How Guidance Prayer Works

Joe had been out of work for three months.  He had diligently applied, without success, to every newspaper job listing in his field.  He did not know what to do next.  So Joe prayed to God (in Jesus’ name, of course) and asked for guidance.

Joe miraculously got an answer.  Honoring the message from God, he called his brother who said he had just recently heard of a job opening at his company.  Within weeks Joe was working and in addition to this blessing, God graced Joe with an improved relationship with his brother.  Joe shared this miraculous story with many people being sure to always give Jesus the thanks.

This may be what Joe thinks occurred:

However, in my view of Self (which involves no spirits, demons or gods), what actually happened may be more accurately modeled with the drawing below.

Joe’s present-self prayed and he listened for that quiet inner voice.  And indeed his other selves, given a quiet ear, were allowed to speak, giving Joe more information than his present-self was privy to.  When Joe heard the firm guiding voice he knew it was not himself (his present-self) so Joe attributed this guidance to his god.  What do you think?

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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

38 responses to “How Guidance Prayer Works

  1. Yeah. that’s pretty much the conclusion I’ve come to as well. My process now and back when I was a Christian are very similar and both combine me rationalizing something and accepting it for various reasons, just no God stuff now.

  2. Ed

    Your theory and drawings fit the wave/ocean model well. If it is all ocean and temporary waves, there is nothing but your-so-called-self to answer in any case.

  3. rey

    Even when I was a diehard ‘orthodox’ Christian, I never saw the point in praying for guidance. If God isn’t going to respond audibly, then what’s the point? You’re just going to make the decision yourself and then claim he did it. It always seemed preposterous to me. Besides that, I don’t actually see anywhere in the New Testament that says we ought to pray for guidance.

    There’s James 1:5 “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” But that’s asking to have wisdom, not asking God “What should I do in this specific case?” Its a lot different.

    In the OT there are examples of things like that, like Gideon asking God to make the ground wet all around his fleece but not on it, then the next to make it dew only on the fleece and not on the ground (which of course God did according to the story) but preachers always said we can’t tempt God like that today, its a sin, God doesn’t put up with it anymore. I always figured praying for an answer to a specific question was the same thing.

  4. i love how you put “what joe think occurred” and for your own thoughts “what actually happened” like one is fact and the other fiction.

    we side with what we want to happen based on our biases which we then make virtuous.

  5. Temaskian

    Now I know why my prayers never worked while people all around me were rejoicing over answered prayers! I never prayed this way before when I was a Christian.

    Henceforth, I shall pray in this manner.

  6. I think that is very correct. I am interested in this part:
    And indeed his other selves, given a quiet ear…
    …because I want to understand that mechanism better, what the quiet ear is. I like the example you gave has to do with Joe laying his pride aside. I think that is a big part of it, that someone is willing to submit their desires to the desire of God (in Joe’s case). At that point, perhaps it is possible to hear something one wouldn’t normally, like to overcome resentment towards the brother?

  7. DaCheese

    Another way to look at it is that the person praying already knows the answer, but the supplicant attitude evoked by prayer puts them in the right state of mind to accept it. And/or the idea that “god” told them to helps them to overrule the instincts and impulses (parts of the mind) that would normally resist that course of action.

    Your “put aside pride” example is perfect. This type of prayer automatically puts you in a humble frame of mind, so the work is already mostly done; the “pride module” has been deactivated long enough to accept the idea. And afterward “god’s” backing is enough to overrule pride once it comes back into play.

    Another related scenario is when people ask for a “sign” about whether they should do something. In that case, the person already knows what s/he should do or wants to do, but they want outside confirmation to overrule their internal conflict. Once asked, it’s easy enough to find some random happenstance and declare it the promised “sign”, thus allowing the person to do what s/he wanted to all along, without guilt or worry.

  8. Ed

    @ DaCheese… well put regarding getting a “sign”.
    @ Sabio… This is my chance to voice a gripe I’ve always had about prayer, especially from Christians… it is almost exclusively begging! We become beggars. Give me this… fix that… let me do this… my life isn’t working so fix it… Ugh, no wonder god is quiet. Jesus was not born of a virgin peasant girl and a humble carpenter. No. He was born when a traveling vending machine salesman had an affair with a concierge.

  9. 1minionsopinion

    Sadly I had to look up the definitions of concierge but then I laughed.

    It’s not just the begging, though, it’s the bargaining as well. Do this for me, god, and I will never…again.

    How many people follow through on the second half?

  10. rey

    Somehow I really doubt people really believe God answers these prayers. I think they know the answer came from themselves, but they go around saying it was God to make themselves feel special or to impress co-religionists.

  11. @DaCheese
    Another way to look at it is that the person praying already knows the answer, but the supplicant attitude evoked by prayer puts them in the right state of mind to accept it. And/or the idea that “god” told them to helps them to overrule the instincts and impulses (parts of the mind) that would normally resist that course of action.

    So when people hear God, they’re really involved in a sort of self-awakening, or self-quieting, experience.

    That would line up with my personal experiences, in which I would attribute this type of answer to God. I would see the true answer not in getting the job, but in reconciliation with the brother.

    Belief, prayer, the attempt to find a “true” answer….they are all religious experiences meant to transcend the self.

    Sabio’s illustration would play nicely into a theology that constructs itself in terms of a “higher” self and a lower self…..especially if the “higher” self is thought of as God.

  12. @ terri, DaCheese & atimetorend
    I think you all point out that seeking guidance can be an art. and the fact that transcending self, in ways, can be helpful. In my world, there is not true-self to transcend and thus transcendence means understand no-self. It is very materialistic and yet deeply personal and some may call spiritual. But, terri, in my model, there is no “higher” self. I could draw a Model to see how I think Hindus and such view it incorrectly in this regard.

    @ Rey : this model works for seeing wisdom too. I think there are several types of Christians in regard to this sort of prayer: a) outright hypocritical liars (few, I’d imagine), Confused (sort of aware it is themselves but always hoping for a higher power — probably most Christians) and those who truly believe.

    @ zero1ghost: I cushion everything, but not enough for you, apparently. Indeed, I unabashedly do not think spooks are involved. I offered an explanation which captures how this prayer works without positing the supernatural. Sorry you didn’t like it.

    Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.
    — Einstein

  13. @Sabio

    I know your model isn’t saying that…I do recognize the big, red A badge on your blog…along with the patron deity of the flying spaghetti monster…though I think it’s a shame that Einstein is placed lower in the cosmological order.

    Apparently the flying spaghetti monster does not share its glory with mere mortals! 😉

    Anyway, I know you’re coming from an atheist perspective…I’m just chiming in that such a model is not inconsistent with theism…even, or maybe especially, a materialistic theism.

  14. @ Terri
    Doesn’t theism require an outside voice? Or are you saying the God designed the brain to talk to itself and supply the illusion of Himself? That seems a bit confusing. I must be missing something.

  15. i don’t like it, you’re right, but it’s not because you didn’t cushion it. it’s the same thing you state when you said on my blog ” It also conveniently forgets the unconnected, inconvenient incidents that abound.” about finding patterns. well, how about this information: sometimes the multiple selves come up with something sooo far beyond what i would normally think up, that i can only guess it came from a consciousness other than my own.

    if one model is true and the other false and yet they lead to the same end, then what’s the difference? why does it matter one way or the other?

  16. @ zero1ghost

    (a) I don’t forget the hard stuff to explain, I just don’t conjure up spirits and gods to conveniently explain them them away. (which themselves explain nothing because they beg huge explanations in themselves).

    (b) The god-model may get the same message, perhaps, but it also usually comes with the “GOD SAID IT” stamp that kills dialogue and is used in manipulation. I call this the “Sanctification Cloak“. So actually, the outcomes are extremely different and one is less desirable — the false one.

  17. @Sabio
    Doesn’t theism require an outside voice?

    I wouldn’t say theism “requires” an outside voice.

    I am saying that in many ways God is a human construct, which is not the same as saying that there is no God.

    From a traditional, orthodox, Christian perspective…God is “other”…and yet, even in Christianity there are seeds of the acknowledgement that God and Man are intertwined in some strange way. The idea of man being created in the image of God, the idea that His Spirit dwells within believers, that we remain ourselves, yet somehow become new selves, that there is a conflict between the flesh and the “spirit”(which I would classify as the conflict between the lower self and the higher self).

    I am not offering it as proof of God’s existence, or trying to sway you or your readers into theism. I am only saying that your example is the basis upon which many religions function.

    Consider my word salad the ravings of a confused mind, or at least that’s what the other selves in my brain are telling me right now! 😉

  18. Ed

    Whenever I struggle with a question and it goes on and on with out resolution I wonder if I might have asked the question in the wrong way. I have really been enjoying this discussion. The post and the comments are very intelligent. But it’s going in circles. Before my collar goes off I would like to paraphrase Alan Watts: “Just as one person experiences the beating of his heart as something that happens to him, so another feels it is something that he does”. zzzzzt

  19. in response to

    A) well then that deals out inspiration, as that would be a “spirit” by the very etymology of the word. so that does a great disservice to your model. on many of my problems, i feel suddenly inspired to take one course of action over another. there’s nothing rational to it, it’s gut. whether the source is a multiple self, or God tugging one way or another, both are impossible to verify.

    B) to some, the God Said It, requires much more dialog. and the sanctification cloak (SC) can also be useful. if the relationship were stressed between said brother, then the tough choice involves some humble pie. on the other hand, if the brother-boss totally uses and manipulates the other brother, the other brother might put up with it because of the SC and be in a bad situation longer. so that’s the bad side i see in my position. but that’s the thing with the religious mind, it is both humbled before the infinite and self-assertive as well. it’s a crazy paradox.

    the point being, we’re looking for meaning in this reality. either point is equally unverifiable as the workings of the human animal are largely a mystery. i don’t mean to say “so let’s throw up our hands” but continue to explore it, being open to all possibilities.

    i like your method, i really do. i just chafe at the slight of hand… mainly because i’m a deluded theist.

  20. @ Zero :

    (a) I did want to point out that “inspiration”, at its very root, comes spirare “to breathe”. So we can still breathe and still have inspirations from ourselves. Remember, in my world, our various selves is a vast mystery and surprising.

    But your opening paragraph’s rhetoric (which I know is a favorite for sermons), is a logical fallacy. So, as I did on your site, I am again directing you to the Logical Fallacy Taxonomy page. The Etymology Fallacy is yet another Red Herring.

    (b) Have you heard of neurological disorders where the corpus callosum was cut? The divided self of these individuals illustrates some of what I mean by “multiple selves”. Here is a fun “Neuroscience for Kids” article showing some of this. I have read a lot of Gonzaga and his work. Stuff is done now on Autism and other disorders involving the brain’s construction of self.

    (c) Again, as I wrote on you blog, “equally unverifiability” is mistaken because we are talking about level of evidence and reason. I don’t think I performed any “slight of hand”, I just offered a reasonable, simple explanation which does not need spirits and supernatural stuff and has much surrounding evidence (though nothing is conclusive of course). And the model helps explain much. It makes religion look a little less bizarre and points to one-self atheists that there may be more to explore than they imagine.

    Thank for your reply, Zero.

  21. that’s odd, i looked up Inspiration on the Online Etymology Dictionary before commenting.. so either they’re wrong, or you’re trying to make me feel stupid. plus when speaking to someone who knows bible, breath comes to mind, and then the Hebrew Ruach HaKodesh springs to mind… cause i’m a complex kinda thinker. more associative than linear. so that’s what i was thinking.

    i think you offered a fine, reasonable, and simple explanation. one that i don’t buy into for a few reasons, already noted.

  22. @ Zero1Ghost

    OK, so let’s say you believe in a God talking to you?

    Do you also feel like a many self entity who can sometimes hear insights from unconscious sides of what you consider your present self?

  23. yes, i believe in both. i believe that i’m a many self entity who can hear insights from the unconscious. however, i feel i can ID these choices versus those that would come from an “outside source” that i choose to name God. i conclude this because there are choices i have made that are completely unlike what any of my selves would choose.

    so yes, i buy into your multiple selves idea. but it’s pretty clear on where i don’t either. i think you’re on the right track, and i get where you’re coming from.

  24. Joseph Onesta

    We all use information to make decisions. I am a Christian and I don’t believe that everything one hears in one’s mind-ear is God. I see God working through bigger things. It is certainly very easy for those who have experienced a kind of disillusion to toss it all into the rubbish. I remain open-minded and often what I see as guidance is very subtle indeed. I certainly think there is much beyond the ego that we leave untapped and whether you call it God, your higher spiritual self, that part of you that is conscious with a capital C, or simply intuition which may be some arcane remnant of the psyche before humans developed speach, it is worthy of tapping.

  25. @ Zero :
    So, let me see if I have this right, you hear three types of voices:
    1) your own
    2) hidden other selves inside (but still your own)
    3) outside voice — God

    You can tell 2 and 3 apart but because #3 asks you to do things you have never done before. So that assumes you are familiar with all the possible other selves that can form and of unconscious material that has entered you psych and inter-acted since you last heard a #2.

    Finally, you certainly don’t mean to say “I will do any weird suggestion I hear in my mind that I could not dream up myself, because it must be god?”

    I worked on psychiatric wards for 4 years — I’ve literally seen that in action. I had a pt who felt he was Jesus and that God told him to throw me out a window. It took a full code from other floors to subdue him and save my butt.

    I find it very interesting that you feel so strongly that you can separate #2 from #1 — I can’t.

  26. @ Joseph Onesta :

    “I am a Christian and I don’t believe that everything one hears in one’s mind-ear is God.”
    Joesph Onesta

    I think precious few Christians believe that, thank Krishna!

    I agree with you that whatever it is, is worth tapping. My questions for atheist readers is:
    How do they feel they tap it or if they feel it is not needing tapping?

    You sound very open on this issue. Are you a Christian universalist?

  27. I am not a universalist in the sense that it all is the same to me. It isn’t but I am not narrow minded enough to believe that what I think is “right” thus making anyone who disagrees with me wrong. I have experienced spirituality in a way I cannot deny and that experience is in a Christian context, though I do not disdain the experiences of others. In my experience, very few Christians know much about what it means to be a follower of Christ. Many disillusioned people who abandon their faith do not do so because logic supplants irrationality but because they see the disturbing juxtaposition between what Jesus taught and the close-minded bigoted behavior of those who profess to follow his teaching.

    My spiritual quest is to lead a life that is as illuminated, loving, forgiving and encompassing as the one that Jesus taught and lived. Granted, our records have been tainted by historical misrepresentation so not many people know what that really means. That is why the journey is as internal as it is external. When we talk about hearing the voice of God, it is often like listening to a symphony and being able to distinguish a particular instrument and follow it’s music throughout the entire movement. It is just as likely that any of us is wrong, distracted, unable to sustain the consciousness of that single instrument. But being unable to distinguish it does not mean it isn’t there and it certainly doesn’t invalidate those who try to listen for it.

    My blog is all about helping Christians on the point of disillusionment to learn to hear that instrument in the symphony of of their own lives. I am really glad you commented on my blog and am equally interested in yours. Thanks for finding me

  28. “o that assumes you are familiar with all the possible other selves…”

    i feel like i know what i would do and what connections i would make. yeah. there’s a familiarity about it.

    “Finally, you certainly don’t mean to say…”

    nope! not at all.

    “psych ward”

    i too worked there for about 6 months, but no way near as many hours as you would no doubt put in. needless to say, i’ve met Batman, Superman, and Jesus. i’m always amazed at the human mind both on and off the psych ward. i have a visit coming up with an ex-church member this week on the ward. i’m looking forward to it.

    “I find it very interesting that you feel so strongly that you can separate #2 from #1 — I can’t.”

    really? how about this: #1 is my conscious voice. i know it’s me, like now as i type these words, i hear the voice speaking. this is usually a steady stream of words and images (as i usually think in pictures, which is why my blog and writing style are not as clear as yours) #2 would be the thoughts that come unbidden. these are usually images or single words. #3 and #2 would be harder to distill, sometimes they are very similar. but there are other times like i posted in my “Something Like ESP but Not” post that is extremely hard to explain.

  29. @ Joseph
    Your life story is a bit unique and intense. Thanks for sharing.

    @ Ghost
    Upon long introspection, # 2, for me is so intertwined with #1 that I have come to realize there is not solid #1. And since #2 can largely explain the mysterious, I feel no longer a need to convince myself that there is a #3 (God). I was a Christian, and as soon as I left the flock, I still heard #3 and was free to realize it was #2. Hope that makes sense. And on this we differ.

    For somehow, you still feel you know when it is a god talking to you because, as you wrote, “I know it when I see it.” Which is the reasoning of all faith healers and Charismatic television megastars.

  30. ian

    Sorry I’m so late to this post. I agree that that is one possible mechanism.

    Of course the same thing also happens among communities and for things that aren’t just internal changes. Alex asks Bill to pray with her because she can’t make rent. Bill shares this with Carl, who tells Dana, and Dana puts $200 in an envelope and leaves it in Alex’s mailbox. Alex finds that God has miraculously answered her prayers and provided for her again. Isn’t he a great God?

    Of course I’d say that this process could be thought of as the actions of a meta-cognitive God. Which is just another way of saying that there is a perfectly non-supernatural explanation for it.

  31. @ Ian
    That was a fun sketch of how people can ignore normal social interconnectedness and deem outcomes as coming from a god. I think the parallel to the inner phenomena is exactly right on. I have a planned post describing the moral consequences of your insight. [Darn, not enough time to write — got to keep earning that legal tender!]

  32. “Which is the reasoning of all faith healers and Charismatic television megastars.”

    which is exactly what i am. thanks! really appreciate that. there are somethings i just don’t have words for yet, but i continue to try to articulate it. we are both trying to find meaning and articulate this reality we are both experiencing. i’m always amazed at how you clearly describe yours. i guess i’m a little more confused than that.

  33. DaCheese

    A bit of a tangent, but Ian’s post reminds of another personal theory of mine, about the “power of positive thinking”. Some people attribute mystical powers to it, beyond the obvious effects of making you happier and more likable. Think Intention-Manifestation (The Secret), etc. But I think what’s really going on there is just the second- and third-order effects of that increased likability; people remember what you were looking for, and since they liked you and your positive attitude, they are more willing to go out of their way to make you aware of it when they themselves stumble across the object of your desire.

    Maybe slightly more on-topic, the other non-spooky benefit of Intention-Manifestation practice is that the visualization aspect primes various parts of your brain to be looking for the right thing and be ready for it when(if) it shows up. Again, people see mystical/cosmic forces at play when they seemingly stumble into the situation they wanted, but it’s really just the result of their “subconscious” at work (or just plain dumb luck!).

  34. ian


    I agree. This is why self-help folks like Tony Robbins encourage people to choose a set of things they want to be true and make space to repeat and rehearse them daily (Robbins calls it a Mantra). If you are serious to yourself about achieving something, you are more likely to pull your finger out and do it.

  35. Ed

    @ zero… I agree with you… Sabio can articulate like nobody’s business. And I, like you, am not quite there yet… You do quite well however, don’t sell yourself too short.

  36. @ Zero :
    Yes, of course you are not those guys! You are one of my favorite Christian. Thus I am encouraging to avoid leanings into such logic. As you know, I love discourse with you. But you often make systematic and almost empirical claims and it is those that I may challenge, when you stick to pure poetry and images without trying to imply a dogmatic or rational theology, I let can just watch without comment. But when we play in the rational realm, we all sort of agree to the rules of the playground. We must be willing to carry through and not retreat when things get awkward to saying “But I am a poet and mystic so it still counts!” Not that you do that, but ….

    @ DaCheese (& Ian) :
    Well put !!

    @ Ed:
    Thanks, and I hope I honor to attempts of others to verbalize and systematize. I hope you don’t see me as rough with Ghost — I love the guy. In fact, I do not feel I am brilliant at articulating but just fumbling along with the rest of my blogging buddies who are patient with me and help me slowly improve (both technically and emotionally).

  37. thanks Sabio, sorry for my crappiness. just felt attacked, and i guess because it’s that good of a theory. i feel like i know myself really well so i know what thoughts are mine and what aren’t. i also feel like i get insights from a 3rd source. it could be a multiple self, it could be my shadow side (to play in the Jungian psychology realm, he had a similar theory of “selves”) or it could be a divine source. i come with the assumption that there is a 3rd source, you don’t. so your theory is perfectly logical. i would posit mine is also, but i can’t say how, so i’ll shut up. 😉

    now onto further speculation: in this model, prayer then becomes more of a focusing of selves into one purpose? kinda like what Ian and DaCheese are talking about?

    i heard an interesting quote the other day on madmen that said “it’s [life] is a choice between what i want to do and what society deems acceptable.” would one of the multiple selves but a societal monitor type? as well as the shadow side, a societal deviant? just working with the theory here…

  38. @ Zero
    NP. Remember, I use to feel like I got 3rd source stuff too. So I kind of get it — but then maybe you are really hearing God and I never did. 😉

    Yes, I think prayer may actually be useful to open our minds to see past obstacles we have. Meditation or even several secular techniques work for this too. My objection is calling it “hearing God’s voice” because of all the baggage that comes with that. Because if it is God, it can’t be questioned and it is a command — the fodder of a madman. I am sure you understand.

    I don’t buy into Jungian shadow imagry (never have — I was a psych major and worked as a counselor for a few years). So I can’t really entertain the parallel. Remember, in my module, the selves are transient alignment of mental modules.

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