Why Prayer Isn’t Voodoo

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If you were an ancient Akkadian experiencing a toothache,you would go to the local healer. His diagnosis would be that there is a worm or maggot in your gum who is gnawing at the root of your tooth. Having made a concoction of beer, malt,and oil, he would place it on the aching tooth, and then three times he would pronounce this incantation to rebuke the worm that was causing your pain:

After Anum had made the heavens,
the heavens had made the earth,
the earth had made the rivers,
the rivers had made the irrigation ditches,
the ditches had made the mud,
and the mud had made the worm,
the worm went in tears before Shamash,
before Ea his tears were flowing:
“What have you given me to eat?
What have you given me to suck?”
“I have given you the ripe fig and the apricot.”
“What are these to me, the ripe fig and the apricot?
Lift me up and let me dwell between the teeth and the jaws!
Let me suck the very blood of the tooth,
and let me gnaw on the very bone of the jaw!”
Drive in a peg and seize the foot!
“Because you said this, O worm,
let Ea smite you with his mighty fist!”

A lot of people already don’t enjoy going to the dentist. I’m not sure whether a shift to this sort of methodology would make it better or worse!

While this little text is humorous, it is also insightful about the way that incantations are intended to work. Three times the person treating the tooth would pronounce the original purpose of a worm–to eat fruit–and appeal to the gods to strike down the worm for refusing to act according to the purpose for which worms were created.

By appealing to the deeper source before the worm, you had some sort of control over what the worm was supposed to do, and to some degree, how the gods ought to respond.

Incantations were a way to access whatever powers lie beyond the gods so that in pronouncing and claiming these powers, the gods were therefore obligated to comply and give you what you want. An incantation enacted well, they believed,was a way to have some sort of cosmic authority over what the gods had to do.

This is why it’s important that we don’t confuse prayer with voodoo.

I’ll confess, I have an uneasy relationship with the term “prayer warrior.”

Do we want to fight against the powers of darkness by approaching our God on his throne of light?


Do we want, boldly and openly, to bring whatever is on our hearts into God’s presence, trusting that God can and will help us?

Also great.

But do we intend to pray in such a way that we functionally pound on God’s door until we break it, expecting that with enough insistence, God will give us what we want because how could God not? To some extent God must.

If that is what someone means by “prayer warrior,”I’m out. We’re in an ongoing conflict, but it’s not against God. I hope you can see the distinction I’m trying to make.

God isn’t your vending machine, and prayer isn’t the coinage that obligates God to dispense whatever you select. To treat prayer as such is to reduce it to an incantation. Prayer becomes voodoo or attempted divine coercion.

A good life of prayer looks more like a marriage.This quote is attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson: “Marriage is one long conversation, chequered by disputes.”

We build our relationships by taking time to know more about the inner lives of the people we love. What are they excited about? Who are their friends?What worries them? What are their goals? How do they view my role in their destiny?

Prayer and Scripture provide us with back and forth possibilities of an ongoing relationship with God. I’m not suggesting that we don’t tell God what we want, both openly and passionately, because God positively does want us to do this. Jesus says as much. But if our relationship with God is one of love rather than coercion, we should care as much about what God desires as we do about what we desire. I know what I want God to do, but what does God want me to do?

As in any relationship, sometimes we’ll bicker and sometimes we’ll feel disappointed. But in our ongoing mutual investment in each other’s lives and our many shared experiences, we grow into something together far better than if we had been on our own.

Prayer isn’t about getting something. Prayer is about knowing Someone.


Mark Adams is a minister at the Kings Crossing Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas. Hemet his wife Carolina while they were students at Harding University. They have one son, Xoaquin. Mark holds degrees from the Harding School of Theology and the Hazelip School of Theology. You can follow his blog or podcast at his website: kingdomupgrowth.com.

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