Prayer: A Means or an End?

I’ve figured out one of the problems I have with hospital chaplaincy.  Here in the hospital the chaplain is part of the care-giving team.  Spiritual care is subsumed under the rubric of health.  The (noble and needed) goal is improving the health of our patients.  Spiritual care is one of many means to achieve that end.

I agree that religion, spirituality, prayer or other facets of the human-divine encounter can contribute to one’s health.  However, when spiritual care is coupled with physical therapy, pharmacology, and many other medical disciplines for the purpose of improving the health of a patient, religion becomes a tool, a utility, a means toward arriving at some other, greater end (health).  I think such a view diminishes religion.

Physical therapy, prescription drugs, surgery are means to an end – they are not goals in and of themselves.  Religion (and the divine/human encounter it represents), however, is an end in itself.  Yet too often we try to demonstrate how prayer or forgiveness can improve one’s quality of life.

"Prayer, then, is no longer seen as an end in itself.  It becomes the means to an ends other than communion and communication with God.  These ends have become higher goods to which even God is subordinated.  Whenever our self-determined goals come first, however laudable they may be, God and our love for God are displaced from the center.  A prevailing danger in our culture is that of subordinating everything, even our faith, to therapeutic and pragmatic values." Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, in Pray without Ceasing: Revitalizing Pastoral Care (2006, Eerdmans), page 32.

Surely there is a slippery slope to her suggestion that God be central in our lives.  As with Martin Luther’s spiritual struggle, when have we really made God central?  When have we prayed enough, believed enough, been faithful enough?  What does a God-centered-life look like?  We Lutherans might look critically at Hunsinger’s suggestion, asking if humans are truly able to make God central, and wondering where sin enters into her understanding of the human/divine relationship?

Liberal deconstructionists might ask who the God is that are we making central?  Is it the God of middle class, white, suburbia?  Is it the God of self-help?  Is it the God of success and personal comfort?  Who is this God we are seeking – yet perhaps unable – to make central to our lives?

Despite these questions, I like her criticism that prayer/spirituality/religion has become a means to other, supposedly greater goals.  Is my faith in God a tool toward a better life, or a gift valuable in and of itself?  Is prayer worthwhile only if it decreases my anxiety?  I believe that the whole enterprise of prayer/spirituality/religion, the encounter with God and the life of faith, are ends in and of themselves.  These ends indeed bear fruit and have personal and social benefits, but these benefits are not the substance, reason or primary purpose of religious practice or belief.  If they were, religion would be nothing other than a utility, a tool toward some variously-defined social good.  And for various reasons, that is not workable.

More later on this topic and on Deborah Hunsinger’s book (which is an excellent read so far – I’m 100 pages into it).

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
This entry was posted in Clinical Pastoral Education, Faith & the Church, Lutheran. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Prayer: A Means or an End?

  1. PS says:

    Interesting thoughts. I think the increasing trend to see prayer as a means to an end is encouraged by the consumer mentality that seems to be part of the modern mega churches. It goes along with the desire to go to church to GET SOMETHING OUT OF IT rather than just to worship. Man centered, not God centered.
    Perhaps this could be countered with more instruction on praying, esp . learning about types of prayer that are other than ASKING for something. Praise of God, for example.
    And praise music that is about God, not about man ie. the “I will praise Him” type that doesn’t tell a thing about what He did or why I am praising Him.
    I would expect in the hospital setting, where goals are written down to get the government to pay, the spiritual aspects are almost expected to follow this model. But there wouldn’t be a place for a chaplin if someone didn’t agree that there is a REASON. What is the stated reason for chaplin visits?

  2. Nate says:

    Hunsinger’s book…theologically thirst quenching and even moving. I’d forgotten that it was done, thanks for recommending it via your site!
    Her first chapter – on koinonia echoes Lacugna’s (another book you turned me on to!) urging to see the community of the trinity as a model for our relationships with God and the mutuality we show each other. Living in a world of individualism predicated on a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, this is a message, I think, we need to hear over and over again.
    In response to your question of the place of sin vis a vis ‘making God the center’. My sense is that DH is pointing her readers to an all out pursuit for communion with God, albeit an utterly imperfect and helplessly incomplete effort. Would your critique change if she conceded that making God the center was was a quest destined for ‘incompleteness’?
    Looking forward to see you guys soon! We can talk shop…

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