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Walking the Tightrope of Prayer: Prayer Works?!

pray-196195_640As you may have read in my previous post, my baby was very sick last week. Friends and family have been praying for him—and us. On Friday he was very down and out, and a friend of mine gathered a few others and prayed for him again. Saturday morning he woke up and was nearly 100% well. I noted his progress on Facebook, saying I was thankful for the prayers on behalf of my son. I also thanked God for the miracle in my son’s body. Someone called me and said, “Praise God! Prayer works!” I agree with her, but maybe only to the first half of her remark.

Prayer . . . works?!

I bristle at the phrase, “prayer works.” My father, a pastor of 40 years and seminary professor, reminds me that there’s no biblical example of such a response/phrasing. And no wonder; it’s truly troublesome.

My vacuum cleaner “works” when I plug it in. If it isn’t working, I check the plug. If still doesn’t work, I fiddle with it until it does. Prayer isn’t like this. It isn’t an extension cord to heaven that powers up a “working” response from God. We don’t fiddle around with it until we figure out how make it work for us.

How would my friend whose daughter has cancer respond to someone saying “prayer works?” Or what about when our best friend Jonathan died of a brain tumor after years and years of fervent praying. Did prayer then, not “work?” Is God broken? Are my prayers broken?

Beneath my friend’s remark that “prayer works,” was the genuine intention to give glory to God. But again, I feel troubled. If I give glory to God when my son is healed, what do I do if my son isn’t healed? Does God get glory then? Does He . . . deserve it?

Giving Thanks to God in All Things

I am reminded of these Scriptures: “God is Spirit” (John4:24), “the Spirit gives life” (John 6:63, 2 Corinthians 2), “Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25),
“God is creator” (Isaiah 40;28), “Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of light,” (James 1:17).

If there’s any life in our mortal bodies, it’s because God holds all life together. His very breath and word is life. If there’s any healing, it’s because all good gifts come from God. And so I can rest assured that I can give thanks to God for health, life, and all good gifts like the vitality of my son. And when someone dies, or someone is not healed, I can still give thanks for the life that was, the life that was given, and . . . the life that will be someday given back fully, completely, eternally.

I do believe that prayer “works” . . . it does a work in me. Praying is more about uniting our hearts to God’s and surrendering to His life in our life. I also believe that “The prayers of a righteous person avail much” (James 5:16)… but what is it actually “availing?” I also believe, like I noted earlier, that prayer moves God in some way, but I don’t really know the how and why. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. All I know is that I want to be careful with the assumptions within the language I choose use regarding prayer.

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12 Comments Post a comment
  1. I appreciated your thoughts on prayer Becca. Here’s my two cents:

    I think the whole discussion about whether prayer works is a largely Western in its presentation. We’re so pragmatic and want a system that makes our spiritual life a quid pro quo relationship. I put my quarter in and I get the proper response in return. What if spirituality isn’t about defining every aspect of God’s economy? What if spirituality is about accepting the import God places on prayer and entering headlong into the mystery of what prayer represents.

    You said you bristle at the idea that “prayer works,” and I do too. Mostly because I have the same heart for people who’ve prayed and not had their prayers answered in the way the hoped. But I also bristle at the reduction of prayer to something that only changes me (even though this is partially true.)

    But I have a very distinct warfare theodicy and I think our prayers are a huge factor in how God’s will and plans are fulfilled in the world. When Jesus instructs us to pray that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, I think it is because God’s will is not always done. I can’t help believe that there isn’t some part of our prayers playing a role in this too.

    But there are lots of variable in the universe that affect the “productivity” of our prayers:

    • God’s will
    • The faith of the one being prayed for
    • The faith of the one praying
    • The persistence of prayer
    • The number of people praying
    • Human free will
    • Angelic free will (Dan 10:12–13) (1 Thess. 2:17–18)
    • The Number and strength of spiritual agents (2 Kings 6:16–17)
    • The presence of sin

    Our prayers are affected by a huge cosmic soup of influential elements. We reduce it to simply whether God feels like responding or not. I don’t think it’s that simple and I think that makes prayer more important—not less.

    September 9, 2012
  2. Thank you Jayson. Yes, it is definitely not simple, and not an equation or a system. The complexity of prayer baffles me. Some of the variables you listed I hadn’t even thought of recently – Angelic Free will, the number and strength of spiritual agents… You say you have a distinct warfare theodicy I’d like to hear more about someday :).

    When baffled, I stick close to my Covenant roots, and ask the question “where is it written?” It is written that we have not, because we ask not. It is written that we are to pray without ceasing. It is written that we are to ask for “anything in my (Jesus’) name and it will be given.” And so I pray, I ask, I seek, I knock… in faith. I don’t understand the complexities of the outcome, but I know that somehow, like you said, this huge cosmic soup of influential elements are swirling around me, and I am to remain faithful to how God has instructed me to pray. I am challenged by the variable you listed in “the persistence of prayer.” Persistence is something I tend to lack in my prayer life.

    September 9, 2012
  3. Kathee Lyndon #

    This is an on-going meditation of mine as well. Or perhaps, an on-going conversation with God. The longer I live, the more I believe that’s the whole point; that I have an on-going conversation with God. That this relationship with with him is the thing… essentially the whole thing as far as he is concerned. (vs. prayers changing me or being answered or not or even being ‘effective’) I think we barely scratch the surface of the depth of relationship he desires with us. Yes, we must wage spiritual warfare. We ask, we thank, we air our grievances over bewildering and painful events that he has allowed. It is a mystery to me how he is sovereign yet still allows my prayers or lack thereof to affect the outcome of circumstances. I think of CS Lewis’ words about prayer after his wife’s death (which I will mangle but went something like this…) ‘ …I pray because I must…” — in the sense of being compelled to do so. That’s about all I’ve got for now… looking forward to reading more.

    September 10, 2012
    • Becca Worl #

      Hi Kathee! Thanks for responding and joining in. Your comment about Lewis opens an itch to read Shadowlands again. What a great, sincere read.

      I like what you said about the point being an on-going conversation with God. That is what I am also discovering more and more, keeping the channels of communication open. I go to the Psalms often because they help me pray, and allow me to pray authentically. I know that I am allowed to pray my questions, my bewilderment, my angst and grief and depression, as well as my praise and thanks and gratefulness.

      September 17, 2012
  4. Tony Amert #

    Snowflake-

    I’m troubled by your paragraph:

    “If there’s any life in our mortal bodies, it’s because God holds all life together. His very breath and word is life. If there’s any healing, it’s because all good gifts come from God. And so I can rest assured that I can give thanks to God for health, life, and all good gifts like the vitality of my son. And when someone dies, or someone is not healed, I can still give thanks for the life that was, the life that was given, and . . . the life that will be someday given back fully, completely, eternally.”

    This is the kind of talk that abused women use to justify the behavior of their abusers and themselves. When things are good they praise their abusers. When things are bad they dismiss the abuse as a temporary thing that is just part of life with their abuser and completely normal. I feel that this way of thinking is dangerous and counterproductive.

    September 10, 2012
    • Rebecca Worl #

      Hi Tony! Thanks for entering into the conversation. I struggle in writing back only because you and I are on such entirely different frameworks, I’m not sure how to find a common ground from which we can converse well (starting with the existence of God! 🙂 ). However, we have done it before, and I have always enjoyed our discussions.

      I think this is what I’m hearing from you: You are drawing a parallel between God / and an Abuser – and the Abused woman / a praying believer like myself. This is where I diverge from your perspective, I believe God is not in any way an abuser. God is the defender of the defenseless, like a Shepherd to lambs, God of the disenfranchised, the outcast, the foreigner, the sick, the needy, the hurting, the poor, the abused, the slaves… He speaks words of love, mercy, grace, forgiveness and healing to my soul and anyone willing to open their hearts to hear it. He does not berate me, emotional or verbally abuse me. His words are life and like water in a desert. As I learn and walk as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I receive continued words of healing and challenge to lead my life in his footsteps – fighting against injustice, offering grace and love to everyone without discrimination, humbling myself to give and sacrifice, to seek forgiveness for my wrong and not by any might of mine or holy-religious-works – accept healing in these broken areas of life through the life power of Jesus. Of course, this is a long journey with countless failures, but nevertheless I am compelled and captivated to follow the leader that is a Lamb… and not an authoritative vindictive abuser.

      I think the framework that we understand the origin of, and problem of suffering, death and evil is also at odds. You may be attributing these things to the God (or, rather, since you don’t believe in God, you may think that Christians should logically attribute these things to God), however it is the Enemy of our Souls who steals, lies, cheats, and destroys. He is the bringer of death, the one who first whispered the Great Lie, and thus the world exists now in as fallen and broken. The power of the life of God breaks through this wherever there is healing from sickness, restoration from destruction, reconciliation between the irreconcilable, justice from injustice, love where there once was hate, life where there once was death. Every time these things occur it is a sign that the life-giving power of God is here, and one day, in total fulfillment, life will reign over death eternally.

      So of course there is so much more here to discuss than my time and blogging capabilities allows: the problem of evil, suffering and how that is understood with an all-loving, all-powerful God. There is the problem first of the discussion of the existence of God! There is the problem of basic matters of faith and understanding of the role of scriptures, and the soul. And also, personal experience.

      And… I look forward to being able to talk again in person someday. Come and visit Tony, we miss you!

      Lots of love,
      Snowflake.

      September 17, 2012
  5. Thanks for the article on prayer. Always great to get another perspective. Prayer has been discussed for many generations and even centuries. One book I like is written by Ole Hallesby fro the late 1800’s “Prayer” and in our Bible study group we are studying a recent book by Philip Yancey on prayer. Yancey begins by helping us look at things from above as God would see it. I too have experienced prayer in my life. I prayed for an addicted wife until she died. I have prayed for children and grandchildren. Today I am disabled with neorological pain and pray for endurance that I can have a meaningful life and be used of God however He chooses. I want to be a blessing to my grandchildren as long as God permits. God bless you in your journey of prayer

    September 11, 2012
    • Becca Worl #

      Hi Charlie,
      Thank you for your response. I will definitely look into that Hallesby book. I also appreciate a lot of Yancey’s honest work. I am inspired by your prayer for endurance in the midst of pain and hardship – the prayer to live a meaningful life and to be a blessing to others. Thank you for sharing your heart. God Bless you.

      – Becca

      September 17, 2012
  6. Snowflake?! *snickers*

    September 14, 2012
    • What’s wrong with the nickname Snowflake!?

      September 17, 2012
      • I responded before I knew the context. So, initially it comes off condescending but the context adds the missing piece which changes everything. . . kind of like your views on prayer.

        September 17, 2012
    • Becca Worl #

      No no, you are allowed to snicker :). It’s a very silly nickname we’ve used for years now :).

      September 17, 2012

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