Just a Thought … Remote Control Prayer

NOTE: As we continue our Dynamite Prayer Adventure, I share with you the first of a two-part article regarding the importance of praying with intimacy. This article is an adaptation of a sermon message I gave on August 21, 2011.

These days we have a remote control for everything: TVs, CD/DVD players, camcorders, cable boxes, stereos, satellite dishes, model airplanes, etc. In fact, nowadays just about everything in our homes can be operated by remote control including our lights, fans, heating & cooling systems, garage doors, security panels, baby monitors, and gas fireplaces.

Even our cell phones are becoming remote control devices, as a growing number of digital apps are being created for every conceivable function. For example, a car commercial a few years ago had a wife starting the car and then teasing her husband and his friend by locking and unlocking the doors using her cell phone remote control app while she was at the airport boarding a plane.

Clearly, we have come into an era of having remote control relationships with our electronic devices and appliances. We like to push a button from across a room and get an immediate and satisfying result. Remote control even allows us to dial into our desktop PCs and act as if we were working at the terminal. New technology enables us to have complete control, and run PC apps, file transfers, PowerPoint presentations and system maintenance from a distance.

Remote technology enables us to gain total control, and we love it – don’t we? However, this craziness for controllers raises a troubling issue of whether we have come to expect remote control spirituality as well. Can we program God? Can we use prayer as a remote-control device to get the satisfying results we want? Have we grown too accustomed to the idea of having complete remote control of all areas of our lives? Sometimes it seems we have; and, thus, remote controls are no longer only a matter of simple convenience but also a matter of spiritual concern.

What is prayer anyway? Prayer “is not a way to get what we want to happen, like the remote control that comes with the television set,” writes Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. A very ill patient of hers was told by his cancer doctor there was nothing more he could do for him medically. The physician then said, “I think you had better start praying.” For this cancer doctor, prayer was a kind of last resort . . . a final option when effective treatments had been exhausted . . . a frantic referral to the “divine physician” . . . a desperate stab at the religious remote control with hope for an immediate and satisfying result.

These remote-control devices are very handy. There’s no doubt about it. However, prayer is not about getting control; it is about giving control. “I think that prayer may be less about asking for the things we are attached to,” asserts Rachel Remen, “than it is about relinquishing our attachments in some way. It can take us beyond fear and hope, which are forms of attachment. It can help us remember the nature of the world and of life, not on an intellectual level but in a deep and experiential way. When we pray, we don’t change the world, we change ourselves.” (“Prayer,” Kitchen Table Wisdom [New York: Riverhead Books, 1996], 270-271)

Prayer takes us beyond our fearful and hopeful attachments to a deeper, newer, more experiential under- standing of our lives, our world, and our Creator. As a result, prayer becomes a transformational experience: We change on the inside, and we leave in the hands of God how much and what else is going to change on the outside. Psalm 41 takes this same approach into the heart of personal holiness. While Psalm 41 is certainly a prayer for healing from sickness, it goes far beyond the “remote control” expectations of so many people.

The psalm lifts up the importance of considering the poor, having strength during persecution, living with integrity, and enjoying life forever in the presence of God. It remembers “the nature of the world and the nature of life, not on an intellectual level but in a deep and experiential way.” According to the psalmist, prayer is not a remote-control command for instant healing, but instead prayer is a way to put ourselves in harmony with God and God’s creation.

I know this is a maddening message to hear, especially when we’ve been punching the buttons on our prayer remote controls for years. We want so much in life: healing and wholeness, happiness and peace, strength and success. We pray for these things, and we ask ourselves in our more meditative moments, “There’s nothing wrong with any of these requests . . . is there?” Well, no, there isn’t but the truth is that we set ourselves up for disappointment when we expect God to change the world according to our desires and our vision. We are fully justified, however, in expecting God to produce transformation in us through prayer. After all, maybe God has a different vision of healing, wholeness, happiness, peace, strength, and success than we do. Just a thought … 

(Read part two in the July 2023 edition of Joyful News.)