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The God Squad: The types of prayers, from Thanks to Oops

March 07, 2014|By Rabbi Marc Gellman

Q: What is the purpose of prayer? — L., via cyberspace

A: When I talk to children about prayer, I tell them that there are only four types of prayers: Thanks, Gimmie, Oops and Wow! I have them stand up and scream with me as we dance around the room: "Thanks, Gimmie, Oops, Wow!"

I've formulated definitions for the different types of prayers for adults, but to truly grasp the concept, you must be a child. Prayers reflect what we hope, and what we hope becomes what we know. Sadly, for many people, what we hope and what we know eludes us in the bad weather of adult life. So try to return to your earlier, more hopeful days.

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Understand that the following definitions are not philosophically true. They are, however, spiritually trustworthy. We don't end our prayers with the Hebrew word Emet, which broadly means, "This is true." Instead, we conclude with the Hebrew word Amen, which means, "This is what I trust."

1. Thanks prayers

The urge to pray begins not with need, but with gratitude. We come to understand the fact (and this is a fact, not only a religious belief) that we've been given more than we deserve. If you simply compare your virtue to your blessings — what you deserve compared to what you have — you must come to the honest and sobering conclusion that you have more than what any fair accounting of your good deeds would entitle you.

The Christian word for this excess of blessings over good deeds is grace. The Hebrew word for the same idea is hesed. Now, I suppose that there are readers who genuinely believe they've been shortchanged by God. Perhaps you believe that after Gandhi and Mother Teresa, you should rank third on the all-time-saint list. I humbly suggest that you seek spiritual and psychological help immediately.

The rest of us are deeply aware that we've been given more than we deserve. The response to knowing this is a Thanks prayer. Such a prayer first acknowledges the fact of our living in grace/hesed, then attributes this to God, the giver of blessings. It then resolves to share our abundance with those who have not been given enough. Such prayers ask God for nothing. They are just deep spiritual versions of "Thank you, God."

2. Gimmie prayers

These are the conventional prayers whereby we ask God for something. For many people, these are the only kinds of prayers they employ, and this is sadly understandable. Gandhi wrote: "To a poor man, God is bread." Our needs often block our gratitude.

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