“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be
opened for you.
--Matthew 7:7 NRSV
I am in the business of prayer. In every setting where others know I am a minister, I am asked to pray. I lead corporate prayer in worship. I pray with people whom I meet with and visit. I offer up prayers for others throughout my day. One might think I know more about prayer than I do, since I’m doing it all the time. Yet, when it comes to praying, I feel like a tightrope walker without a net. I know so little of how it works, if it works, when it works and why it doesn’t work or at least seems not to work. So much about it is a mystery to me.
As with a lot of language about God, it is easier for me to say what I believe it is not than it is for me to say what I believe prayer actually is or does. For example, I do not believe prayer is a mechanical transaction where we say the magic words and then what we pray for happens. Prayer is not a purchase via Amazon Prime where the 1-click-purchase button makes a product in a vast warehouse begin its journey to my door step within two days and my credit card is automatically charged. Jeff Bezos may control much of our economy, but he hasn’t figured out how to make prayers act like monthly refills of laundry detergent.
I also don’t believe that prayer is only a process of changing the one who prays, although I know plenty who do. No doubt, praying does change the one who prays. It can operate much in the same way as meditation bringing centering, mindfulness and inner peace. The act of praying brings intention to changing one’s own behavior for the better, such as achieving more patience, less anxiety and more awareness of others. In some ways, measuring a change in one’s self is the easiest way to discern that prayer works. I don’t believe, however, that prayer is simply a closed circuit within a person. If prayer affects nothing outside of oneself, it seems like something else is going on, however good it may be.
I don’t believe God is like a genie who exists to grant our wishes. I suppose God could have a purpose for us finding a parking spot close to a store or an interest in us making it through an intersection before a light changes, but in general, I would assume God has bigger concerns elsewhere in the universe. And no, as much as Patrick Mahomes’ passing ability seems like a supernatural occurrence every time he connects with Hill or Kelce, I don’t think God is going to fix it so the Chiefs automatically win a second Super Bowl.
I don’t believe God controls everything making prayer unnecessary. I do believe that God is always at work in our world, in ways we often fail to recognize, but there’s a whole lot of awful stuff happening in this world that I don’t want to lay at God’s feet. If God causes pandemics, school shootings and cancer diagnoses and God could have prevented them but just willy-nilly chose not to do so, then God is amoral if not immoral and therefore unworthy of love and worship. God may allow awful things to happen, but my faith in God being first and foremost a loving God prevents me from believing God allows terrible things to occur without some other worse thing making the terrible things we see a necessity. Call it free will or what you like, but I am still placing my bets that God allows the chaos still present in this world to exist because of a higher purpose unknown to us.
It's this last point, which involves some pretty deep stuff, such as the nature of who God is and questions of why God allows undeserved suffering, that hits at the heart of the question of whether or not prayer works. In my experience, one never arrives at truly satisfactory answers to these questions but at best one can only find answers one can live with. When one has discarded all the bad solutions for the question of why God seems to act sometimes and not others, the few solutions left are enough to get by on or they are not. Most days the answers I’ve come up with are enough for me, but truth be told some days are so bad these answers are not enough. I’m always mistrustful of people who think they have such deep mysteries, like the ones surrounding prayer, figured out.
A big reason I believe prayer does work is because I accept that there are more variables in the mix than just my prayers and God. There is a whole planet of people acting with free will, making good and bad choices, and the consequences of those choices may linger for generations to come. Also, we exist in a present moment affected by the choices of people who lived generations, if not centuries and millennia, before we even drew our first breaths. If human free will is real, then God has to work within and without a whole lot more human actions than just my single prayer.
I just read an essay on prayer that addresses this point by the excellent scholar of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Terrence Fretheim, who died last year. Fretheim notes occasions in scripture where human prayers seem to change God’s mind—a startling thought, if such human language can apply to the creator of the universe. He also offers a great example of how our prayers are one part of a massive matrix of human activity:
An analogy may be suggested: human sinfulness has occasioned numerous instances of the
misuse of the environment. Some of that misuse (e.g., pesticides) has caused cancer in human
beings and devastated animal populations. Human beings may be forgiven by God for their
sin, but the effects of their sinfulness will continue to wreak havoc beyond the act of
forgiveness. We confess that in response to prayer God is at work in these effects, struggling
to bring about positive results in and through human (and other) agents. It is not a question
as to whether God wills good in the situation. The issue is God’s relational commitments that
may entail self-limiting ways of responding to evil and its effects in the world. Anti-God
factors may be powerfully present and shape the future in negative ways, even for God.
I have many Christian friends for whom talk of God’s “self-limiting ways” amounts to blasphemy. They would argue that since God is omnipotent, God Can do anything at any time. I wouldn’t disagree with that point in theory, but I would assert, along with Fretheim, that God has for whatever reason given human beings freedom and freedom is often misused. God works in response to our less than good choices and actions at a level of complexity that boggles the mind considering all the choices and actions of all the people who live now and have ever lived before.
If anything, the idea of God working in response to and in the midst of the multitude of human actions and choices means that your and my prayers matter greatly. The more we connect with God, align ourselves with God’s purposes and make space for God to work through us and our prayers the less resistance there is to God’s ongoing works of love and goodness. We can never know for sure or by how much, but our prayers for ourselves, for others and for our world may be just the wiggle room God needs to work in a given situation or life. I have often heard the metaphor of a small crack of light shining into a dark room enabling a person to see as a description of God’s love and light shining into a painful situation. Our prayers may just be the small crack for God’s light to shine through.
Grace and Peace,
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