Prayer reinforces pride in at least two situations. The first occurs when we pray for victory at someone else's expense. Such prayers strive to make us winners and our opponents losers. We thus force God to take sides in a contest or dispute or conflict we want to win, at all costs. As Mary says to the distraught mother in Tolstoy's short story, "You should not be angry with God. He cannot listen to everyone. Sometimes people hear only one side, and in order to do good for one the other is abused."
But what if people from the other side are praying for victory, too? If two people pray for opposite things, then God cannot answer both prayers at the same time. The requests are mutually exclusive. If God answered both, then he would contradict himself. So one person at least--and perhaps both--will be disappointed because God doesn't answer her or their prayers. It could be that God doesn't take sides at all, at least not in the way we would like.
Perhaps the people who attribute victory to God are giving God credit for something he didn't do. In situations involving a win or a loss, God might actually stand on the side of those who lose. He might be eager to answer their prayers because his ear is turned toward the cry of the weak and desperate. Besides, it could be that the loss propelled them to pray for what matters most in God's eyes, humility, courage, and patience. We must beware, in other words, of assuming that God is on our side when we win and not on the side of those who lose, as if victory implies God's favor and loss means God's rejection. Then again, we must be equally cautious about assuming that, because God takes the side of those who lose, he always opposes those who win. Perhaps God doesn't think in terms of losing or winning at all, at least not in the way we are inclined to.
When my oldest son, David, was in elementary school, he played on a soccer team that dominated the city league. At one point his team won twenty straight matches, culminating in a victory in the city tournament at season's end. But during the following year David's team lost four matches in a row, including one lopsided loss to a team that had never beaten them. That team gloated and taunted David and his teammates after the match, which only made matters worse.
David's team rallied during the final city tournament, however, playing well enough to make it into the finals. To their dismay, they had to square off against the team that had beaten them so badly only a few weeks before. Both teams played well. At the end of regulation play, the score was tied two to two. So the teams had to go into a shoot-out. A shoot-out requires five players from each team to shoot against the opposing goalkeeper from twelve yards out. Whichever team scores the most goals in the shootout wins the match.
Our team won when our goalkeeper blocked the last shot. The kids went wild, leaping into the air and piling on top of each other. It looked like a scene from a Disney movie. One parent said, "I believe there's a God again." Being more modest and pious, I simply uttered a prayer of thanksgiving under my breath.
We had no way of knowing, of course, what was happening on the other side of the field. I learned more about the other team only recently, some five years later, when I met a Christian parent from the opposing side. In the course of our conversation she described a tournament in which her son had played years earlier. At first I had no idea that she was talking about the famous match.
Her son's team, she reported, had suffered a "devastating" loss in the finals. As she described it, their team had been a perennial loser, especially to one particular team that had "no idea what it felt like to lose." Their team had finally beaten this nemesis, and badly, too. They had to face the same team again in the tournament finals. Their team "needed" that victory, she said, to add the finishing touches to the only winning season they had ever had. But they lost-"in a shootout," she said, "and on the last shot." Only then did I realize that she was talking about the same match.
Did God answer our prayers and deny theirs? I don't think so. For all I know, God answered their prayers in a more significant way. Perhaps they had been praying that their sons would grow up well, learning to honor God, to become people of character, and to develop perspective in life so that winning or losing a soccer match would become less and less important. Adversity, after all, probably does more to help people grow up than easy victories. In the end losing might have been better for them than winning was for us.
As I look back now, I think that our prayers were silly, shortsighted, and selfish. But is that really surprising? We often say selfish prayers without thinking much about them. We pray for parking spaces when we're running late, never considering that ten other people, as late as we are, might be praying, too, for the two remaining spaces available in the parking garage. We pray for victories in elections, forgetting that victory for one party means defeat for another party that might be just as prayerful as we are. We pray for success in business, though increased sales in our business might undermine competitors down the street who are praying for the same thing and need success more than we do. Not that these prayers are necessarily wrong, but we should remember that answers to our prayers might be at someone else's expense.