Surprisingly, there is an awful lot of spiritual and religious teachings which revolve around asking for favors. We pray for healing, ask for forgiveness, use energy to assert our will. We believe karma will bring us good things in return for good actions, and hope that the same mechanism works to visit punishment on people when we can’t bring that justice ourselves. People look for ways to make spiritual action produce material prosperity. We want things, and we want our religion to open up channels by which we can obtain the things we want.
Only it rarely works. For every prayer for healing, there are reassurances that death and suffering happen for good reasons. We hope for prosperity, but are more likely to find teachings which elevate poverty as an expression of faith. For all the things we want, there are few examples of people for whom those wishes came true as envisioned.
So is the problem in our faith?
Partially, yes, it is. But the bigger problem is in how we try to use our faith.
Spirituality deals with our connection to the other, the outside, the transcendent. Whether you believe this to be god, a pantheon of gods, a conglomeration of energies, a universal consciousness, or none of the above, spiritual practice concerns itself with things outside of our physical existence. Looking to spiritual forces to produce solutions to our material problems is like asking a financial advisor to deposit money in your bank account.
Instinctively we know this to be the case. When parents refuse to get medical care for their ill children because they believe god will heal them, most of us realize that this is a misunderstanding of how spirituality works. When musicians thank god for helping them win awards and sell albums, most of us know that this is false. But when the stakes get more personal, what we know in our hearts gets pushed aside to make room for what we wish could be true.
Whether or not you believe in magic, the practice of using rituals and spells to make something happen is simply a more straightforward example of what spiritual people do every day. While some pray to a benevolent spirit to ask for favors, practitioners of magic cut out the middle man. And there is a particularly important part of the magical practice which I think applies to all spiritual requests: you have to really think about what you want and why you want it, or you won’t get what you ask for.
One thing I have observed in the pagan community is that those who hope the right spell will give them good health and lots of money and great relationships with no work on their part are as disappointed in the results as those in the traditional religious community who ask god to grant them the same. Spirituality simply doesn’t work like a karmic vending machine.
What does happen, though, is that spiritual practice can point you towards ways of making your own actions and decisions more effective when it comes to getting what you want. And even more importantly, a meaningful spiritual practice can help you understand that what you really want isn’t what you always thought you wanted.
You may think you want money, but what you really want is to be free of debt or financially able to pursue certain projects or able to leave a job you dislike. You may think you want to find love, but what you really want is to feel loved and valued or to not feel lonely or even to recover from the loss of a previous relationship. What we ask for often isn’t what we really want, and that’s where we fail to understand what we can and cannot expect to get from through spiritual means.
To figure out what you really want and need, however, requires us to dig into our minds and spirits. It means taking a look at what we can change about our actions and decisions to get us moving towards the goals that really mean something to us. The easy button options we ask for are just clues to what we really need to be asking for.
So first maybe we should be using our spiritual energies to do that digging. Then we can start asking for what we want.