Monday, August 7, 2017

Taking a Gamble on Prayer

I don’t know about you, but most of my prayers are not answered in the way I want. Maybe this is just evidence that I don’t know much about prayer. We’re sometimes told that if we have the Spirit with us, it will teach us what to pray for. Then we’ll pray for only those things that God wants us to have. But that seems to defeat the purpose of prayer. If I pray for only what God wants to give me, then where’s agency? Are we just supposed to go mute in the face of terrible needs that only God can satisfy but refuses to? No, I don’t buy that approach to prayer. In the Book of Mormon, Amulek tells us to pray for everything under the sun—your flocks and fields and crops, your household, even your situation with your enemies (Alma 34:18–27). He doesn’t say to just pray for prosperity if God tells you to pray for prosperity. No, you’re supposed to pray that your crops and flocks will increase (maybe today that would be our salaries and stocks). So I’ll just go right on praying for lots of things God apparently doesn’t want to give me.
On the Zelophehad’s Daughters blog, Ziff has recently posted his confession that he doesn’t believe in a God who intervenes in daily life. This caught me off-guard at first glance. But he posits that every faith-promoting story is also a faith-destroying story, because for every miracle someone claims, “multitudes of other people have faced the same conflict and have not gotten the same miraculous resolution.” How do we reconcile that? I think I’d have to agree with his statement, but I’m not sure I agree that God doesn’t intervene at all in daily life. I do believe in occasional miracles. For every miracle healing I’ve seen, though, there have been dozens of similar cases where God has seemingly turned a deaf ear to the prayers of not just the afflicted, but also his or her family, friends, and fellow ward and stake members. And it’s not a matter of faith. Faith seems to play no role at all in the outcome.
Don lived in our ward until a few years ago. He was miraculously cured of cancer after priesthood blessings and chemo. There’s really no way he should have lived, but he did. And he’s still alive and kicking almost twenty years later. He insisted that everyone could be likewise healed if they just had faith. I disagree. We’ve had other members of our ward whose faith was every bit as strong as Don’s, who also received priesthood blessings, whose family members prayed with great faith, and who had what they felt were spiritual confirmations that they would be healed. But they are dead. Their prayers were not answered the way they were sure they would be. Same with my dentist, who was in a stake presidency and was one of the finest men I’ve known. But he too is dead, after an excruciating and expensive battle with a horrible form of cancer—despite great faith, priesthood blessings, ward fasts, and what he took as spiritual assurances that he would be healed.
In my own life, for every rare instance where I feel my prayer has been answered, there have been hundreds of other instances where my equally desperate pleas have bounced off the ceiling and faded into oblivion. This can be perplexing.
I once read a statement that I just can’t get out of my head: “God is more like a slot machine than a vending machine.” You can find this bit of wisdom in various Christian books and websites. I’m pretty sure I came across it in a Dialogue article. I have to admit that the longer I live, the more I agree with it. Sure, it sounds a bit sacrilegious, but it comes as close to explaining my observations of God’s interactions with his children as anything I’ve seen.
Let’s look a bit more closely, though. God is certainly not like a vending machine, where you insert your money, push a button, and out comes the candy bar or sandwich or soda of your choice. Now, Don claims that for his stepmother God was indeed like a vending machine. He claimed her prayers were always answered, often in bizarre and improbable ways. Once, for instance, when she and Don’s dad were driving to Alaska, they blew out a tire on a stretch of highway some 200 miles from the nearest town. They had already used the spare, so they were rather stuck. Of course, Don’s stepmother prayed and asked for help. Don’s father, meanwhile, had to take a leak, so he wandered off through trees on the side of the road to find a more secluded spot. On his trek through the undergrowth, he literally stumbled over something. Lo and behold, it was a tire on a rim that exactly fit their truck. It was even inflated. Don claimed this was just par for the course for his stepmom. I am a bit skeptical. For most of us, prayer is not at all like a vending machine.
But what about the slot machine analogy. The more I consider it, the more I like it. Slot machines do actually operate on random chance, to a degree. The spin of the wheels (which nowadays are usually not wheels at all but computer-generated images, is random, sort of. What comes up on each spin is based on a random number generator, but the house can determine the frequency at which each image will appear. It’s all based on probability theory. So, with relatively high accuracy, the casino knows how much money its slots will pay out, even though there’s no way to tell when it will happen. Over time, of course, the payout is always far less than the money being fed into the slots. This is why they are so profitable.
Well, what about God? I suppose that even though answers to prayers may look fairly random to us, they really aren’t. Just as nobody outside casino management sees the par sheet that determines slot machine payout, we are also not privy to whatever algorithm God may use to determine which prayers get answered and which don’t. There are obviously a lot of factors in the equation that determines when a prayer is answered. And understanding these factors is far above our pay grade.
For me, this makes faith in God a rather severe challenge. It’s hard to exercise faith when you know that the odds of having your prayer answered are rather slim. I’m at heart an idealist. But when reality keeps blowing holes in your idealism, the common result is cynicism. I have made the observation before, for instance, that God protects his missionaries . . . except when he doesn’t. I saw this firsthand, since two of my fellow missionaries in Hamburg died while I was there, one from a brain aneurysm, the other from being hit by a car. You can make a similar observation for almost every aspect of our dealings with God. There are always exceptions to blanket statements, sometimes thousands of exceptions. And we don’t get to see God’s par sheet.
Last month I took a little vacation to San Diego. My wife, our second son, and I drove there from our home in Orem. We stopped overnight in Mesquite, Nevada, and I decided to try an experiment. We wandered into the casino. I hadn’t played the slots since I was a kid. My, things have changed. The one-armed bandits still have a lever that spins the wheel, although this could just as easily be accomplished with the push of a button or the touch of a screen. The slots have changed too. They no longer accept quarters or nickels. They’ll take your credit card now, a marvelously efficient way of transferring your money to the casino. But they’ll also take federal reserve notes. So my son and I each spent a dollar on this experiment. Troy struck out on his four spins (we were at the quarter machines that don’t accept quarters). On my third spin, I struck it rich. It’s not like it used to be, though. No coins come clattering out of the machine. No, the machine just notifies you that you have received a credit. In my case, I received a credit for one extra spin. Whoopee! So I got five spins for my dollar. And the casino still got two dollars.
My experiment was to see if the slot machine would be any more profitable than my prayers. And, actually, one in five is probably a lot better than my “winning percentage” with prayer. I’m pretty sure, though, that if I’d been more adventurous in Mesquite, my percentage would have dropped to the house average.
I’ve often wondered why some people burn a lot of money playing the slots. Maybe they don’t really expect to win. Maybe they’re like my old business partner, Rich. We went to a trade show in Reno one year, and he wanted to play 21. He took one $20 bill with him, and I went along to watch. For Rich, it wasn’t about trying to get rich. He was already Rich. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) For him, it was just entertainment, like going to a movie. My entertainment was watching him lose money. He allotted $20 for the evening. His entertainment was to see how long he could make that $20 last. As I recall, it didn’t last long. Maybe that’s how some diehard slot players see it. It’s just entertainment, and they don’t expect to win. But somehow I don’t think so. I suspect most are hoping for that rare payout—hitting the jackpot.
I also wonder how often my prayers are based on just such a hope. I must admit that I have hit the jackpot a couple of times in my life—at least I believe so. But my winning percentage isn’t very good. And I’ve never known whether it was my prayer that brought about the “win” or whether it would have happened anyway without prayer. Whatever the case, I suppose I’ll keep on dropping quarters and pulling the lever. You never know what might happen.

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