Good Questions: Does Prayer Work?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

We could and should do an entire series on prayer: how to pray, what to pray, ways of prayer, the point of prayer, the fruits of a prayerful life. For now, let’s simply ask Does Prayer Work?

As a sporadic attender of church as a kid, and then as I became way more regular during college, I witnessed people praying for all manner of things: a job, a cure, a parking space – often with reports later on how the prayer had been “answered.” I was semi-interested in a young woman I was getting to know, but when she giddily declared God instantly caused a driver to vacate his parking space for her when she was running late, I backed off. I’d prayed for quite a few things in my life with no measurable results.

Then we have “unanswered prayer,” capitalized on by Garth Brooks, whose song thanked God for not giving him the woman he’d prayed for, breaking his heart then; but later God gave him a fantastic wife. I struggle to picture God hearing our requests and then replying No, but just wait… Is God the great Sorter of requests, wisely selecting Yes, No, Maybe later?

Confusion sets in when we reduce God to a Being who exists to field and grant (or deny) requests. Do we really want a God who’s little more than a genie fulfilling wishes? Doesn’t that make us the functional god, with the heavenly God as our assistant? Does God ever feel like the parent of the college student who only phones home when he’s strapped for cash? What if God actually fulfilled all your prayer wishes? You could easily veer toward being a terrible person

I fell in love with C.S. Lewis when I read this wisdom: “The very question ‘Does prayer work?’ puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. ‘Work’: as if it were magic, or a machine – something that functions automatically. Prayer is either a sheer illusion, or else it is a personal contact between ourselves and God. Prayer in the sense of asking for things, is a small part of it. Confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us.”

Prayer is a relationship, a silent communion, simply being together. For myself, and for you, I wish we could nix the preposition “for” after the word “pray.” Can we simply pray? Can I be with God, in the stillness? Can I envision God travelling through my day with me as a companion? Can I be one who is attentive to the heart of God, and I feel sad for the things I know are breaking God’s heart? The wisest prayers I know have less “O Lord, hear my prayer,” and more “Speak Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9).

The title of Anne Lamott’s little book captures what prayer might be: Help, Thanks, Wow. As we strive to expand the Wow and Thanks, we know we will always be desperately in need of God’s help. But does such prayer “work”?

Madeleine L’Engle tells of the long weekend while she and her husband (pictured above) waited for a biopsy result. She kept praying, “Please, dear God, don’t let it be cancer.” Someone suggested that her prayer was invalid: it already either was or wasn’t malignant. But she said, “I can’t live with that. I think the heart overrides the intellect and insists on praying. If we don’t pray according to the needs of the heart, we repress our deepest longings. And so I pray as my heart needs to pray.” Later, after the cancer was pronounced terminal, she wondered if her prayers had been wasted. But she concluded, rightly: “Prayer is love, and love is never wasted. Surely the prayers have sustained me, are sustaining me. They are not wasted. They are not lost. I do not know where they have gone, but I believe that God holds them, hands outstretched to receive them, like precious pearls.”

Prayer is hard – or at least it is for me. Rattling off a wish list is easy. But waiting in the silence, working into the love, the focus of being present to and for God involves lifelong practice – which is why I entitled my short little book on prayer The Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray. The disciples asked Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” We learn. We grow. The soul expands. It’s not about re-energizing or getting a grip on my life. It’s recalling God’s got me, and mine is to expend my energy to do the things I discern God is asking of me, and to be part of what God is asking of us. I guess if that willingness to go and do is the purpose of prayer, then maybe it does work after all.