Can computers pray?

If you don’t believe that prayer works, then you’ll probably find this article absurd. If you pray before meals and that’s enough, you’ll probably feel like this article is unnecessary. If you believe prayer is so powerful that it changes history then you’ve probably felt overwhelmed by the burden of responsibility for it.

A praying computerPraying can be hard. It’s very easy to find things to do instead of praying because actions seem to more directly result in the outcomes we desire. Prayer occasionally garners an immediate result or response from God, but usually has long-term effects that aren’t discernable until a much later time.

Jesus famously told his disciples, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” and coupled with endless prayer lists, (as creatively portrayed in the movie Bruce Almighty (Note: Links to Amazon in this post are affiliate links)) it soon becomes clear why prayer frequently reduces to variants of “Lord, please help…Amen”.

If every prayer resulted in instant feedback, we would probably be more motivated to persist in it (because of the power of feedback loops). If prayer were reduced to simply giving thanks before a meal, it might be more manageable (following the “making change seem easy” technique from Switch). But instead of these two approaches, Scripture says to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, present [one’s] requests to God” and to “pray without ceasing“.

How do you pray without ceasing? Are we expected to pray for every passing ambulance, every stranger we meet on the bus and about every decision we make in a day and even while we’re snoozing? I think the answer is clearly “no”, but here are some ways this question has been answered throughout the ages:

  • Some in the Orthodox faith tradition interpret it to mean rigorously keeping regular times of prayer, while others practice it by continually meditating on a verse of prayer throughout the day so that even while sleeping one can pray because it is so ingrained in their heart.
  • Others in the Reformed tradition like Charles Spurgeon, John Piper and RC Sproul interpret it to mean never giving up on prayer, keeping regular times of prayer (and frequently praying through Scripture), praying throughout the day in a spirit of dependence on God, and making all of life an extension and fulfillment of one’s prayers.
  • Within the Catholic traditions of the early church fathers, we find some who went as far as forgoing manual labor in order to do nothing but pray, while others prayed continually by teaming up and taking shifts so that every hour of the day was covered.
There is much overlap between these traditions, but isn’t it interesting that no one (to my knowledge) has suggested the automation of prayer? Adherents of Buddhism have prayer wheels, which they believe mechanically automate the oral recitation of their mantras, but repeated attempts to make a prayer management application for Christians have proven rather unsuccessful. Why? Can Christian prayer be automated?

Here are 3 possible levels of prayer automation:

  • Level 1 automates reminders. Your phone buzzes to ask you what you are experiencing so you can pray about it. You can’t tell if the buzz is from your mom or significant other or the system, so you’re more likely to read and respond to it. One system called Gotandem is trying to do something like this.
  • Level 2 automates content. Your phone detects your mood and activities and the needs of others based on Facebook feeds and surfaces things to you in bite-sized chunks so that you can remember to pray and know what to pray about. This could roll up into a global prayer analytics platform as explored by Nate Matias. Churches that practice liturgical prayers have attempted to automate content through apps like iBreviary.
  • Level 3 automates prayer. It’s an app that takes all of this data and prays continually for you so you can focus on your work.

Okay scratch that last idea :-). We’ve crossed the fine line between helpful and hindering technology. Maybe prayer automation has met limited success because of one faulty assumption; namely that computers can automate the work of the Holy Spirit.

Aha, “Merit and Grace” all over again–computer effort and the work of God!

While praying with a friend about this, I said, “Lord, your Holy Spirit is better than any technology we could develop, please move us to pray and help us to pray”. It stunned me to recall that reminders to pray, desires to pray, and the content of prayer are totally of God–no wonder it is overwhelming in scope and breathtaking in power! In fact, the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ themselves constantly pray for us. They obviously do not use technology to help them and their divine power is poured out to help us in prayer.

But where does this leave level 1 and 2 apps? Couldn’t God use them? We depend on grace from the Holy Spirit which we do not control and we wonder what to do with the things under our control like apps and smartphones. With such devices there is a risk of losing the heart of prayer, but there is also room to use the merit God has given us to invent tools that help us obey him (if you’re using stickies on a wall or a prayer journal, that’s man-made technology too!).

Adam and Eve tried to cover their nakedness with fig leaves after they sinned and God graciously clothed them with superior animal skins instead while promising a future supreme clothing in Christ. As we pray and invent tools to help, God graciously clothes our prayers in his own while promising a resounding Amen to all we ask in his name. And that’s the point of a prayer app any way, isn’t it? Not so much ensuring the act of praying happens as much as receiving the affirming love of our Father’s, “Yes!”

Prayer isn’t a burden to be automated, it’s a desire to be satisfied, a discipline to be honed, a relationship to be enjoyed.

I close with these words from Spurgeon:

When prayer is a mechanical act, and there is no soul in it, it is a slavery and a weariness; but when it is really living prayer, and when the man prays because he is a Christian and cannot help praying, when he prays along the street, prays in his business, prays in the house, prays in the field, when his whole soul is full of prayer, then he cannot have too much of it.

P.S. If any of you try out any of the apps I linked to in this post, please leave a comment about how you like it.

P.P.S. Sorry if you feel like the title was a “bait and switch”, but I will leave the philosophical angles on the question “Can computers pray?” to sci-fi theologians (or perhaps it can be relegated to a future post).

Dare2Share on connecting the dots of responsibility

Dare2Share had a great post on the tensions of responsibility in evangelism between:

  • God’s responsibility to save whom he pleases
  • The Christian’s responsibility to share the gospel
  • The hearer’s responsibility to believe the gospel

You can read about it here: http://www.dare2share.org/blog/2012/evangelism-myth-9-energize-article/

The Empty Seat

What does this picture bring to mind? Awkward moments seeking the passenger who will cause the least discomfort to you? A chance to finally rest your legs after a crowded commute?

I always look for the empty rows when I get on the bus, but it’s absurd since I know someone is probably going to sit next to me. I guess it signals an unspoken desire to be alone. But the truth is I don’t want to be alone–I’d much rather have a meaningful conversation with someone. Why don’t I take the empty seat and start the conversation?

There was a period in my life when I felt like every conversation had to be directed to the gospel and somehow incorporate Jesus. If He is the most important person in my life, wouldn’t I naturally talk about him most? Just as lovers continually have the name of their beloved on their lips, wouldn’t I want to bring Him up with others? Unfortunately my best intentions caused me much grief, anxiety and guilt. Oh there were glorious times when I got to share about Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection and how he saved me and transformed my life. But for every good conversation there were ten more that fell flat and another twenty “opportunities” that I missed and felt guilty about after the fact.

Avoiding the empty seat was my way of avoiding the opportunity to share the gospel and I could thereby avoid the guilty feelings that came from ignoring those opportunities. Everybody cares about something and even if you don’t care about the gospel, I think you can agree that the Seattle bus culture makes it difficult to connect with other passengers on a personal level. It’s even easier to avoid other passengers with the ubiquity of smartphones. Now you can take the empty seat next to someone and still skip the opportunity to connect with them by pulling out your phone and checking e-mail, watching a video, or texting a friend.

I actually like being alone on the bus. Minding my own business and doing my own thing. I don’t want to trouble anyone and don’t want to be troubled myself. But I struggle about my responsibilities towards all the strangers around me. What does God expect of me? Does he expect me to “make the most of every opportunity“? What is an opportunity? Is it someone asking me a question about God? Or is it me sitting next to a stranger on a bus and initiating a conversation? What does it mean for me to “love my neighbor as myself“?

As my chaotic conscience endured these hard questions, my soul has often taken refuge in the sovereignty of God. He alone is capable of saving any person and he alone can give them the gift of faith and it is completely his free choice. But as much of a relief to conscience this reality is, it does not remove the responsibility of being a witness.

When I set out to write this post, I did not have any strong, heartfelt answers to this internal conflict. It has percolated in the back of my mind occasionally, but I didn’t have anything solid worth sharing. So I looked around for some answers in the five texts linked to above.

Colossians 4:5-6 In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he prefaces his exhortation for believers to make the most of every opportunity with a request for prayer so he would have an open door for the gospel. He also does not explicitly command evangelism, but gracious and seasoned speech that give a person knowledge of how to answer everyone.

Mark 12:31 The whole concept of loving one’s neighbor as oneself could be inappropriately stretched to mean telling everyone the gospel the moment they give you a chance to speak since it is “the most loving thing to do”, but if I consider the desires of my own heart, I think most people want to connect deeply and share their heart’s desire and struggle. They want someone to hear them and love them and speak words into their lives that pierce through the superficial safety bubble they’ve setup with insight and care.

Exodus 34:6-7 God’s freedom to have mercy on anyone he pleases is coupled with his abundantly gracious character. Whenever I seek to share the gospel with someone I can be confident that the God on whom their salvation depends is thoroughly good.

Ephesians 2:8-9 I am not so different from everyone else. Once dead in sin; ruled by disobedience.  I once didn’t care much about God or Jesus and one day he blew me away with his glorious grace. If God can save me, he can save anybody. There is truly no one beyond his reach as humanly impossible as it may seem; there is always hope.

Acts 1:7-9 Although these words were to Jesus’ immediate disciples, every statement remains true in our day. The times and seasons are fixed by the Father’s authority. God’s kingdom, the success of the gospel, the victory of the Church are all under his wise control. He didn’t spell it out in detail for the apostles and he doesn’t for us, but he promised them something even better–his own Spirit come upon them so that they would be his witnesses. This is the same Spirit he gave to all believers in Jesus.

This small selection of Scriptures turned out to be a deeper treasure trove than I expected. While writing this, I was surprised at how they dispelled the guilt and anxiety that have often arisen when I’ve had to “take the empty seat” and replaced it with freedom, confidence, and desire (particularly the reflections on Mark 12:31 and Ephesians 2:8-9).

The next step for me is to test it and see how it helps me the next time I’m on the bus. If you have any stories to share about how this helped you, please leave a comment!

The Plan

I came across this useful exercise in the “First Steps with WordPress” article and decided to post my responses here:

  1. What am I going to do with this?
    I am going to share thoughts on why people should work hard if only God matters. This is often referred to as the paradox of Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility.
  2. Who is going to read this?
    People who stumble across my blog via Google, Facebook friends and Twitter followers who think my post titles are intriguing. I hope my family does at least :-).
  3. What kinds of information will I be posting?
    I plan on posting links to timely materials, pretty pictures with thoughtful commentary and stories from everyday life that highlight the tension of responsibility and grace (hence the title merit and grace). Based on my experience with myself, I expect a lot of long-winded theological reflection. I hope to get better at writing for an audience, namely you dear reader :-).
  4. Why am I doing this?
    I’ve been frustrated with mediocrity in the church for sometime and I think when I first encountered the marvelous sovereignty of God in the Bible and explained in Desiring God I felt an abiding tension between my effort and God’s work. I filled pages and pages of journals with thoughts on all the various possibilities and implications and now I’d like to share those thoughts more widely in the hopes that they might benefit someone.
  5. Who am I doing this for?
    Yes, I hope I am doing this for God (and not my own vanity, which often produces wild imaginations of fame and fortune from being discovered and admired for uncommon insight and profund articulations). I think there are four categories of people I’m writing to/for.The first is myself: I want to be a better writer and I want to express these ideas which have been so moving and helpful for me (since they aren’t as helpful if they just stay in my head or my handwritten journal).

    The second is Christians who have trouble coming to grips with God’s sovereignty (as we all do, since it’s incredibly devastating to realize how insignificant we are) and who perhaps have endured far more guilt from taking responsibility for things that God alone can do (like saving friends they love).

    The third is Christians who feel demotivated because they have come to grips with God’s sovereignty and feel like nothing they do matters and that they might as well sit around all day praying for things to happen rather than taking responsible action since it all doesn’t matter anyway–God will do what he will and we can’t do much about it.

    The fourth and final category is non-Christians of all kinds and all backgrounds who I hope will benefit from my honest wrestlings with Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. Some may be pragmatic thinking that faith in Jesus is good if it helps some people, but that they don’t personally need it. Some may be antagonistic, thinking all this discussion is foolish talk and a waste of time. Others may be curious and want to consider these big ideas and the implications for their own lives. And of course there are the skeptical who may take pleasure in watching a Christian struggle through one of the defining questions about God and Man.

    Whichever category you belong to, thanks for giving me your time and attention and I hope you benefit from these thoughts in some way.

  6. How often am I going to be posting and adding information?
    If possible, I want to add a new substantial post weekly. If at least that bar is met, I will be quite happy. On top of that can come the daily gravy of interesting links, minor posts and pretty pictures with thoughtful commentary.

Here it is in all its fluent paragraphical glory:

This website will be dedicated to God and cover the topics of Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, or “why should I work hard if only God matters?”  The audience will be thoughtful Christians who struggle with God’s complete and utter control over all things and/or those who struggle with their complete responsibility for their own lives and actions. Non-Christians who are interested in these things are of course included. (God-willing) I will be adding posts every week about whether or not God alone matters, why we should work hard in light of that answer, what the point of our merits are if everything is a gift from God, why the church has suffered from mediocrity and how it might promote excellence and why this isn’t a bad thing, and other such topics. I am doing this because I want to be a better writer, I want to share my ideas with the world in the hopes of benefitting someone, I want the merit of the church to be unleashed, and this gives me an excuse to revisit my journals and digitize the ideas recorded in them.