go unanswered.  

Couldn’t God answer all of these prayers with His miraculous power?  Every time I ask for health, couldn’t God cure me?  

The answer, of course, is yes.

So why doesn’t God do it? If prayer really has power, then why doesn’t it work all the time?

The simplest answer is this: prayer is not magic.

In the Acts of the Apostles, a magician named Simon saw the miraculous power that the Apostles could display by the Holy Spirit.

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” (Acts 8:18-23)

What was so wrong about Simon’s words?  The problem was that he thought the Holy Spirit was magic.  Magic is the manipulation of the divine elements of life to work about our own will.  People cast love spells to win the affection of others.  Others use Tarot cards to break open the mysteries of the future.  And some others commune with darker forces to fulfill their hearts’ desires.

Magic commands.  If you recite the formula and cast the spell, then the expected result should occur.  In that way, magic is very much like technology

When I press the button on my remote control, I expect the result is that the channel on my TV changes.  My actions manipulate the actions of something else. 

Dr. Peter Kreeft often points out that at the same time Enlightenment Europe was developing greater technology through the scientific method it was also heavy into magic and alchemy. 

Both technology and magic have the same end, which is manipulating something to our will.  The only difference between the two is that we’ve found that technology tends to work and magic not so much.

But prayer is not like that.  Even petition prayer, where we ask for things, is not about manipulation.  Prayer isn’t is a command.

Prayer is a request.

Let’s say that my remote control is not working and my wife is near the television.  I would not say “Woman!  Change the channel now!”  (At this point every husband reading this is cringing while imagining what would happen if he said that to his wife.) Instead, I would say, “Dear, could you please change the channel for me?”  

Prayer is the main way that we enter into relationship with God.  I know some people who say, “I don’t ask for anything from God because He already knows what I need.”  This is true, but that misses the point.  We pray for what we need to remind ourselves that we are in a constant state of need. 

We are poor in spirit.  We are beggars constantly asking for what we need.  Without God, we starve.  

Like Christ, all of our petition prayer is done with the caveat, “Thy will be done.”  We say to God that we do not want our prayers answered affirmatively unless it is what God wants.

When we pray, we ask God for our needs and desires. Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes it is no.  Like any good parent, God will not answer yes to every request of His children.   Jesus says: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for[f] a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  (Luke 11:11-13)

God knows what we need.  And often, it is difficult to see why He wouldn’t say yes to something that seems so good and desirable to us.  But if He really is more loving and wiser than we are, we have to trust.

The main difference between prayer and magic is what is manipulated.  In the movie Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis constantly prays for his dying wife.  Someone comments on how admirable his prayers are.  He replies, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”

Simon Magus wanted to change God.  Prayer means allowing God to change us. 

Could you imagine a world where every time we prayed the right prayer, our request was fulfilled?   It would turn prayer into another technology.  Our relationship with God would be a cold economy of prayer in exchange for miracles.  But that is not what God wants from us and that is not what is good for us.

God wants lovers, not sycophants.  He wants children, not slaves.

He doesn’t want to be our genie.

He wants to be our Father.

Copyright 2014, W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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