The power of prayer

In her popular book The Secret, Rhonda Byrne claims that we can get whatever we want using the “law of attraction.” Byrne writes that what we think about, we attract. To obtain anything, we need only focus on what we want.

It is the law that determines the complete order in the Universe, every moment of your life, and every single thing you experience in your life. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, the law of attraction is forming your entire life experience, and this all-powerful law is doing that through your thoughts.1

Byrne claims the law of attraction has been recognized by many religions, including Christianity. She elaborates a process for using the law of attraction that includes three steps: ask, believe, and receive. She quotes Jesus discussing those aspects of prayer.

Despite the parallel between the process Byrne provides and Christian prayer, The Secret and the Bible relate to our desires in radically different ways. The Secret focuses on conforming the universe to our will. In the Bible, we are taught that our instinctual desires can mislead us. The Bible focuses not on conforming the universe to our will, but on conforming our will to the will of God.

We see that emphasis when we examine carefully the teaching of Jesus about prayer. Among that teaching is a model for prayer known as the Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. (Matt. 6:9 – 13 ESV)

The Lord’s Prayer contains several petitions, but only one petition for the satisfaction of our instinctual desires, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Even that petition is modest. Petitioning only for the satisfaction of basic physical needs corresponds to warnings elsewhere in scripture about pursuing all instinctual desires. For example, Paul warns,

Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim. 6:9 – 10 NIV)

Paul writes that we should instead be content with the satisfaction of our physical needs.

But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (1 Tim. 6:6 – 8 NIV)

While the petition for bread is about satisfying our desires, the petitions that surround it are about managing them. The petition that most clearly emphasizes prioritizing the will of God precedes the petition for bread, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The petitions related to sin also address our instinctual desires. Following the petition for bread, we find, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The kind of debt addressed is made clear by the verses the follow the Lord’s Prayer,

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14 – 15 NIV)

Our attitudes guide our behavior. We sin when our instinctual desires mislead us. Indeed, Jesus clarifies that we may sin through attitude alone, even if we do not act on our desires.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment…. (Matt. 5:21 – 22 NIV)

The petition for forgiveness acknowledges past damage caused by our instinctual desires. The petition that follows and concludes the prayer, “lead us not into temptation,” acknowledges the danger our instinctual desires continue to pose. Both the content and organization of the Lord’s Prayer focus attention not on getting what we want but on wanting what we should.

While The Secret promises that we can get whatever we want, the Bible describes many petitions not granted. We see one even in a prayer Jesus makes for himself. Jesus predicts that he will be killed and visits a garden with some of his disciples. He tells them that he is filled with dread, saying “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34 NIV), and begs God for deliverance.

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:35 – 36 NIV)

At the garden, Jesus is seized by armed men. He is beaten and scourged, and a crown of thorns is placed on his head. He is eventually nailed to a cross, where he hangs until he dies. The Aramaic word “Abba” is an intimate synonym for father that a child would use. Jesus begs his father for deliverance, but God does not spare him.

Paul writes that “for those who love God all things work together for good…” (Rom. 8:28 ESV). However, that good is not the satisfaction of our instinctual desires. Rather, Paul continues, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son….” (Rom. 8:29 NIV). The good that is promised is to become like Jesus, who was obedient even to death. To become like Jesus is to transcend rather than gratify our instinctual desires.

In the Bible, Jesus shows how through prayer we can not only present our desires to God, but also confront our desires and submit ourselves to God. The Secret claims that we can get whatever we want through a process that resembles Christian prayer. However, for Jesus, prayer is not just a way of changing our circumstances, but also a way of changing ourselves.

  1. Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (New York: Atria Books; Hillsboro, Oregon: Beyond Words, 2006), 5.

On ownership

The natural state of all possessions is to need repair and maintenance.  What you own will eventually own you.

Kevin Kelly, Excellent Advice for Living

Rediscovering ritual

Religious practice has declined in the United States. The share of the population describing themselves as religious fell from 65 percent in 2012 to 54 percent in 2017.1 The share affiliated with any specific religion fell from 84 percent in 2007 to 71 percent in 2021.2 During that period, the share affiliated with Christianity fell from 78 percent to 63 percent.

However, the decline in religious affiliation was not accompanied by an equivalent rise in atheism or agnosticism.3 While the share describing themselves as religious fell by 11 percentage points, the share describing themselves as spiritual fell by only 3 percentage points, from 78 percent in 2012 to 75 percent in 2017.4

The decline in religious practice was a decline in formal aspects of religion like ritual. Ritual does not obviously transform the world in a constructive way, and some may have abandoned religious practice because they see little value in ritual. However, ritual is a powerful tool for shaping our lives.

Continue reading “Rediscovering ritual”

On criticism

When someone tells you something is wrong, they’re usually right.  When they tell you how to fix it, they’re usually wrong.

Kevin Kelly, Excellent Advice for Living

Knowledge versus wisdom

The Tao Te Ching presents the basic principles of Taoism in just a few dozen short versions. The Chinese word “tao” means way, and Taoism provides guidance for living in a way that corresponds with the way of the universe. The text was written thousands of years ago and is attributed to Lao Tzu, a name that can be translated as “Old Master.”

In the time since it was written, the world has changed dramatically, with an explosion of new technology that has greatly improved standards of living. Given the benefits of technology, we may be surprised to find technology viewed skeptically in the Tao Te Ching, where we read,

Let every state be simple
like a small village with few people
There may be tools to speed things up
ten or a hundred times
yet no one will care to use them
There may be boats and carriages
yet they will remain without riders…1

Technology enables us to obtain more of what we desire. However, obtaining more of what we desire may not be sufficient to live well. The Tao Te Ching warns,

There is no greater loss than losing Tao
No greater curse than desire
No greater tragedy than discontentment
No greater fault than selfishness2

To live well, we must desire well. We must be wise. In the Tao Te Ching, to be wise is to relinquish desire. We find a skeptical view of technology in the Tao Te Ching because we may use technology in the service of desires we have failed to relinquish.

Continue reading “Knowledge versus wisdom”

Think and be rich

In 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, Napoleon Hill published Think and Grow Rich, a book that would sell millions of copies. In it, he writes that he has learned the key to becoming rich from industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Hill writes that we have complete control over only our own thoughts and must begin our journey to riches by using that control to inflame in ourselves a desire for money. With characteristic exuberance, he concludes,

The Master Key is intangible, but it is powerful! It is the privilege of creating, in your own mind, a BURNING DESIRE for a definite form of riches. There is no penalty for the use of the Key, but there is a price you must pay if you do not use it. The price is FAILURE.1

Hill prescribes a daily practice that will keep the flame burning. He instructs readers to write down the amount of money they want, when they want it, and their plan for getting it. The statements are then to be read aloud twice per day, once after waking in the morning and once before sleeping in the evening, while readers visualize themselves in possession of the money.

If you truly DESIRE money so keenly that your desire is an obsession, you will have no difficulty in convincing yourself that you will acquire it…. You may as well know, right here, that you can never have riches in great quantities, UNLESS you can work yourself into a white heat of DESIRE for money, and actually BELIEVE you will possess it.2

The valuable insight at the heart of the book is that our desires do not simply happen to us. Hill saw that we can shape our desires, and by shaping our desires, we can shape our circumstances. However, the idea that we can shape our desires long predates Hill, and some of the implications recognized by others are in tension with his guidance. Continue reading “Think and be rich”

Good versus evil versus good

The philosopher Confucius advised rulers in ancient China, emphasizing the role of virtue in a flourishing society. The Analects record an exchange in which the Duke of She describes to Confucius a man of outstanding virtue, saying, “Among my people there is one we call ‘Upright Gong.’ When his father stole a sheep, he reported him to the authorities.”1

The response from Confucius must have been as surprising to the Duke of She as it was to me. Instead of complimenting the integrity of Upright Gong, Confucius replies, “Among my people, those we consider ‘upright’ are different from this: fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. ‘Uprightness’ is to be found in this.”

Political debate often involves moral claims, and political causes are increasingly characterized as demands for justice of one kind or another. Confucius promoted an approach to governance based on moral evaluation, and we see an illustration of Confucian moral reasoning in the story of Upright Gong. Although some aspects of the story reflect specifically Confucian values, the story also illustrates a style of moral reasoning useful for evaluating modern demands for justice of various kinds.

Continue reading “Good versus evil versus good”