Right now a prayer is being offered up by a desperate mother somewhere at a camp in Somalia. Her severely malnourished child is suffering from severe diarrhea and vomiting. She has been told by one of the men that these are signs of cholera. Her child is dying in her arms and she can do nothing. Her prayer is desperate and anguished.
If God hears any prayer he must hear this one. If any prayer is justified it is surely this one.
At the same time another prayer is being offered by a soccer mom in suburban Dallas. She usually drives the Porsche Cayman, but her husband wanted to drive it to a church conference in Houston. So she is stuck with the Escalade. And if there is one thing she hates, it is parking the Escalade. So even before she arrives at Pottery Barn she prays that she may find a parking space near the entrance. (In case you were wondering, Pottery Barn is a relatively upscale home furnishings chain in the United States, not a barn with pottery.)
Now admittedly juxtaposing the prayer for a parking space outside Pottery Barn with a prayer to save a child dying of cholera doesn’t look good. But let’s be careful about judging the Dallas soccer mom too harshly. For all we know she and her husband may do more to help starving Somalis than you or I. The point of juxtaposing these two scenarios is not to pick on the soccer mom. Rather, the point is to ask whether we ought to pray about trivial things like parking spaces. And if so, how trivial can those things be? Let’s consider arguments both ways.
An argument for prayers for parking spaces
God is God of all things. His providence is meticulous, extending to every detail of creation. Learning to pray about all matters is (among other things) a way of conforming ourselves to his providential action, of recognizing his supreme lordship over all creation. Prayer is not a zero sum game as if praying for small matters takes away concern for big matters. Such concerns do not trivialize prayer. If anything, praying for parking spaces exalts the supreme importance of prayer.
An argument against prayers for parking spaces
Prayers for trivial matters are trivializing of prayer. Prayers for things like parking spaces at Pottery Barn are conducive to the production of a narcissistic personality. It is especially wrong to pray for trivial things when you contrast those prayers with the egregious evil and suffering being experienced in the world today. You should reserve prayer for significant, important dilemmas.
A qualified argument for prayers for parking spaces
Sometimes it is wrong to pray for relatively trivial things like parking spaces. But such prayers are valuable when the relatively trivial thing being prayed for has a traceable link to or association with God’s kingdom purposes. For example, a prayer for a parking space at Walmart when you are seeking to buy supplies for the Food Bank is good, but a prayer for a parking space at the Pottery Barn when you are looking to buy the upteenth designer lamp that you don’t need is bad.
If trivial, how trivial?
Let’s put this in monetary terms to see if we can develop some kind of rough and ready scale of triviality for at least some prayers.
We’ll begin with the assumption that it is unacceptably trivial to pray that the parking meter doesn’t eat your quarter. Perhaps that prayer is so trivial that even “kingdom work” cannot save it. In that case, it is trivial to pray the parking meter doesn’t eat your quarter even if you plugged the meter outside the foodbank while intending to deliver a donation. (The one exception is if it is your very last quarter.)
But let’s say that it isn’t trivial to pray for several hundred thousand dollars you’ve invested in starting up a new company.
If that is the case, how much money can you have at stake before you can rightly pray for your investment? Where is the line between a quarter and several hundred thousand bucks? And how does one find that line?
A virtuous resolution?
It is interesting to see how this discussion maps onto an act-oriented approach to ethical reflection. Deontologists and utilitarians tend to focus on what is the right thing to do in a particular circumstance, much like we’ve been thinking about when is a prayer rightly prayed.
But virtue ethicists propose that this focus on actions puts the cart before the horse. We should first focus on what are the proper kinds of virtues to develop to become a good person. And as we develop those virtues, we will naturally discern what is the best way to act in given situations.
Perhaps we ought to think about prayer more in those virtue-oriented terms, as a matter of seeking wisdom (Proverbs 4) or developing the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5). If that is the way to go then as a person develops in character they will naturally discern when it is appropriate to pray and when it is not.
Here’s a closing thought. Perhaps if the soccer mom arrived at Pottery Barn praying for the Somali child, God would just throw in the parking spot for good measure.