Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Prayer and providence

The post I planned to write today was a list of many issues I have with the faith which I was hoping y'all -- or the Catholics among you -- could shoot down for me.

But I reached one issue that I just can't get past.  Something I haven't believed for a long time.

I don't believe God plans or intervenes in my life.

I was raised to think he does.  My family strongly believes they've been guided by God.  Times we were poor and God provided, when we were facing a financial catastrophe and a check just came in the mail.  That, my parents said, was because they put God first in their finances.  They tithed, and so God made sure they were taken care of.

In boarding school I took this to a kind of ridiculous extreme.  Macaroni and cheese for lunch?  Proof that God loves me.  Broccoli casserole?  Proof that God wants me to sacrifice.  When my spiritual director told me it was God's will for me to go home, I believed her.  I was utterly torn apart and miserable, and I was convinced that God was doing this to me.  I wasn't angry.  I just took it as a sign that I wasn't good enough.  I tried as hard as I could and I couldn't make myself good enough.  But, well, God apparently wanted a different kind of person. 

Yes, as a friend pointed out to me recently, I treated God like an abusive boyfriend.  Like many abused girlfriends, I longed to get back with my "abuser" -- because it would be proof that I was good enough after all.  No one but the one who rejected me (not God here specifically, but Regnum Christi) could prove I was good enough.

Later, when I found out what a cult the whole thing was and how it had manipulated me, I made a new narrative for it.  It was my selfish will that had brought me there.  I wanted it, so I chose it, but I chose badly.  And that of course was because I was manipulated by other people, who were using their free will badly.  Not God's fault.  Not God's doing.  It was hugely reassuring to think that all that pain was not God's doing.

But then my mother told me that she was sure it was God's doing after all.  She hadn't had the money to send me, and then "miraculously" the money showed up, so it had to have been God's plan!

This ... upset me very much.  What kind of lunatic abuser does this to a person on purpose?  Even if it makes them a better person!  Still, why?  Is God's main concern to preserve our faith, to the point that he doesn't mind hurting us?  If so, why did he let me go to a place that destroyed my faith?  It's directly because of going there that I find it so impossible to trust anything!  Maybe half the girls I knew there aren't Catholic anymore.  Some attempted suicide.  Why the HELL would God allow that if he loved us?  I use that term advisedly.  I don't believe God would send people to hell because of damage other people did to them.  But wouldn't the simple answer be not to send them to the place where it happened?

So I don't believe that God works that way.  I can't, because it defies credibility.  Every single thing that happens has a cause.  That cause is one of two things: a person's free will, or the laws of nature.  The laws of nature can only be overridden by a miracle, and free will can't be overridden at all.  So when my parents got a check, that check was written by a person, and that person is the cause.  Not God.  The fact that it lined up with the money my family needed was just coincidence.

I used to explain the free will/laws of nature problem by saying God works in probability.  When there's a 100% chance it's going to rain, it'll rain even if you pray.  But if there's a 50-50 chance, God can make it not rain if he wants to.  And this is how I explained how God is in control of whether you get pregnant or not: there's always some chance involved and so God could just make sure the chance worked the right way.

However, I didn't understand that what we call "chance" is usually just a lack of knowledge.  There are complex causes behind everything, and we call it "chance" because from our point of view, it's not possible to know what will happen.  When we roll a die, there is a reason why it comes up six ... something to do with how you held it in your hand and what rotational force you give it and what air currents were going on at the time.  It's not "chance."  In science it's called chaos.

In the same way, if you don't get pregnant, there is a reason.  It's because you didn't have intercourse during the fertile time or because you aren't ovulating or because your hormone levels are too low or because your husband's sperm aren't healthy or perhaps you did actually conceive but the embryo wasn't viable.  There is a reason, every time.  And in my experience, healthy Catholic women get pregnant at fairly predictable intervals.  We say, loudly, that God chooses when we get pregnant ... and then we say "Why isn't so-and-so pregnant yet, her baby is two already!"  No one really believes that God is preventing them from getting pregnant, they assume that so-and-so doesn't want to get pregnant and is doing something about it.  Meanwhile your infertile friend might be given by doctors a 2% chance of getting pregnant, so God could make it happen if he wanted it, but she doesn't no matter how much she prays.

In my observation, God does not give babies to people who can handle them.  He gives babies to healthy women who have sex with healthy partners.  He gives babies to rape victims, to addicts, to women he knows will have abortions.  He knows who each child will grow up to be, and he allowed some pretty terrible people to get conceived.

Miscarriages just make things worse.  If God plans them, you have to say pretty terrible things like "God chose this because you were strong enough to handle it" (I have some counterevidence in the many people who can't) or "God didn't want this baby to live because it was going to grow up to be bad" (why doesn't he do this with all bad people?) or "God needed you to learn something" (why would God kill a child to teach its parents a lesson?).  But it's a very reasonable answer to say "This happened because you have low progesterone" or "There may have been a transcription error in the baby's DNA."  Can't blame God for that, except insofar as he made a universe where miscarriages happen.

Miracles are more of a problem than a solution.  I could accept that God can't intervene in the physical world -- either because it is too complex to intervene without messing it up (something I readily believe) or because this world is under the power of the devil.  But the reality is that God does intervene, if you believe in miracles, and some of these miracles are pretty convincing.  But what is the pattern?  What is the commonality among miracles?  Why does God do them?

He certainly doesn't hand them out often, because there aren't miracles every time people pray for stuff.  And he doesn't seem to mind terribly if good people suffer, because they do across the world and he doesn't give them all miracles.  You could say that he does miracles only to help people believe, but there are so many people who disbelieve -- people who really are trying, in good will, to believe and would if they saw a miracle.  Or you could say that he does them only when people have great faith, but I've known people with astounding amounts of faith pray for a miracle, expect to get it so thoroughly that they just assumed they would, and no miracle appears.

I actually have seen a miracle, so I won't blame my lack of faith on lack of miracles.  When I was in boarding school, a friend of mine was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease.  Slowly her vision got worse and worse, till she was legally blind.  She couldn't read or recognize faces.  Because she was pretty much a genius, she managed pretty well, but eventually she went home because the school couldn't really compensate well for her blindness.  Before she went home, though, she was blessed by Pope John Paul II.

Some months later, she woke up one morning with perfect vision.  She went to the doctor and had it checked -- nope, her eyes were still just as damaged as before.  No healing.  But she could read the chart.  I saw her again later, and we all tested her vision.  It was perfect.  A miracle, right?  But why her?

Was it to give her faith?  No, she had faith.  Was it to give us, or her family faith?  Nope, pretty much all fervent believers.  Was it because she had prayed for it?  No, she hadn't really.  She expected to be blind her whole life and didn't put much effort (so far as I know) in asking for a miracle.  She didn't, as Jesus tells us to in the Bible, really believe it was going to happen.

And why, if she was cured miraculously because of the papal blessing, didn't it happen right away?  Why months later, on a feast day which she considered significant (the Ascension) but not obviously related?

Jesus tells us if we get together with two or three people and ask for anything in the world, if we have faith, it will happen.  But we know this is not literally true.  Pope Benedict and Pope Francis both have faith, can't they ask for world peace or an end to hunger or something?

Okay, so let's assume God gives us intangible things only.  Of course this is non-disprovable and suspiciously handy, but let's assume it.  Perhaps when you pray for strength to deal with your problems, you get that.

And often I do.  However, when I don't, if I put an equal amount of focus and effort in but skip the actual prayer part, it seems to work just as well.  I know people who have prayed and prayed for strength to deal with their problems, not had any success, and then went on antidepressants and that helped.  You could say God provided the antidepressants (and indeed, what a wonderful world, that contains chemicals we can take to make us not feel sad!  thanks, God!) but people who don't pray also take antidepressants and feel better, which then gives them the strength and patience to tackle their problems.

And surely the one thing God wants more than anything is for us to believe, right?  He's rather insistent on that point.

Why then, when I pray for faith, don't I receive it?

Why, when my friends pray for faith, don't they receive it?

Why are there so dang many people who would like to believe, but can't?

I can accept the idea that God created an amazingly complex world, in which every single thing is connected to every other thing, and that he has made things work out in the best way he possibly can.  That's what I understand by Providence, that he made the world support life when it didn't have to, made humans arise when they didn't have to, revealed himself in just enough ways to make some people believe in him, and perhaps (by this course) he will save the maximum number of people it was possible for him to save.  Perhaps if God gave me faith I wouldn't be writing this wonderful blog, which will give faith to somebody God cares about more than me.

But what I can't believe is that praying makes a lick of difference.  Either something is God's will, in which case he'll do it, or it isn't, in which case he won't.  Either way, evidence suggests God does what he pleases.

Maybe this is an okay thing for Catholics to believe, and maybe it isn't.  It certainly seems to contradict a lot of Gospel verses.

All I know is that last week, when I was driving in snow and started to skid, I reflexively prayed "God, let me not crash."  And before I'd even pulled out of the skid, I thought, "It is already determined whether or not I will crash.  My direction and starting velocity, coupled with the quality of my antilock brakes and the friction coefficient of the pavement along my trajectory, will result in me crashing or not crashing, and I don't honestly expect that God will make a miracle happen to affect that result."

Well, I pulled out of the skid fine, as I had pretty much expected to (I was going very slowly, because I was being careful) but my very next thought was, "This is not how the Faith is supposed to work."  I am supposed to rely on God to help me.  Instead I rely on my antilock brakes.  I trust them because they have given me reason to trust them, whereas God seems to have given me reason to believe he'd just let me crash.

The rest of the way home, I skidded a few more times (it was nasty out, I learned my lesson about how fast it gets slick when it's snowing and won't do that again) and I didn't pray, and I didn't crash either way.

I guess I just don't see the point in prayers for petition.  I didn't do them on purpose for a long time, except occasionally when people asked me to because I figured it couldn't hurt.  Lately I'm making a real effort to pray for faith, but I feel kind of stupid because I have no expectation it will help.  Which (if you've been paying attention) means it won't help.  Because I didn't believe it would help.  In short, if you don't already have faith, you're screwed.

If you have faith and read this blog, could you pray for me?  Because if I am wrong and it does work, I'd like some faith please.  If you do, please comment and tell me you did; it would make me feel better if nothing else.  I'm not testing God to see if he'll answer; I know that whether he exists or not he probably won't.  But there's something to be said for the comfort of knowing that, even here on the internet, two or three can still gather in his name and at least try.


Tiffany said...

Sheila, I am praying for you. <3

Allison said...

I've read and will say a prayer too. I'm not really good at words regarding those of faith, so it would be hard for me to try and dispute what you've said here. I will say that I don't necessarily agree with your points, but I feel like a lot of it is too hard to explain, and likely no one really knows with 100% certainty.

I personally pray for something if God wills it, like having a healthy baby, because I do honestly believe that God does things according to His will. Is it always fair? No. Does it always make sense? No. I just think the world is so big and so much each person doesn't know, that I can't say that something wasn't according to His ultimate plan, because I can't see everything and the scheme of things years from now.

Anyways, I'm sure what I said won't help, because I can't fully explain how I believe, but it's how I feel at this moment. Hopefully you find something that works for you, and are able to make sense of the faith you want to have.

Julia said...

I will pray for you.

Anna said...

I will too.
(If you had *zero* expectation it would help, you wouldn't be praying for faith in the first place, would you? Also, if you had no faith at all you wouldn't be struggling with these questions... I prayed for faith in a desultory manner in my early teens. I didn't believe in God at all, I just wished I did. Then I more or less forgot about the whole thing for a few years; then my prayer was answered in a dramatic fashion. Then I prayed for ten years for my mother's conversion, wishing intensely for this but not really expecting it. Conversion as a teenager is one thing, conversion as a critical, scientific-minded 50++ year-old is much more unlikely, humanly speaking. All the same, it suddenly happened.

So there's no predicting how God will work… part of faith, like it or not, is trust without understanding. Even so, one does get little parcels of understanding along the way.)

Sheila said...

Mostly I'm praying for faith because I feel that if I don't, people will blame my lack of faith on me. Although yes, I admit, there is a little hope there that perhaps if I keep at it some wonderful thing might happen.

My grandfather entered the Church shortly before his death. His whole family was praying for him, and he claimed that it was because he had seen Jesus face to face.

How I can see things like this happen in my own life and not be convinced by them is anyone's guess!

The Sojourner said...

I'm praying for you. Maybe you should pray for me back, considering how cynical I've gotten in the last year.

(Now that J is old enough to sort of understand things, I'll say grace before meals and read him books about Mary and Jesus and whatnot and it just feels weird because I KNOW all this stuff but I can't summon the energy to care about whether he knows it. I'm not sure if this is because I don't believe it anymore or because I'm just too tired and figure I can coast without God noticing me for a while, considering he hasn't seemed to be paying much attention when I talk to him lately. *wears Bad Catholic cone of shame*)

Sheila said...

Don't go too long without praying, Sojourner, or you'll end up like me! Perhaps my role in life is to serve as a cautionary tale for others.

I don't worry too terribly much about the kids. We've said grace with them from birth and they won't join in. And they don't seem to believe my theology lessons. Oh well. They've got years ahead of them ... and so, I hope, do I.

sarah e. said...

I'm praying for you, Sheila!

...Sorry, it just takes me a day or several to post a comment because I never seem to have free hands at the right time... :-)

While I haven't grappled so much with the existence of God, I have been pretty confused about prayers for petition in many ways similar to what you say here.

Zagorka said...

I have been praying, and will continue to do so.

Meredith said...

Wow I have been having the exact same problem with prayers of petition lately! Basically, I started feeling grouchy about praying for our friend's pregnancies to go well. "Why should we have to get down on our knees and beg for something that God keeps denying her? Is God enjoying the spectacle?" Now things are finally getting better for her, and the difference I see is not in the intensity of our prayers, but in the intensity of the medical care she has received. I still pray for her every day, but sometimes I wonder whether anyone but the doctors should get the credit.

I don't rely on God to keep me or my loved ones from dying or going crazy or broke. I rely on him to take care of us after we die.

Hey, at least we are going through our mad-at-God phase at the same time!

Sheila said...

I don't know if I'm exactly mad so much as perplexed! There seems to be no rhyme or reason to how God works. There's one set of conclusions I could draw about God from the Bible, one from each saint, and one from creation and the observation of miracles (or a lack of miracles). And I wonder, how then are we to know God at all?

And boy, if ever a miracle should have happened, the case you mention merited one. It would have made a big difference to people's faith.

It's funny, but it seems everyone I know from college is having a faith crisis the past year or two. Was our education a ticking time bomb, or what?

You may be the one person to appreciate the line of poetry in my head right now (from Wreck of the Deustchland):
"Past all
Grasp God, throned behind
Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides."

How in the world CAN I grasp God when he is so ungraspable?

"And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss."

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