As an engineer, I have often pondered the topic of prayer. Engineers make stuff. Fix stuff. Break stuff and then fix it. Make stuff, break it, and then fix it. You are surrounded by stuff engineers have had a part in making or supplying: The road you drove on (and the car, too), the water you bathed in, drank, and made your coffee with this morning. The toothpaste and toothbrush you used were made by engineers. This is not to mention TVs, telephones, computers, books, food, airplanes. This list is very, very long.
It is not surprising that as an engineer I tended to view prayer as another way to make and/or fix stuff (or, in my more mischievous moods, a way to break stuff). I don’t think this perspective is limited to engineers. We live in a world that highly values getting stuff done. So anyone who believes that prayer can affect the world will be tempted to think of prayer as another tool in the get-it-done toolbox. When you face a situation that appears to have no solution, prayer becomes the technique of last resort.
For the engineer, this way of thinking about prayer holds some dangers. If you are predisposed to understand how things work, you can get trapped in the question of how prayer works. Before too very long, you are no longer praying, but instead have embarked on a quest to break prayer open and look inside to see what makes it tick.
In the engineer’s world, technique is king. Knowing how to do something is often the key to doing it quickly, efficiently, and at maximum profit. If prayer is a way to get things done, then there must be policies and procedures to get the most out of prayer. Again, the engineer embarks on a never-ending search for just the right way to pray. And not, therefore, actually praying.
The most dangerous place for the engineer is when prayer “doesn’t work.” This is most dangerous because this is the engineer’s bread and butter. This is the moment we live for — to understand why something doesn’t work, and then fix it. The engineer has several choices when prayer appears to be broken: “reduce, reuse, recycle.”
For those committed to prayer, recycle is the go-to choice. Like the aluminum in drink cans that gets melted down and made into new cans, we go back and use prayer again, and this time correct any mistakes. There is something compelling in this response. The commitment to stick with prayer is commendable: remember the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. But humans only have so much will power. We grow discouraged, and move to a different strategy.
Another common thing to do with prayer is to “reuse” it, that is, to seek a different purpose, like growing seedlings in an empty egg carton. This will especially be the case for any who are committed to a naturalistic worldview, in which the idea that prayer could have some “magical” effect seems very far-fetched. This will feel like a way to continue to value prayer. The “it” in get-it-done is something interior to the one who prays. Now what is important is that prayer changes me.
The fact is, this whole “engineering” perspective on prayer is very tiring. This is really hard work. Trying to understand prayer, and pray “just right,” we land us eventually in the “reduce” camp. We may limit times for prayer: only before meals or bedtime with the kids or, God help us, only at designated moments of public prayer. Eventually we will reduce it to no prayer at all.
Thankfully, I had a change in perspective. I took a “coffee break,” so to speak. What if this whole get-it-done perspective is missing the point? You may have noticed that God hasn’t been mentioned as a part of prayer. Tomorrow, I’ll spend some time unpacking this point: What happens when you place God at the center of prayer?