Those of us supporting Ghana in this festive South African hosted World Cup – in my case, since England have been unceremoniously dumped out of the competition – had cause for great hope in the last minute of extra time. Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez had handled the ball on the goal line, stopping a certain goal in what can most politely be described as a highly dubious manner. The South Americans had conceded a penalty, which meant the Black Stars could close the deal with the last kick of the game, winning 2-1, and becoming the first African team to reach a World Cup semi-final.
Having spent time in Accra – where every second “tro-tro” (minibus) boasts an overt spiritual message on its windscreen – I feel it is no exaggeration to suggest that millions of Ghanaians and other Africans were praying at that moment. However, under inestimable pressure and wearied at the end of a 2-hour long match Asamoah Gyan – who had already scored from the penalty spot twice in the tournament – could only hit the woodwork.
Proof that prayer doesn’t work? I have seen this kind of argument made in many an online “comments” discussion by those who dispute the viability of prayer as a practical aid. This is sometimes an angry reaction to a sportsperson thanking God for giving them their victory, prompting the reasonable question “Does that mean God doesn’t love the other guy/gal/team?” As a whole-hearted believer in the power of prayer I am, nevertheless, with the atheists on this one. Who wants to believe in a God who plays favourites among His children – that is, if there is a God, and if we are His/Her children?
That’s not to say I wasn’t tempted to wish this kind of prayer would work during all four of the England matches, and during that eleventh hour Ghana drama!
From my perspective of prayer as a power for good, however, it would be cause for concern if prayer for football scores or any other material goals (excuse the pun) were able to yield results. If that can happen, then we are stuck with an anthropomorphic God who is conscious of our material circumstances and intercedes based on prayerful requests to Him to do our bidding. Such “prayer” is, at best, intense human sentiment sincerely but selfishly desiring a self-preferential outcome. Sometimes it is more like human will-power hoping to force God’s hand in favour of one’s own desires at the expense of perceived “others”, the very opposite of meek, open-hearted, God-seeking prayer.
So what is prayer? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of prayer agreed by the many billions who pray, let alone a definition that would be shared by those who do and those who don’t pray. One part of a definition that resonates with me is the following. “True prayer is not asking God for love; it is learning to love, and to include all mankind in one affection. Prayer is the utilization of the love wherewith He loves us.” (No and Yes, Mary Baker Eddy) This squares with the central words of Jesus that the greatest commandment, to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, is inseparable from the ceaseless and universal demand to love all one’s neighbours.
It is possible that some Ghanaians and other supporters were praying in this noble and inclusive way during the tense build-up to that gut-wrenching penalty miss, and during the penalty shoot-out that followed. I, for one, couldn’t muster the humility to do so in the heat of the moment. As Ghana went out, though, I did change mental gears. I prayed to free myself from the upset and anguish I felt for Ghana itself, and for the continent of Africa, both of which I had dearly wanted to see represented in the semi-finals. (That was no doubt easier for me to do, from my armchair, than for the real fans in Soccer City!) And I prayed to “include all mankind in one affection”, consciously celebrating the Ghana team and their fans, the Uruguayans – yes, even the handball culprit – and the rest of us who watched as so-called “neutrals”.
Probably, others did something similar. That isn’t, though, the kind of prayer people presume is prayed at football matches. It is assumed, probably justly in many cases, that fans and players are praying for their team to win. From the standpoint of those who see prayer as the means by which the individual who prays becomes more spiritual in attitude and less self-centred in practice such prayer proves nothing about the practicality of prayer because it isn’t really prayer. Nor would anything have been proved about prayer had Ghana got what the Ghanaians (and those of us who were Ghanaians for the day!) wanted. It still isn’t prayer to pray for material “things”, even if the things desired do subsequently transpire. My own experience is that prayer for spiritual things – an understanding of God, and consequent insights into how to live more expressively of God’s love, for example – does bring practical change for the better, but never at the expense of others.
What this Ghana case study, if we can loosely call it that, does do is prompt the recognition that people use the word prayer to describe a wide range of heartfelt responses to a wide range of situations, and that some of these responses are genuinely holy (i.e related to the spiritual love of God and humanity) while many of them are probably not.