What's the point of praying?

Albert Camus said, "Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world."

From birth we're preprogrammed to expect intimacy. As babies, we cry out and we're immediately comforted by mom or dad. As many times as we shout into the dark, there's mama. She assures us: "I'm right here. I'm here."

We grow up shouting into the dark, carving a path through life's obstacles with a kind of relational echolocation. Under the protection of others, we begin to challenge our unknowns. We step out a little farther each time, always keeping within reach of mom and dad.

One day, dad lets go of the bicycle seat and we balance on our own. We start to ride on our own. I remember the first night I stayed over at a friend's house, and I wanted to call my mom and dad just to make sure they were there. "We're here. Go have fun. We'll be there in the morning." I chickened out that night. They came to pick me up.

We grow. We become braver with every risk we take. Every scrape hardens us, every bruise fortifies us, every big hill beckons us back on the bicycle for one more go. We cry out for mom and dad less and less. We let the rigid construction of familial ties be replaced—slowly—by the fluidity of friendships and the unpredictability of relationships.

And we enjoy the turbulence. Admit it, you loved all of the drama of high school. After all, you were only drinking deeper, "sucking out all the marrow of life" as Thoreau said. Living dangerously. Taking risks. And the rewards are greater and greater with each risk we take as we learn and grow.

I think something happens to us in our twenties, in our earliest flirtations with adulthood. As we walk the twenty-something’s tightrope, balancing all our new responsibilities, faced with a new weightiness of purpose, we begin to wonder if the risk is worth the walk.

Or maybe we think we’re too far out on a line to turn back. As we walk this tightrope of adulthood for the first time, we begin to look down and wonder, How far is this drop? where’s my safety net? who’s going to catch me if I fall? am I out on the wire alone?

I think there's this moment where we cry out in the dark one last time and receive no reply at all. That’s what Camus meant by the absurdity born of confronting an unreasonable silence. The great irony that, for all our human endeavoring and all our curiosity, we were placed in a silent universe.

Even we who believe in God must pray in expectation and patiently wait for him to act. Have you felt that dead silence in prayer before, when you feel your prayer is falling on deaf ears? Or that it's bouncing off the ceiling instead of ascending into heaven?

The truth is, there are so few immediate answers in prayer and we’re seldom assured that our prayers will be granted. C.S. Lewis said that our confidence to pray must be born out of a personal relationship with our prayers’ recipient, with God.

Not from knowing about God but rather knowing God. Lewis said, “Our assurance—if we reach an assurance—that God always hears and sometimes grants our prayers, and that apparent grantings are not merely fortuitous, can only come in the same sort of way.” He's saying that even cries to God himself often yield no response. We must simply trust that God heard us.

So we see that as infants, we learn to cry out for help in the dark, but the great irony of our adult life is that despite our desire for answers we’re most often met with silence. Camus calls this absurdity. It is absurd to desire answers when we’ve been stationed in a universe that is unwilling to reason with us.

The stars refuse to tell us why we belong. The planets keep silent about their meaning. We ask the universe for answers and the universe gives us more irony at best.

Not even the darkness of our night sky can serve as a metaphor for the flat emptiness of being we so often feel, that silence and sightlessness when we shut our eyes. When we close our eyes, we see a black not speckled with stars like the night sky. That’s irony on a grand scale.

That’s what Camus meant when he said it’s absurd, how great our human need is and how disinterested our universe has been in meeting it.

We grew up crying to mommy and daddy, but in our adulthood we find we have no one to cry to. No one’s coming to save us. No one’s going to make that rent for you, no one’s paying your car payment, no one’s going to fix your broken relationships, no one’s buying you groceries, no one’s getting you dressed in the morning, no one will negotiate a better deal for you.

No one’s got a hand on the bicycle seat. No one’s telling you why you belong. No one’s giving you a purpose. You’ve got to help yourself. You’re calling the shots now. You’ve got to manage your household. You cry for help but silence is the only answer you receive.

Dad’s not coming, I’ve got to change this tire on my own. Mom isn’t here, I have to balance this checkbook myself. I have to learn to adult.

Aren’t you tempted to despair? Doesn’t this absurdist view of life make you so sad?

I don't think Camus can be considered postmodern but this aspect of absurdism is as characteristically bleak, and certainly both views seem to wax poetic about the irony of the universe quite a bit.

The problem with postmodernism is that its cynicism, bleakness, detachment—that naval gazing sort of self-referentialism—and the irony it so enjoys offers no redemption whatsoever. Irony is great for pointing out problems—the gaps between what’s said and what’s meant—but not offering solutions.

As David Foster Wallace put it, “Irony is singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” Postmodernism teaches us that life has no meaning, there are no great truths. Absurdism says "Life's absurd. Embrace it. Do life anyway."

Rick and Morty has become my favorite new show for its sharp commentary and philosophical slant. Morty said, “No one exists on purpose” in an excellent but so very bleak monologue in season two.

No one exists on purpose. There must be more to this, being human. There has to be something out there, someone out there, to whom we might call and receive an answer. Irony needs something in the way of redemption, lest we despair.

I think postmodernism is dying and in its place, a hip new value on sincerity is being born. Post-postmodernism will be marked by a return to ideals, to endeavoring, to the value of a life lived in hopefulness for the future and curiosity toward the unknown. That's the point of praying, by the way, in case you thought I was never going to answer the question.

Sincerity teaches us to keep crying into the dark, keep waiting for rescue, keep hope alive. Nothing places us into the future but hope, after all. Without hope, don’t we die inside?

Sincerity invites us to pursue community, to live generously, to believe the best in one another, to view others with dignity, to unashamedly enjoy the things we find awesome. “Hope is all that places us in the future,” I think that’s another Camus quote. It’s worth it to have hope.

That's the point of praying. It's to be sincere. It's to sincerely hope and let that hope place us in the future—let that hope serve as a beacon, a signpost up ahead, we've been praying for this and now we're here at the place of hope. Prayer is just sending hope out there, keeping hope alive, daring to have hope.

But is that good enough to keep praying? Will that convince anyone to start praying? Doesn't even sincerity for sincerity's sake offer so few answers? Why combat irony with sincerity, prayerfulness, and hopefulness? What kind of assurance can I have of anything when I pray?

Søren Kierkegaard knew just how absurd faith and hope are in this upside-down world. Yet, as he writes in Fear and Trembling:

“If people in our times decline to be satisfied with love, as is proclaimed from various sides, where will we finally land? In worldly shrewdness, in mean calculation, in paltriness and baseness, in all that which renders man's divine origin doubtful.
Were it not better to stand fast in the faith, and better that he that standeth take heed lest he fall; for the movement of faith must ever be made by virtue of the absurd, but, note well, in such wise that one does not lose the things of this world but wholly and entirely regains them.”

Kierkegaard’s conclusion comes after exploring the absurdity of Abraham’s faith in God, the “enormous paradox” that without hope, Abraham’s actions toward Isaac on Mount Moriah would be tantamount to murder. Of course, we know God was testing Abraham and would not allow Isaac to be killed in the end.

You know the story well: Abraham and Sarah are unable to conceive. God promises that Abraham will be the father of many nations, but Abraham must wait for the promise to be fulfilled. Abraham skirts God’s promise by sleeping with another woman. Many years later, Abraham and Sarah are given a boy named Isaac.

Then God asks Abraham to kill Isaac, his long anticipated boy. Abraham faithfully takes Isaac to be slaughtered, but God stops the sacrifice. God was trying Abraham’s faith. Abraham becomes a key figure in God’s plan to redeem the world, to save us from our sin. His faith pays off.

My dad always says, “God tests us to trust us, Satan tempts us to bust us.”

Kierkegaard writes of this story, “For if faith is eliminated, having been reduced to a mere nothing, then only the brutal fact remains that Abraham wanted to murder Isaac—which is easy for everybody to imitate who has not the faith—the faith, that is, which renders it most difficult for him.”

Kierkegaard is pointing out the absurdity of the whole thing, not only that the field of ethics would declare Abraham’s actions murderous while theology sees them as sacrificial, but that any other man, with or without faith, would be seen as a murderer by all who read the story.

If I went and tried to sacrifice my own son, I’d be locked up in an insane asylum. The paradox is this: It’s not murder if Abraham kills Isaac because Abraham has faith. It would be murder for any other man with faith to kill any other son. Kierkegaard writes:

“If faith cannot make it a sacred thing to wish to sacrifice one's son, then let the same judgment be visited on Abraham as on any other man.
And if we perchance lack the courage to drive our thoughts to the logical conclusion and to say that Abraham was a murderer, then it were better to acquire that courage, rather than to waste one's time on undeserved encomiums.
The fact is, the ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he wanted to murder Isaac; the religious, that he wanted to sacrifice him. But precisely in this contradiction is contained the fear which may well rob one of one's sleep.”

So it’s absurd to have faith and yet we praise Abraham for his faith. We teach our kids to have faith. We reward faith. Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness and became his saving grace in a time before the Messiah had come.

Any other man would be jailed for killing his son and yet Abraham is lauded, and by Abraham’s example we strive to live lives of faith. Without faith our world is cold. It’s an interesting thought to meld with Camus’ assertions about the absurdity of life and Lewis’ statements on our assurances when we pray.

That’s because the difference between Abraham and any other man who has faith is that Abraham had God’s promise. His personal relationship with God made his sacrificial actions O.K.

For any other man to sacrifice a child, it’s murder, but because God promised Abraham he would be the father of many nations, and Abraham had faith, his almost sacrifice of Isaac was a great act, worthy of our admiration thousands of years later. A story handed down from generation to generation. See where I'm going with this yet?

C.S. Lewis said we pray with confidence not because we know about God, but because we know God. It’s our relationship with God that gives us hope to keep shouting into the silence, to keep raising our torches in the dark, to keep the faith in a world that offers so few answers and so much bleakness and pain.

It’s God’s promises that make it worthwhile to have faith. Just a couple of chapters after that verse in Hebrews where it says “Abraham had faith and it was credited to him as righteousness,” God promises us, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

“I will never leave you nor forsake you” is a promise we have from God, just as Abraham had his promise from God to become the father of many nations. Don’t you see that it’s that promise, it’s God’s faithfulness to us, that makes our own faith possible?

That paradox—that without the promise faith is wholly absurd—have I made it clear? Having hope, having faith, living in love, it’s just all so difficult and so crazy if not for the faithfulness of God first.

Even on mountaintop days, where we’re experiencing a spiritual high, when God feels so close to us, it’s still hard to have faith. And it’s especially hard to have faith on long, boring, arduous, mundane days. “I will never leave you nor forsake you” makes faith worth it just like the promise Abraham had made sacrificing his son worth it. See that?

Oswald Chambers said it better than I ever could. He writes:

“‘I will never leave you…’— not for any reason; not my sin, selfishness, stubbornness, nor waywardness. Have I really let God say to me that He will never leave me? If I have not truly heard this assurance of God, then let me listen again.
‘I will never…forsake you.’ Sometimes it is not the difficulty of life but the drudgery of it that makes me think God will forsake me. When there is no major difficulty to overcome, no vision from God, nothing wonderful or beautiful— just the everyday activities of life— do I hear God’s assurance even in these?”

When we cry out and are met with silence, when, for all our curiosity, the universe offers few answers, when even the effect of prayer is delayed in silence, our assurance is that we know God. For all of the absurdity of everything all around us, the promise makes hope worth it. Makes prayer worth it.

Our assurance is that God has promised us a great many things, including, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” It’s that promise that makes faith make sense in our upside-down, paradoxical world.

I know it took me a long time to get to that point, but man, there was a lot to unpack there. So I'll sum it up:

  • We're taught to cry out from birth, and we always get an answer.
  • The irony is, as adults, we cry out and no answer comes.
  • The universe remains silent—for all our curiosity we're just 7 billion people floating alone on a big blue ball in space. That's absurdity on a grand scale.
  • Post-postmodernism answers absurdity and irony with sincerity and authenticity.
  • Prayer is an act of sincerity. Prayerfulness is hopefulness in spite of all the absurd.
  • This is demonstrated in the life of Abraham, who had hope, even when God absurdly asked him to kill his own child.
  • That hope paid off, but Abraham's actions weren't justified because everything ended up O.K., his actions were justified because of God's promise.
  • We have a promise from God too.
  • Our promise ought to help us maintain sincere hopefulness in spite of the great absurdity and irony of living.

See that? Reading Camus and Lewis and Kierkegaard all the same time might have been a mistake…