Personal prayer

How our connection with God enhances our psychological wellbeing.

What do most of us pray about? When do we pray?
  1. We pray for ourselves and others- ‘God, give me strength, wisdom, and courage to do what is right. Bring us victory this day.’

  2. We pray for solutions during times of uncertainty, along the lines of ‘Give me your divine inspiration and set my feet upon Your path. Show me Your way.’

  3. We pray for forgiveness of sin and confess our wrongdoing- ‘God, I have sinned, please cover me in Your healing mercy and cleanse my heart with the purity of Your light.’

  4. We pray in adoration and worship- ‘I exalt You, oh Lord, highest on high.’

  5. We give thanks, ‘I prayed to You and You showered me in Your glory. Blessed be the Lord.’
How does prayer affect us psychologically in each of the above instances?

First, let’s take a moment to consider the power of the mind.

People sometimes think of the mind and the body as two separate entities, and assume that the brain has relatively little influence on what goes on elsewhere. This could not be further from the truth.

Although our mind tends to feel quite distinct from the rest of our body, it is in fact very much part of our body, and is in constant communication with the other parts, through chemical and electrical signals.

Our brain receives input from all parts of our body, undergoes changes in activity and physical structure as a result of these signals, and sends its output back all over the body. Awareness and consciousness as we know it would not be possible without our brain.

At first glance, our religious beliefs seem to reside primarily in our minds. Upon further consideration, we realise that they’re able to exert powerful effects upon the rest of our bodies. (Read more about the power of the mind.)
We often pray for the benefit of ourselves and others.
When we believe that an external force is endowing us with qualities that will enhance our performance and propel us towards success, it doesn’t matter whether an external force exists or not- as a result of our beliefs, we gain a boost in confidence and benefit from a more optimal mental state.

This strategy is similar to those employed by athletes who psyche themselves by visualising their path to victory, actors who make mental preparations to get into the mood of their character, soldiers who sing and chant in unison, and students who perform quiet, personal rituals before taking an exam.

(Read more about the benefits of Praying for Others.)
We often pray for insights and solutions to problems during times of uncertainty.
While praying, we tend to describe the problem at hand, phrasing it in words and explaining how we feel about it and why it bothers us. We may ask God to help us tackle the next steps, and while praying, we begin to think about and describe those steps in some detail. We ask God for a solution and trust that He will help us because of His grace and mercy.

Each of these elements confers significant benefits on the person who is praying.
  • Firstly, acknowledgement of a problem can bring a sense of relief and strengthen one’s resolve to deal with it.

  • Secondly, when we describe a problem in actual words, we are clarifying the size and scope of the issue, which is a first step towards solving it.

  • Thirdly, when we analyse our feelings, we realise how much of our mood and sense of negativity stemmed from the problem, and the act of pinpointing the source of our unpleasant feelings helps to alleviate them.

  • Fourthly, as we think through the problem and break it down into smaller, more manageable components, we start forming a plan of action. Realising that we might be able to tackle the issue and take it one step at a time gives us a sense of empowerment and brings relief.

  • Fifthly, when we tell ourselves that the matter is now in the hands of our generous, loving, all-powerful God, we start to feel that victory is nearer than we had previously feared, and even though the journey may be hard and long, the fact that we can already see the light at the end of the tunnel goes a long way towards bolstering our sustained and more enthusiastic efforts.
We pray for forgiveness of sin and tell God about our wrongdoings.
When we feel guilt, we may or may not be able to make amends. Either way, the knowledge that something is not right is burdensome.

We feel responsible and regretful, and until we pay our debts, part of our mental energy is devoted towards the issue.

We turn it back and forth in our minds, replaying various scenarios, wondering about the effects it wrought on others, and what they think of us.

The human mind does not let go of unresolved issues easily, because we know, even if only subconsciously, that their repercussions extend into the future. We live with a sense of unease, almost anticipating the day it comes back to bite us. This is a powerful and protective instinct- it keeps us aware and braced for further, related problems.

This tendency is so strong that we sometimes feel discomfort even when it seems impossible that our previous misdeeds could come back to haunt us. Prayer gives us a way of dealing with such discomfort, particularly with wrongdoings that we think can never be put right by human efforts.

When we believe that God exists, and that His forgiveness is capable of absolving even the worst deeds, we realise that we need not be tormented by guilt for the rest of our lives, and that we can seek His forgiveness, accept it, and put the past behind us and start afresh.

The mental shift involved can be dramatic- from believing that one’s actions were a permanent stain, to believing that one is finally able to wipe the slate clean. In Christianity, for example, Jesus is the sacrificial lamb, pure and blameless, who takes on the responsibility for humanity’s ugly deeds, as long as we are willing to confess our sins and believe in Him.

The requirement that we believe in His abilities is helpful- this strategy of psychologically convincing ourselves that our sins are cleansed wouldn’t work as well otherwise.

Furthermore, it gives us greater incentive to forgive others- if we strive to emulate God, we are more prepared to let go of our grievances, and benefit from letting go of our anger and hurt feelings.

(For more, refer to the section on Forgiveness.)
We pray in adoration and worship.
Believing that God is omniscient brings many benefits. Human beings, social creatures that we are, like to be occasionally reminded that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

Our connection to God makes us aware that we are part of His plan, and thus have a purpose in the context of the universe.

Furthermore, reminding ourselves that He is the Almighty allows us to believe more firmly in His ability to aid us and absolve our sins completely.

It also helps us to visualise or imagine what ‘perfection’ might entail- many believers feel that it lies beyond human comprehension, but are, at any rate, convinced that it exists in the heavenly realm. This belief allows us, in a way, to surrender to the knowledge that humans cannot attain perfection- only God can, and no one can compete with God.

Instead of squandering our energy in petty competition with fellow human beings and miserably fighting against the fact that there will always be someone with greater skill in some area of life, we can focus our attention on God and His beauty, and let go of our destructive egos.
We give thanks.
We all know how good it is to express gratitude to those to whom we are truly indebted. Sometimes it’s hard to identify the direct bearer of our fortunes, but we’d like to thank someone all the same.

When we attribute all good things to God and voice our sincere appreciation for His manifold blessings, it brings us a sense of reward and closure. Instead of keeping our satisfaction and gratitude to ourselves, we give God the praise that He deserves, which in turn makes Him glad and pleased with us.

By thinking of God as a being who listens to our innermost thoughts, we direct our sense of appreciation towards a mental representation of our deity and feel a sense of satisfaction that He is being justly acknowledged.

Thus, our belief in God helps us to draw out and amplify our best qualities. It prepares our minds, aids our search for solutions to problems, and endows us with the mental attitudes needed to tackle them. It alleviates us of guilt, anger, and regret, and allows us to feel like legitimate, purposeful parts of creation as a whole. It provides us with an abstract, imaginary figure to whom we can direct our thanks.

Note that each of these benefits occurs because we have a mental picture of God in mind, and that all our thoughts and assumptions are based on the belief that He exists. Whether or not God actually exists is beside the point- we can enjoy benefits that are derived purely from the faith contained in our heads.

Similarly, during meditation, many people channel their positive energy and focus on their strengths, to overcome problems. This technique of talking to oneself can be tremendously effective, mood-enhancing, and soothing. Benefits are incurred in the absence of a belief in spiritual intervention.

So far, we’ve focused on how individuals reap benefits when they engage in prayer. One’s faith, like anything else, has tangible effects on others. The benefits of religion extend beyond oneself, to one’s family, friends, and fellow believers.

(For a description of the advantages gained by people who listen to others praying, read the section on the benefits of Praying for Others. For a discussion on the power of the mind, refer to the section on Mind and Body. For more on the characteristics of prayer, refer to the section on Rituals.)
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