Instrumental Reasoning (or Why Prayer Works)

How often have you heard someone testify from the pulpit that prayer works, that priesthood blessings work, that the gospel works? Well, I heard one of those again today and (as always) it made me cringe. By now I’ve probably proved myself someone who gets a little too caught up in the way people say things and I plead guilty here. I really believe that the sister in my ward who said that the gospel works meant to say much more than her words alone conveyed. But, since this is a blog and not sacrament meeting, I think I might indulge myself in a bit of nitpicking.

The reason I cringe when people say that prayer (etc.) works is because it feels like we are reducing prayer down to nothing more than a tool to get us what we want. It is almost like we’re saying prayer is a machine where all we have to do is put something in one end and the most wonderful things come out of the other end. Nevermind the fact that there is a being involved, or communication, or a relationship. Nor that the being happens to be a Supreme Being, Divinity Himself. All that matters is that I’ve got a neat trick that gets me what I want.

Now of course no one who says that prayer works actually means precisely what I’ve just described (at least I hope not). Yet I do wonder if this attitude might creep in in subtle ways. After all, this sort of instrumental reasoning is far too common in our society.

In my field of psychotherapy, researchers, therapists, and clients alike frequently ask whether a treatment “works,” but seldom question whether a treatment is good, moral, or right. If I can make you less depressed by teaching you that you deserve to have your needs met because you are at the center of your universe and no one else is quite as important as you are, does that make it a good treatment? If I can help you to reduce your anxiety by teaching you that you are the product of your environmental and biological programming and (in a grand contradiction) that you can reprogram yourself, does that mean I’m teaching truth? In most cases, we don’t ask these questions. Perhaps we would come down on the side of the self-centered humanism or the deterministic behaviorism/materialism, but I expect there would (and should) be a lot of debate along the way.

The trouble with instrumental reasoning is that it assumes a morality that goes invisible, and thus escapes examination. The morality is this: what I (the individual) want is what matters and I should use the most efficient and effective means to get what I want. Individualism is implied here because it places the individual at the moral center of the universe. Utilitarianism also shows up in this ethic of ends justifying means. We also have a healthy dash of relativism because most people treat these instrumental situations in terms of what is right for (or relative to) the individual, rather than the individual in relationship to a greater community.

I’m glad to hear from dissenters, but I contend that this instrumental ethic is at odds with Christianity and Mormonism. God does not call to us to simply further our individualistic projects. Christ doesn’t teach us to love others just for the sake of blessings or a bigger mansion in heaven. The Book of Mormon does not portray a people that prospered by seeking their own good.

I could say more here, but I wonder if I’ve already said too much. Let me swing a bit in the other direction then, in conclusion, to say that I do like the pragmatism in the question of whether something “works.” However, why not ask, like William James, what practical difference an action or belief will make if we assume them? I expect prayer to be practical–to bring me into communication with my God and to make us more a part of one anothers’ lives. I expect it to be pragmatically good and right and that its efficiency and effectiveness, as well as its ability to get me what I want, are secondary (or tertiary, etc.). In other words, prayer “works” when it brings us in communion with our God and points us outside of ourselves, when it humbles us. It is nice when God hears our prayers and grants us our desires, and we cannot be grateful enough–but the real miracle is that He is there; that He hears us, loves us, and takes us into His mercy. It seems to me that the fact that we have what we wanted pales in comparison to all of this.

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8 Responses

  1. Very good! Standing ovation! This post really works.

  2. It is an excellent post, but not quite worth a standing ovation. :)

  3. Today in Sunday School we talked about the pride cycle, and one of the lessons (which I’ve heard many times) is that God wants us to have posterity, but it’s so common that those in prosperity fall into pride and wickedness. What can we do to keep our prosperity and not fall? Common answers in LDS circles are that we need to be grateful, serve others, not see ourselves as better than others, remember the Savior, and so on. I agree with all of this counsel. However, I think there is often an “invisible morality” behind this very discussion, akin to what Brady is talking about. Today I suggested in Sunday School that we need to seek to follow the Lord, who may or may not prosper us. A common push-back is that certainly the Lord blesses those that follow Him! My reply is that this may be, but I should follow Him in any case, and the reason for my following Him should not be because of this or that blessing. The reality is that we need to be willing to sacrifice everything we have and are for God and the work of the Kingdom. I’ve seen many people fall into sin, pride, and apostasy who have the attitude of, “I’ve done x, x, and x — so why hasn’t the Lord done x, x, and x?” (Most often, it is “why am I not happy?”)

    The scriptures are quite clear, though, that the Lord does desire to prosper his people. In the plural, that is. Whenever the pride cycle is discussed, it is (always, or at least almost always) discussed in connection with the Lord’s people as a whole, not with individuals. As the people become prideful and fall into sin, it hurts the prosperity of everyone, including the righteous among them. Thus, one might not prosper in a number of respects because of the evils of others. (Interestingly, the pride cycle, as far as I am aware, is never discussed in terms of the Gentiles. Apparently, certain Gentiles can live and die in sin and prosperity their entire mortals lives. Those who make covenants with God foreclose on this possibility — for themselves and possibly their descendants for several generations.)

    We must ask ourselves: Am I willing to be faithful to the Lord, even if I don’t prosper in this way or that? Even if I suffer greatly? Even if it seems that certain promises are not (yet) being fulfilled? Even to my dying day in poverty and disgrace? If the answer is “no,” then we have missed the boat. Happily, God does not usually demand this kind of destitution, but we have to be willing for Him to do so if He so desires. Otherwise, we’re not worshiping Him. We’re worshiping a golden calf.

  4. I think this is one of the hardest things to finally understand: that even if you do all the right things and pray, God might not grant you what you want. I think the most consistent things in prayer is, like you said, the feeling and knowledge that God is there and listening to you. Somehow that has to be enough to get you through whatever trial you’re going through.

  5. Good post, Brady, and I really like the line of comments it set off.

    I appreciate your insight into following the set of consequences to what people say, although I’d like to make a little addition that I think jives with some of your thoughts.

    Another mistake I think we often make in church meetings is only hearing one voice that gives a testimony, or one voice that makes a comment in Sunday School. The voice we hear is the voice of the speaker, but often times there’s a second voice that we may or may not be priveleged to hear at the time. Of course, I’m talking about the Holy Ghost. Now, the neat thing about the Holy Ghost is when that 2nd voice is there, he’s not restricted to conveying only one meaning at a time. He can use the words and testimony of the physical speaker to touch the individual hearers in the ways they need most. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences where a person is giving a talk on the Word of Wisdom or something, and while we listen we’re inspired to consider our lives in the light of a completely different topic. We felt the spirit during the talk, but the lesson for us didn’t have anything to do with the Word of Wisdom, you dig? It’s akin I think to those moments where what we read in the scriptures and what we actually learn from them are seemingly unrelated, because the scriptures served as a vehicle to opening our minds to the promptings of the spirit and not because the written words themselves at the time contained the lesson.

    I think this was one of the truly beautiful parts of the gospel and the role of the Holy Ghost. However inarticulate the physical words of the speaker may be, so long as we can tune into the second voice, we can understand the truth and depth and real meaning and intent behind what each person feels prompted to say. He permits us to communicate on a much more pure and basic level than our fallen communication patterns allow.

  6. While I am grateful that the Spirit does such a wonderful job of making up for our “weakness in speaking,” I don’t think it excuses us from the call to put off the fallen man that leads to “our fallen communication patterns” and in that sense, I appluad (without standing) this post.

    Dennis – When they asked how we could break the pride cycle in my ward, I said “stay poor.” The chart always has “get rich” right before “get proud” and I think it’s funny that we often try to rationalize how we can stay rich and avoid pride, it seems there might be an easier way…

    (And I know we can be proud and poor, I just think riches are the greater temptation (and as Tevye we often say “may we be so cursed!) Also, while I’m making disclaimers, I didn’t say the “stay poor” part too loudly, most of my great Sunday School comments don’t make it past my wife)

  7. Brent, I must say that some of your great Sunday School comments make it past your wife.

  8. Brady, the points you raise in your article are quite valid. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us on this matter.

    I can’t remember where I read this, but as soon as I find it, I will post it here. I remember reading something President Gordon B. Hinckley said regarding prayer, how many members of the church think that it’s like ringing up to order your groceries and then hanging up the phone again. Your comment of “The reason (you) cringe when people say that prayer (etc.) works is because it feels like we are reducing prayer down to nothing more than a tool to get us what we want”, is very true for qutie a few people today, even in the church, hence why President Hinckley mentioned it.

    I too feel that prayer is more than just a tool to help us get out of rough patches. I too believe that prayer is how we establish and strengthen our relationship with our Heavenly Father. It should not be used as a means of just asking for what we want to happen in our lives. And those people are going to find it very hard on the one day that their will is NOT in line with the Lord’s and they end up not getting what they want. “Does prayer no longer work then?” They would ask themselves. “Is the church no longer true?” etc…..

    Anyway, I have to leave now, but I thank you once again for your thoughts, and hope to be able to read more of your ideas soon.

    From Raymond

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