Does prayer achieve results?

Each person who believes in Jesus as the Son of God has different reasons for doing so.  I’ve summarized mine here and discussed them at length throughout the blog.  For some people, their personal experiences with prayer provide support for their belief in Jesus.  For others, such as myself, the relationship works more in the reverse.  I believe in the power of prayer because I believe in the authority of Jesus (on other grounds).  As such, I do not consider myself especially qualified to write about prayer.  Nonetheless, I will offer what thoughts I can, so that perhaps they may be helpful to others in my situation.

To be clear, I don’t believe that the entire Bible is free from error, and I won’t believe something that is contrary to reason just because the Bible says so.  Nonetheless, I do believe that the Lord’s own teaching is free from error.  For reasons of His own (which I suspect are related to God’s purposes in remaining hidden), Jesus chose not to write us a perfect book in His own words. Nonetheless, the Gospels produced by His first generation of followers are honest, non-fiction testimonies that reveal God more directly than the other biblical books.  The Gospels might not be accurate in every detail, but if they speak clearly on some point, then I accept it as the truth and work to incorporate it into my life, even when a deeper understanding doesn’t come easily.

Jesus talked a great deal about prayer.  He said multiple times (e.g., in introducing the Lord’s Prayer) not “if” you pray, but “when” you pray.  He prayed to the Father on numerous occasions. Prayer was the primary topic of some of the parables.  To take the Christian life seriously requires taking prayer seriously.

My style of prayer often resembles that of a traveler dropping postcards in the mail.  I am far from home, my Father and I are separated by a great distance, and He looks forward to hearing from me, so I send Him messages.  It usually doesn’t feel like a two-way dialogue.  I don’t know whether other people hear from God directly (as many say they do), but I myself do not, at least not in any way that I can unmistakably separate from my own thoughts.  I do believe that God speaks to us indirectly, albeit not always clearly, through the gift of conscience.  (Even if God’s law were never spoken or read to us, it is written on our hearts.) And I have invited Him into my heart and mind, in the hope that over time He will transform me into a new creation, in His own image.

Some of my prayers are expressions of gratitude, joy, or praise.  Others are expressions of apology or regret.  Many of them, however, are petitions.  I make requests of God on behalf of myself, friends and family, and others I do not know personally.  This raises the key question asked in the title of this post: do such prayers actually achieve results?

Jesus taught that our prayers do make a difference.  In one instance, if His words are taken literally they suggest that every prayer produces exactly the result that the petitioner requests, no matter what is being asked for.  In another case, a person of sufficient faith can tell a mountain to throw itself into the sea.  Verses like this have perplexed believers and provided fodder for skeptics, because on the surface they seem easy to disprove.  To demonstrate that prayer does not work as advertised, a man need only pray “Dear God, let a million dollars appear in my hands right this instant, in the name of Jesus, Amen.”  The ease with which this can be done only shows that such a simple interpretation cannot possibly be correct.  Had Jesus or one of the apostles made such a claim with the intention that it be taken literally, any ordinary first-century listener could have proven it wrong just as easily as a twenty-first century skeptic, and Christianity would never have gotten off the ground.  It follows, then, that these verses were never meant to be taken literally.

If not literally, then how should we understand the bold claims of Jesus about the effectiveness of prayer?  One approach is to consider extreme claims for the effectiveness of prayer as hyperbole.  If I were to say “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”, you might understand my meaning perfectly well. Hyperbole was especially common in the language of the ancient Near East, and numerous other examples of hyperbole can be found in the scriptures (see commentary here and here).

Another approach is to note the conditions that are always attached to such claims.  In the example of throwing the mountain into the sea, it is required that one have no doubt in one’s heart for this to succeed.  Is any person, no matter what they claim, really free from all doubt? Probably not in this lifetime.  Maybe throwing mountains into the sea is a power we will enjoy in the next life?  Besides the requirement of perfect faith, another common caveat is that something be asked “in Jesus’s name”.  What does this mean?  Cross-referencing other models of prayer, such as “thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer, or Jesus’s prayer at Gethsemane, we find that asking something in faith, or in His name, really means seeking something in accordance with God’s will (and being prepared to be refused if it is not). George MacDonald makes a similar point in the context of one of his excellent Unspoken Sermons.

Having dismissed the idea of prayer as something that always and immediately gets what it wants, we are still left to wonder, why believe it is effective at all?  Well, even if we acknowledge the use of hyperbole, and acknowledge the caveats and conditions, we are still left with a pretty clear mandate. Jesus clearly wants us to pray, in accordance with God’s will, with faith and with the belief that prayer does make a difference.  These principles are affirmed not only in the Gospels but throughout the New Testament epistles as well (e.g., here, here, here, and here).  Prayer may not work every time, but God challenges us to believe that it is far more effective than we think.

How effective is prayer, then?  It depends on whom you ask.  Many Christians can point to numerous examples of God answering prayers in their own lives.  Other Christians, such as myself, have a more skeptical constitution and will consider any other explanation before attributing an outcome to divine intervention.  I believe that caution is warranted in calling good things answered prayers, because one doesn’t have to look far to find numerous examples of unanswered prayers as well (for example, honest, fervent prayers for the recovery of a loved one who dies nonetheless).  If examined in one’s own life with a scientific mind, or on a larger scale with a formal scientific study, no proof can be found that prayer is effective.  Conclusive proof even that prayer is successful sometimes would radically change how God relates to man, and make faith and doubt irrelevant. So there is no reason to expect to find it, even if one takes Jesus at His word.  If God does affirmatively answer prayers, He does so subject to His purpose of remaining hidden, and it will always be hard to pin Him down.  God refuses to be “put to the test” (again I recommend the link to MacDonald mentioned earlier).

Questions remain.  How, one wonders, might prayer make a difference?  If it must be in accordance with God’s will anyway to have effect, what can that effect be?  Why does God want or need our prayers in order to do what He wants to do anyways?  Here I can only speculate.  My best guess, personally, is that there is some kind of grand-scale conflict going on between God and Satan, the ground rules of which we are not meant to know.  Perhaps in this conflict our prayers really do matter, they enable God to act without violating some kind of prior commitment or interfering with a larger purpose.  The scriptures are relatively silent on what might be going on, but perhaps we see hints of it in passages like Job 1:6-12.  The important thing is not to figure it all out, but to acknowledge that there are many possible sets of circumstances that could explain this (and other puzzles in Christian doctrine), to choose to act on God’s side, and then to play the role that has been laid out for us.

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