I saw someone on a message board recently request “IMMEDIATE prayers”. This nagged at me for a while, but I didn’t understand why until the next day: it seems so terribly inefficient.
Where time is concerned, money uncoupled labor and repayment – instead of working now for something you can get now, you work now for something you can (by taking money instead of other stuff) get later. Credit accounts even let the reward come before the labor. There was no fundamental shift in the universe that allowed this to happen. We just developed systems for making sure that credit gets repaid and that someone benefits from fronting you your reward.
So back to prayer. It seems to me that you should be able to buy now, pray later. That is, take your troubles to the Lord with an IOU for some prayer. God, of course, is free of the constraints of time, so a prayer later is just as good as any other. (Unless, of course, God has figured a way to earn interest on prayers collected or wishes granted in advance of prayer. But we can’t think about this, or who would be paying God’s interest, or whether God is getting the best rate, because such questions might make us a little crazy.)
As I see it, here is the problem to be overcome: how do you know what you owe? When you buy a widget on the strength of nothing more than some account information recorded on your credit card, you get a receipt. Even if you didn’t get a receipt, you walk out with a widget. This doesn’t give you an exact number, but it should give you at least a fair idea of what to pay when the bill comes due.
But, of course, there are no receipts for prayers. What’s worse, you often don’t know whether a prayer has been answered. For example, you pray for Aunt Tillie’s health on the occasion of her visit to the hospital to have a growth biopsied. It turns out to not be cancer, but instead something that can be managed for life with proper treatment. Is this a request granted? After all, Tillie is going to be (basically) OK. Or is it a request denied? Prescription medication often isn’t cheap, and frequent visits to specialists I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Even when it’s cut-and-dried that a prayer has been answered, it isn’t all that cut-and-dried. Say you pray that Edgar, who has just left your house after assuring you that he had several fewer drinks than you’re pretty sure he really had, makes it safely home without hurting anybody. And he does! Prayer answered, right? Or maybe Edgar was going to make it home anyway. If so, you have overpaid. On a prayer credit system, it isn’t at all clear that you should have to pay anything at all for an outcome that was coming anyway.
And because, unlike God, we are time-bound, we have no way of knowing whether our prayers do any good or not. So to promise to pay up after the fact for something you’re asking for now, well, it would just be silly.
So much for buy now, pray later.
One more thought: all of the same uncertainties apply to prayers that are paid up front: you get no record of the transaction, and there is no way to know from subsequent events whether your prayer had any impact. Which makes it very, very hard to determine the difference between praying and wishing, at least with regard to prayers that ask for stuff. Prayers that ask for nothing will never end with frustration.
Incidentally, though my seriousness here is somewhat, shall we say, lacking, many good people have valiantly tried to solve one of the fundamental problems with prayer credit – the inability to tell whether a prayer makes a difference. All with rigorous standards have failed. Here’s one tale; here’s another. And if you read only one link from this post, check this one out: it’s a story carried by Wired about The Study (believe me, you heard about it when it was released) that proved it to be the case that… well, read the article.