Superstitious prayers

February 28, 2011

Recently I've been suffering a medical ailment. It's nothing life-threatening, but it's serious enough to have required multiple visits to doctors and nurses and even one trip to the emergency room.

On the trip to the emergency room I got ushered in to see the doctor within five minutes. Knowing that trips to the emergency room—if you aren't dying—usually mean long waits, I was considerably surprised at this and commented on my surprise to the nurse who led me out of the waiting room and into the inner sanctum. "OK, but watch out," she said. "No need to say anything more about it. We've got a good mojo working here tonight, and we don't want to jinx it."

Her remark reminded me of a friend who is a trained medical professional. Battling an intractable case of arthritis in one of her knees, she had resorted to putting a bar of soap in a sock, then sleeping with the socked soap next to her knee. She was confident this lessened the pain in her leg.

Superstition—even in the field of med­icine, that most modern and scientific of en­deavors? May­be I shouldn't be surprised. Superstition is also rife, for instance, in another high stakes and regularly unpredictable line of work, that of professional sports. I got to thinking about how persistent superstition is, how it is not confined to "primitive" backwaters but suffuses our contemporary culture.

In our highly pluralistic society, superstition is not easy to define. One person's superstition may be another person's religion. But for the sake of discussion, let's say that superstition is characterized by techniques and expectations that are not scientifically provable (or falsifiable) and apt to be regarded by many as irrational. Let's add that a superstition is a human attempt to control the uncontrollable, to manipulate chaos and produce a favorable outcome.

If that is the definition, Christians are not at all im­mune to superstition. In fact, when my ailment lingered for more than two weeks, I was tempted to pray superstitiously. I found myself wondering if I might get better if I asked more people to pray for me, or maybe if I asked the right person to pray for me. In other words, if I got the ritual just so, I'd be healed, the chaos would be tamed, the unpredictability—and my suffering—would end. That sounds a lot like a superstitious employment of prayer.

Which prompts a bigger question: Is prayer always and simply superstitious? Or is there a difference between faithful prayer and a ritualistic attempt to manipulate God?

Prayer is like superstition in admitting that there are powers bigger than us, powers over which we exercise little or no control. A world totally under human control would be a world without superstition, and it would probably be a world without prayer.

But faithful prayer differs from superstition in that it does not presume control. It petitions God, the power at the center of all that is, while it does not presume on God's "answer" or response. Faith­ful prayer is habitual prayer, prayer that does not occur only in crisis and does not end when a crisis is resolved. Faithful prayer is part and parcel of an ongoing relationship, a lifelong conversation, a prolonged attempt not to control God but to discern God's presence and activity in all that befalls us—the good and the bad, the desired and the undesirable. So there may be no atheists in foxholes, but prayers offered only in foxholes are superstitious prayers.

To put this another way, faithful prayer is first of all about finding and placing ourselves in God's story, and God's story is about the re­demption of the world. My prayers are too small if they focus on me. Secondarily, though importantly, prayer is about our personal, individual needs and desires. If this is so, faithful prayer certainly may ask for healing, but it does not ask only for healing. It seeks wisdom to see how Christ is reflected in circumstances—and not just a triumphal Christ but a suffering Christ, a Christ who underwent pain and want before he at­tained glory. Faithful prayer, then, asks not merely for healing but for patience and discernment and continuing faith­fulness.

By comparison, a superstitious act is easy and in­stan­taneous. It doesn't take a lot of effort to toss salt over a shoulder or nail a horseshoe above a door. And we succumb or submit ourselves to superstitious behavior only when and so long as we think it will get us what we want, sooner or later, and preferably sooner.

As of this writing, I remain visited by my ailment. A successful and healing resolution, thank God, appears likely. Not imminently, though. At the least I will have to learn more about patience and humility, as well as my own very human vulnerability. If I could choose between prayer and superstition, I'm sometimes tempted to choose superstition. Faith­ful prayer is work and not always immediately satisfying. God give me—God give us—the strength not to submit to superstition but to continue in the work of true prayer, the very work for which we were made.


Supertitious prayers

I think we just follow the biblical injunctions on prayer. Paul teaches: Php 4:6, GNB: "Don't worry about anything, but in all your prayers ask God for what you need, always asking him with a thankful heart." Mat 9:12, GNB: "Jesus heard them and answered, "People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick." 1Ti 5:23, ESV: "(No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.)"

Prayer and work must go together hand in hand; ora et labora. If medical science no longer offers any help. What else can be done for the patient? Isn't it better to pray for the various needs of the body and soul of the patient and the same time to give thanks to God. Prayer and praise are effective in helping the patient. Don't rule out the possibility that God also works in misterious ways. The holy baptism and the holy communion/eucharist prove that he does.
Robert Tan

Superstitious prayers

To some extent I think of prayer as existing along a continuum beginning at 1) not knowing God and continuing to 2) the deep and faithful prayer you described. One way to think of this continuum is that it begins when a small child doesn’t really know God but mimics her parents mealtime prayer of blessing and continues until she is a mature Christian with a deep and meaningful prayer life. I believe that God is central to our ability to grow along this continuum from immature to faithful prayer.

I am nohave learned much from those who pray what could be described as “superstitious prayers.” More importantly, I think God can and does hear these prayers. Paul teaches us in Romans 8 that “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.”

In the end, I find blessings both in prayers that meet a high theological standard and the prayers I have heard prayed by sincere Christians whose theological training was limited.

L. Morrow

Thank you for this important

Thank you for this important and insighful article. I have thought much about this topic and have been troubled by superstitious prayer, especially when I find it coming from myself. Prayer, as you say, is about having a relationship with God. It is not about quick fixes. As a Lutheran, I am drawn deeply to the theology of the Cross. As Christians, we are all led to the Cross in some way and at some times in our lives. Our faith is not in believing that we are saved from the Cross, but in holding on to the promise of the Resurrection and in trusting that the Cross does not have the last word. I so appreciated your article. We need to hear its message over and over.


Thanks for that. It is a good reminder. I need to trust more and pray less!

From Atheists in Foxholes

There are of course atheists in foxholes - .
You do make the good point that a 'scared atheist' who is praying only through fear is no Christian with a personal relationship. I've never really met an atheist scared into religion.
It's no different than an 'angry Chrsitian'. I don't think I've met one but the analogy is that a Christian who is angry at god isn't really atheist, at least not by that reason alone. That might be a spark to investigate though.
Even as an atheist, I would tell an angry Christian to go to Church to resolve their issues first, just as a Christian should tell a scared atheist that fear isn't faith.

Rodney - get well soon. Follow doctors orders and beware the quackery. And if prayer gives you comfort, then by all means...

Prayer is superstition

It's sad that in this day and age where we've abandoned most superstitions as quaint beliefs by primitive cultures, prayer is still widely believed to have some effect.  There is ZERO evidence that prayer has any effect, and hundreds of studies showing that it has none.  Of course, this should be obvious even without scientific studies since religious people don't heal from diseases, get divorced less, etc. compared with non-religious people.

True Prayer vs Political Prayer

The distinction between faithful prayer and superstitious prayer is like the distinction between angels wearing blue dresses and angels wearing tennis outfits. The essence of prayer is speaking to a supernatural being . Any supernatural being will do; take your pick. A lot of people pick Allah. Even more people pick God. God's story is about political power. Take your pick: The Holy Roman Empire or Israel or Iran. Thomas Jefferson understood this. He prevented the Church of England from becoming the state church of the United States. Religions are political systems. They always go after political power. The Religious Right Wing fights in perpetuity to put their supernatural being into the public school system. Then the children can pray to it. This is political prayer. The object is to indoctrinate cullible, young children via inculcating them with the belief in the Right Wing's supernatural being. Prayer is a political issue. If prayer were only personal then it would not be an issue in the public school system. God give us strength enough to keep the supernatural out of our public school system.