Sunday, May 5, 2013

Does Prayer "Work"?

After reviewing Cross Examined, a novel challenging “the popular intellectual arguments for Christianity”, I’ve found myself circling back to some of the questions raised, wanting to respond.

This one cuts close to home and seems appropriate, given the National Day of Prayer this past Thursday, May 2:

Does prayer “work”?

Here’s part of the discussion: 
“’A woman was just released from the hospital, and here she says ‘The doctors told my husband that I probably wouldn’t make it. But he prayed and prayed. And his prayers were answered – it was a miracle.’ . . . So, according to this, prayer works. But I must wonder if I understand the meaning of the word ‘works.’ Imagine if the utilities that we use so often – electricity, clean water, trains, mail delivery, and so on – worked no more reliably than prayer.’” 
The assumption is that prayer is a means of implementing program: we pray for safety, health, success. If it happens, reliably, we can conclude that prayer “works.” If not, why bother?

Thought of in that way, prayer is more like a form of sorcery, or magic: say the words, click your heels and presto, all is well.

And certainly, anyone who prays falls into wishing for such easy solutions.

Yes, I pray for the easy way out: the quick relief, the sudden resolution. I woke one morning last week with my face blazing – afraid my encounter with poison ivy the day before would hijack my plans and send my weekend into splinters. And yes, I prayed the swelling would go down, the burning subside, that all would be healed with no effort on my part.

Squinting at my puffy eyes in the mirror, I reminded myself that poison ivy is dangerous. That I don’t take it seriously enough. And that if I didn’t get to the doctor – fast – I’d be very, very sorry.

Prednisone, I’m happy to say, “works,” for me, for poison ivy.

Prayer is something different. Not a magic pill – but an invitation, an opportunity, an avenue into something deeper.


Here’s how the argument continues: 
“Many spiritual traditions across the world use meditation to clarify the mind or relax. Christian prayer can have these same benefits. A mature view acknowledges what you can’t control and can be an important part of facing a problem, but to imagine an all-powerful benefactor helping you out of a jam is simply to ignore reality. None of prayer’s benefits demand a supernatural explanation, and to imagine that prayer shows that God exists is simply to delude yourself. The voice on the other end of the telephone line is your own.” 
So, feel free to lie in the hammock, listen to birds, mellow out, loosen your grip on the burdens of the day. Call it prayer if you want –but be clear: it’s an attitude adjustment, nothing more.

I wonder, though: what kind of arrogance pronounces millions of thoughtful believers “deluded”?

And what if there’s a voice to be heard – but not enough humility, patience, or wisdom to listen?

David, the shepherd boy who became king, man after God’s heart, author of many of the psalms and masterful model of the life of prayer, spoke often of listening, waiting, seeking.
  "My heart says of you, 'Seek his face!'    Your face, Lord, I will seek."
At the same time, he asked, again and again, to be heard:
"Hear my voice when I call, Lord;    be merciful to me and answer me."
“Hear my prayer, Lord, listen to my cry for help." 
And for every request to be heard, there was a corresponding assertion, a rekindling of confidence:
"Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice."""
"But God has surely listened and has heard my prayer."
We can think of prayer as purely transactional: an interchange like ordering pizza. I dial the number, ask for pepperoni and mushroom, sit by the door and wait for delivery. When the pizza doesn’t show, then I’m drawn to the conclusion: “The voice on the other end of the telephone line is your own.”

Or we can think of prayer as completely non-transactional: no claims, no assumptions, no hope of intervention.

But what if prayer is more like the mornings I spend with my granddaughter?

She tells me her latest adventures, shows me her recent bruises, asks for new bandaids.

She suggests a plan for the morning: Pickering Feed Store? Our favorite library? The local nature center? Mac and cheese on the patio?

I agree with her plan, or suggest alternatives. Remind her of our schedule, help her get ready for the kindergarten bus.

Some days it’s pure agreement.

Some days I pull rank.

I have things I want to show her, ways I’d like to see her grow.

She has things she wants from me. Things she needs. Things she hasn’t thought of.

That’s a place to start in considering prayer.

But I’m a limited person: trapped in my perspective, bound by time and space. I want her good, but I’m also caught in my own agendas, my own inattention, my own impatience.

And I can prompt change in her from outside, but not from within.

I can’t open her eyes wider than they already are.

I can’t fill her hands with skills that mine don’t have. 

Jesus framed prayer for us when he said:
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. . .  I no longer call you servants, because a servant doesn't know what his master is doing. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15)
Prayer fresco, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, ca 250AD
Prayer is that place of spending time: abiding, listening, seeking, waiting. It’s that process of becoming friends with God himself, trying to understand the larger plan, learning to see through very different eyes.

And prayer is the response that wells up inside us: help me, teach me, lead me, show me.

We pray for safety, comfort, convenience.

What if God’s purpose is to teach us courage, compassion, a longing for justice that puts our own convenience last?

We pray for health, happiness, success.

What if pain is an avenue toward growth, sorrow an avenue toward mercy, failure the surest road to real humility?

I’m drawn back to the story in Acts 4. 

Beaten, imprisoned, threatened, Peter and John gather with other believers and in prayer, realign themselves with the greater purpose: 

“Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:“‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up  and the rulers band together against the Lord  and against his anointed one.
"Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

They could have prayed for safety, revenge, an easy way out. And concluded their prayer didn't "work." But prayer led them to a deeper place of alignment, a deeper understanding of what to ask, a willingness to embrace the task ahead, longing for the courage and grace to be faithful to the calling. 

That prayer was answered powerfully.

There have always been voices asserting prayer is delusion.

Just as there have been men and women willing to listen, wait, share their fears, and align their hearts with God’s.

There have been stories – thousands and thousands, across thousands of years – of God’s intervention in healing, rescue, provision, wisdom.

And lives changed, from the inside out, in visible ways, for those who care to look.

We can set ourselves as the judges of prayer: evaluating, testing, asserting, refuting.

Or we can start somewhere different: acknowledging how selfish our longings, how small our vision, how far from understanding.

And then we can ask for change, insight, humility, wisdom, and wait for the sweetness that comes as we grow in friendship with God himself, wanting nothing more than to be faithful partners in his plan.

Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.
We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.
    (Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844-1849)

Other posts on Cross Examined and arguments for and against faith:
Other posts on prayer:
Please join the conversation. What's your experience of prayer? Does it "work"?