“Your prayers worked,” Jen said to me last week, the day after I had prayed for her to be free from pain.
I thought long and hard about that. Do prayers “work”? And when there is no answer (or not the one we were hoping for), do we say, “Your prayers didn’t work”?
Does prayer “work” and “not work”?
Let us begin by recognising that we are not going to get to a definitive answer in this brief comment, at least not one that will satisfy everyone. Prayer is too vast a subject for definitive answers at the best of times. Our answers would also depend on what we meant by “prayer” and by “work”.
When we define prayer narrowly in terms of specific prayer requests, we have to admit that prayer often doesn’t “work”. The specific thing we ask for often does not happen the way we ask for it to happen. Even Jesus experienced prayer like that. Mark tells us that he could not perform any miracles in Nazareth, because the people lacked faith (Mark 6:5-6). Matthew (13:58) prefers not be quite as absolute, and says that Jesus was not able to perform many miracles there. Mind you, Mark does grudgingly admit that Jesus did manage to heal “a few sick people”. Either way, specific prayers were not answered. Had the people concerned been asked, they would have said, “No, your prayers didn’t work.”
Of course, we tend to say that prayers are always answered, but that sometimes the answer is, “No,” or “Not now.” And that is also true, although such a catch-all answer drives the sceptic mad. And one can sympathise. Such an answer relies on faith, and our trust in a loving and active God. What the sceptic wants is definitive proof, or at least statistically acceptable proof: out of 100 prayers, so many were answered as desired, and so many weren’t, which will prove things one way or another.
God, however, isn’t interested in statistics; he is concerned only with relationships. And to understand prayer we have to understand it in the context of our relationship with God (and with each other). The story of the Bible from beginning to end, Old and New Testaments, is the story of God’s relationship with his creation, and his pursuit of that relationship. God is not portrayed in scripture as a careless creator, throwing stars into space and sitting back to enjoy the show. He is Creator, but he has a specific goal in mind, and that goal is relationship, however you want to define it.
More than anything else prayer is about relationship. What does it mean when we pray fervently for a friend’s healing? First of all, we are acknowledging our relation-ship with God, and we are approaching him as Father. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father….” He is not a shopkeeper we go to with a list in order to buy things we need; he is Father. He is our father, and our friend’s father, and it is in acknowledging both those relationships that we approach him in prayer.
When we pray for our friend’s healing we are praying for something that God also holds dear, and in our praying we are drawing closer to our friend and closer to God. We are taking time from our busy day and focusing for a moment or two on our friend and on the father of us both. In perhaps a very small way, we are growing those relationships that are both God’s gift and God’s desire. At that level, does prayer “work”? Absolutely, even when the “answer” is not what we had hoped for or expected.
When we pray for healing and wholeness, for reconciliation, for peace, we are praying for those things that God himself wants for his creation. And we can pray deeply, and fervently, and often, because as we pray we are drawing closer to our Father. As we draw closer, we develop a greater understanding of what God wants to do, and (be warned) what he wants us to do.
- Personal Shopper: Outcomes-Based Prayer (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)