The college student at the foul line dribbled once. He caught the ball on the bounce and dribbled again. The announcer pointed out that he had made his last 39 shots, spanning six games. The game clock had expired. This point would win it.
The young man raised the ball to his chest. His eyes locked on the basket. He bent his knees and lofted the shot on its 13 foot, 9 inch journey to the center of the hoop, a path to which it had been true the last 39 times. The ball rotated as it arched its way home. It died at 13 feet, 1 ½ inches, clanking off the front of the rim. With that miss his consecutive free throw streak died as well, as did a little of him.
Of course, you saw that miss coming. It’s called the announcer’s jinx. Had the announcer, obviously a fan of the opposing team, kept his observation to himself the player’s streak would still be alive and the game over.
Sometimes we treat prayer that way. I have actually sat in the presence of people who thanked God they had stayed healthy all winter and then proceeded to knock on wood. Bit of mixed message, wouldn’t you say? I have encountered some afraid to pray, lest it jinx their desired outcome.
A notorious example of superstitious prayer is seen in the mindless repetition of rote prayer. People might say the Lord’s Prayer 14 times and believe they have prayed. But saying is not the same as praying. Others suppose that praying a particular prayer every day for a week might assure the supplicant of some answered favor. But prayer does not work automatically, simply by articulating the words.
While most reading this would likely not buy into such prayer, my guess is that we have all fallen into the trap of mindless prayer. Words without will. I find it hard to distinguish that from superstitious prayer, particularly if we believe that prayer of value.
The answer to superstitious prayer is grounding. The avenue to grounding is faith. Faith keeps our spiritual eyes open, focusing our gaze on the God with whom we meet. Faith animates our prayer. Faith fueled prayer precludes mindless prayer. Faith filled prayer submits and trusts.
Hebrews 11 is not about prayer but it does show us how faith works, something we can generalize to prayer. For example, we read:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. Hebrews 11:8–10 (ESV)
Faith receives the word of God, believes that word and acts upon it. Applied to prayer, faith believes that God hears and will answer according to His purposes. Faith also submits to those purposes. Such prayer will persevere even when it sees no answer forthcoming. As did Abraham, it presses on without sight, because it knows, believes, trusts, submits to, and seeks God.
In one perverse sense superstition is expressive of faith, but not a faith in the biblical sense. For superstition faith bears little if any relation to fact. Biblical faith, however, rests firmly and steadfastly on fact. It is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). It rests on realities unseen, realities perceived and appropriated through the spiritual sense of faith.
May God keep us from the mindless, manipulative, mechanistic prayer that reeks of superstition. May He instead infuse our prayer with faith that knows, pursues and serves Him.