Reservations about prayer being ineffective or bouncing off the ceiling are very close to home. I totally understand the frustration and disillusionment. This is when it pays to be a liberal rather than a conservative. Experience does not back up the notion that God, “walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own and the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.” It does no good to cite dogma on the issue. People are hurting and longing for hope for themselves and for their departed loved ones. All the prayer in the world won’t help a flea if the God who tells us to pray isn’t listening or simply doesn’t care.
I was an evangelical for many many years. I went to a Christian school k-12, attended evangelical churches until I was 35 and graduated from an evangelical Anglican seminary. I tried everything that was “orthodox” to get a satisfactory prayer/spiritual life but my “real” life kept getting in the way. Wait a minute. My real life? I thought reality and orthodoxy were supposed to be the same thing!
Back about 3 years ago something happened to me. I had gone off my meds for depression under my doctor’s supervision. At the same time, I was regularly talking to a theologian whom I would have considered liberal. Why I chose to listen to him I don’t know. But I’m glad I did. It went against everything I’d been taught to believe. He told one thing that changed my world view forever. He said, “Let reality itself mold you and teach you what is true.” “That means look around you, examine your experience and the experiences of others, draw conclusions. Truth cannot be destroyed. Hold your faith in the fire and see how it stands up. Why be afraid? Do you want the truth or do you want a crutch?” I asked myself these questions and began to act on it. At the same time I was going through a crisis of faith regarding a personal issue I had not been able to master. Based on the above, I systematically dismantled my working ethical system until I had nothing left. I found myself unable to answer any questions about any ethical issue. Why? Because I had believed everything i had been taught as an evangelical and had no clue WHY I was taught those things. I simply had accepted them “on faith”. But faith in whom? Turns out it was faith in those who taught me, not faith in God. Well, I crashed and ended up in the mental hospital for a few days. But when I got out, I was a new person with a mission: To discover reality and the truth for myself. No longer would I take orthodoxy at it’s word.
Since that time I have come a very long way and made some incredible discoveries. One of which regards what I call the “old way” of checks in the spirit and promptings in the spirit to know God’s will for me. Discarding this old way was very painful because it’s the way every evangelical is taught to listen to God. I discovered it is essentially nothing more than listening to my pizza digest and the emotions that come from that. My God is bigger than a pizza. Perhaps the most painful part of this was the realization that there is no objective authority or basis of truth in this world. This was terribly scary because we want an authority to tell us what is true. But there isn’t one. Not the Church, the Bible, my mother or anyone or anything else. It’s me and God and reality. The Church and the Bible are wonderful tools and are filled with wisdom and good things but they are not final authorities. God only is the final authority and it is to Him alone that I am responsible in the end.
What does all this have to do with prayer or prayers for the dead? Prayer is very simply something we do in faith. We do not do it for the emotional benefits we think we should get from it. God is so high above us, so much greater than we are, so incredibly exalted how can we imagine that it is normal and to be expected that God would give us every greedy little demand we make including how we should feel during and after prayer? We pray for the dead for the simple reason that the church has always done it. It was without doubt an apostolic practice. I don’t need to rationalize why we do it or anticipate any particular results to be obtained from it. I just do it. My personal hopes and desires are just that…personal. I do not impose them on God. He knows what I want better than I do myself. Why should I whine to him about my departed loved ones? I simply lift them up to him in prayer asking his blessing on them. There. I’m done. They have been consigned to the greatest Love in the Universe and are in his hands. I do not worry about it anymore. Jesus says, “If you ask anything in my name It will be given to you.” Elsewhere he says that it must be according to the Fathers will. When I consign the dead to God I know that he has their salvation at heart because everything that happens in this world is for our salvation. Everything. Not the smallest detail of our lives is unimportant regarding our salvation. SO when I pray for the dead…it’s for their salvation. And if God desires not the death of the sinner but rather that he return and live…then I have no doubt that He welcomes them to his heart. Athiest, agnostic, pagan, Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem, Christian…Jesus died for them all. There is no way to God but through the Lord Jesus Christ but one need not be a Christian to benefit from his atonement. Of course one can choose to despise God forever and be in hell, but that is not God’s fault. God stands there with his arms wide open even after death to receive any penitent sinner.