During my evangelical Christian phase, I prayed a lot. And I mean a lot. I’m talking an hour a day on my knees, another hour while I was driving to and from work, and even while I was doing other tasks that didn’t require too much concentration (things washing dishes or folding laundry). There are all sorts of Bible verses that tell us to pray, and Christian ministers repeatedly preach about the importance of prayer, so I was just being obedient (not to mention, prayer is a lot easier than actually going out and helping people).
Around this time I knew a guy (let’s call him “Jay”) who was an atheist. Whenever I spoke to him about Jesus he would quietly listen with an amused look on his face, as if he knew something I didn’t. He always asked annoying questions like “How do you know that?” Eventually it became clear that no amount of preaching was going to convince Jay to accept Christ, so I did what any good Christian would do: I prayed for him.
My prayers for Jay often went something like this: “Lord, please reach down and soften Jay’s heart. Help him to realize he’s a sinner in need of salvation. And if he comes to me for advice, please speak to him through me. Give me the words to lead him to you, so he can be saved. Amen.” There were lots of variations, of course, but that was the gist of it. I really thought if I prayed for him everyday and was sincere enough, the Holy Spirit might nudge him in the right direction.
Then one day a thought occurred to me: “Isn’t it a shame that most atheists don’t have someone praying for them? The atheists that aren’t being prayed for are more likely to go to Hell.” A sort of alarm bell went off in my head. That didn’t seem right. I was already struggling with doubts because of my questions about original sin, so it was hard to contain the other thoughts that arose from this one.
I imagined the following scenario: Let’s say there’s another atheist out there named Joe. He’s heard about Christ just as many times as Jay. In fact, the only difference between them is that unlike Jay, Joe doesn’t have anyone praying for him. At some point God finally answers my prayers and “softens” Jay’s heart, then Jay accepts Christ as his personal savior. The next day, Jay and Joe are both driving to work and they hit each other in a head-on collision. They both die instantly. Jay goes to Heaven, Joe goes to Hell. And the crucial difference between one receiving eternal bliss and the other receiving eternal torment is that one of them had someone praying for him. If Joe stood before God on judgment day, wouldn’t he be right to complain, “It’s not fair. No one prayed for me.”?
I thought about this a lot and couldn’t come up with a way to explain it without making God look unjust, no matter now much I prayed for wisdom. So I quit praying for Jay’s salvation. I still prayed, just not for people to be saved. But this caused me to start questioning why I should pray at all. God was going to do whatever he wanted, anyway.
Have you ever noticed that when Christians get what they pray for they’re quick to praise God, but when they don’t, they say God’s answer was “no” or that he “works in mysterious ways”? How convenient. You could get the same sort of results by praying to Joe Pesci.
And isn’t it interesting how when God does answer prayer, it’s always something that could have happened through pure coincidence? For example, your car breaks down and you need $2000 to fix it, so you pray to God for help. The next day you get an unexpected bonus at work for exactly $2000. Sounds like a miracle, right? Until you find out this sort of thing also happens to nonbelievers. They call it a lucky break.
Here’s another example: Your spouse has cancer and you pray to God to heal him or her. Then at the next doctor appointment you find out the cancer has gone into remission. This is one of the most common “miracles.” But cancer goes into remission on its own all the time. Why can’t God heal something that would never get better on its own, like a lost limb?
Even after realizing all this I still prayed everyday (it’s a tough habit to break), but now I was hedging all my prayers by saying things like, “If it’s in your will” or “If it’s part of your plan.” The more I did this, the more asking for things from God seemed silly. If I asked for things that were already part of God’s divine plan, then my prayers were redundant. If I asked for things that weren’t part of God’s divine plan, then my prayers were futile.
Eventually I quit asking for things when I prayed. It seemed both pointless and selfish. Instead I just talked to God. I figured prayer wasn’t a time to ask for things, but a time to commune with God (although Matthew 21:22 often haunted me while I was trying to pray). So I would talk to him about my day, about my problems, about my hopes and dreams, and so forth. Sometimes it feels good to talk to someone, but talking to God isn’t very satisfying. No matter how much you talk to him, he never replies. I found talking to friends and family was far more productive. They actually offered sympathy and advice.
Gradually I prayed less and less. It took years to stop completely. Even when I identified as an agnostic, after a hard day I would sometimes begin a short prayer with, “God, if you’re there…” Now I can’t even remember the last time I prayed, and I don’t miss it.
For the sake of argument, let’s say I’m wrong about all this. Let’s say God is there and that it’s possible to change his mind by praying to him. After all, the Bible says Abraham did it. Originally, God was only going to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if Abraham could find 50 righteous people living there, but Abraham haggled him down to 10. (Genesis 18:23-33). But then you have to ask, what sort of benevolent God needs convincing to help people?
The truth is, prayer is a waste of time. Every hour spent in prayer is an hour you could have spent reading a book, or spending time with friends and family, or actually going out into the world and helping people yourself. Don’t waste another minute in prayer when life has so much more to offer.