At the risk of stating the obvious, when we pray, we pray to an invisible God.
Now some petitioners may not be bothered by that but does that hold true for all? How can God’s invisibility cause problems for people who want to pray?
Bingham Hunter says that the first problem resides in the fact that some people don’t deal well with abstract ideas. An abstract idea is a thought that does not have a physical existence. In essence, a person struggling with understanding abstraction would prefer most ideas to be something to touch, smell and see and God does not “fill the bill” for them. Terms like “The Great Spirit” and “The Power of the Universe” don’t help. Many people may be like the child Billy at the beginning of Chapter 5.* He is afraid in his dark bedroom and he expresses that to his mother. She admonishes him that there is no need for fear; God is always with us. Billy says it would be a lot better if God were a real person with skin on. Now there is nothing we can do about this; sorry Billy. We pray to an invisible God.
In a related way, some people may fear what they cannot see. I take it for granted that I have my 65 year old conception of God. I am not a theologian, only a layperson in a Methodist Church, but I was exposed to God early in my life and as the years have gone by, I have been blessed with a strong need to learn more about Him and His invisibility is not a problem. He meant for it to be that way as you turn to Old Testament Scripture like Exodus 33:20 “No one can see Me and live.” But what about the novice, the person who, for whatever reason, has never really considered the need for worshipping a “Higher Power”? How does a new Christian begin to conceptualize God? I have been around a few “new Christians” and one of the most negative struggles I have heard about is the woman who had trouble conceptualizing an invisible God because she could not help but visualize her unloving earthly father in the place of an invisible God. Another Christian I know prays to God as an empty chair. He knows God is invisible but the empty chair gives him both that idea and a prayer focus. It is a shame that invisibility can rouse anxiety or even fear, but it can.
The God of our childhood can be carried over to adulthood. Many of us have seen children’s Sunday School materials that attempt to picture God. He may be a bearded fatherly figure in the clouds or a benevolent friendly elder with His hands stretched out over the earth. The problem with this is the “otherness” that God seeks to present to man. God is divine and should not reflect our experiences and desires. The more we humanize God, the more we may find Him easier to pray to, but God should not be put “in a box.” He is bigger and more complex than man can imagine; He takes many forms; for example a lion, a lamb, a whirlwind, a burning bush, or an angel to name a few. He is not limited by man’s imagination.
Finally, we can be distracted when we pray in the company of people. I lead pray from time to time and I wonder how I can fit my prayer to the group I am praying with. Should that be my ultimate concern? No. Maybe I am trying to impress with my prayer. Is my prayer sincere enough? Maybe I should raise my hands. I need to remember to mention that person’s mother who is very ill. An invisible God does not care about how we sound or the “thees” and “thous” we use; He probably just wants to hear a clear and honest expression of what is on our heart.
To be honest, the more we study the Bible, the more we encounter the abstract spirit of God. The more we humanize God, the more we make God a particular earthly entity. YHWH became “Yahweh”, and then the more familiar Lord and God. Why did God reveal His name to us? Because He did not want us to think of Him as a cosmic “it”. Maybe He did not intend for us to use the familiar name Bob in place of God, but He wants to be a part of our lives.
Whether you have to use an empty chair or a Sunday School characterization, He wants us to relate to Him. He certainly does not want us to fear Him. We may have many distractions that take us away from God’s divinity but He wants us to feel His presence in our lives. He wants to relate to us…
God to man.
*Of the book The God Who Hears