Monday, May 30, 2011

Power of Prayer?

Power of Prayer?

This past week President Obama said that American policy for peace in the Middle East has always required Israel to accept her pre-1967 borders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frostily rejected that position. But the exchange got me to thinking about prayer. You see, for as long as I can remember, my wife Irene and I have been praying--earnestly--for peace in the Middle East. We've been doing so, now, for over thirty years. If prayer's success is to be measured by getting the answers we want, our prayers have not been very successful.

On the other hand, some Christians are pretty sure God answers their prayers with exactly what they want. So, for example, Alan Wolfe humorously describes a women’s prayer meeting at a New York church. These women pray using Robert’s Rules of Order. They start the meeting by making sure that old business has been covered. They do this by going through the previous week’s prayer requests and checking off the prayers have been answered. Then the women move to new business. Here they share current prayer requests, adding them to their open checklist of as yet unanswered prayers. Wolfe notes that these new requests mostly involve healing for family and friends, personal finances, and real estate--personal health and wealth matters. Their prayer is a sort of churchly business technique. Given their presumed pipeline, I wish they would pray for peace in Palestine too.

The notion that prayer has power, however, is not, actually, deeply Biblical. God has power, and humans can certainly speak to God, through prayer. And he listens. But the idea that prayer itself has power--especially if prayer is done "correctly," that is, with enough faith, or enough people, or unceasingly, or with the correct blending of voice and actions as in "concerts" of prayer, is a peculiarly North American--and ultimately secular--idea. It comes from the notion that religion is a pragmatic means to an end. The idea was popularized by American philosopher William James, who spoke of religion having "cash value," and of it being like a hallway that gets us to where we want to go.

The truth, however, is much more complex. Prayer does not protect Christians from the common lot they share with all other humans. Christians are not richer, do not live longer, and do not have healthier extended families than non-Christians because of prayer. So, E. Griffith Jones, a contemporary of James, once wrote, Christians can pray "for the power to overcome the world in a spirit that is courageous as well as meek, militant against all forms of evil while profoundly thankful for what seems good in life." Or, as one of my favorite church confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism says, we pray mostly because it is the most important part of the thankfulness we can offer God for the opportunity to love both him and neighbor.

Originally published by Northumberland Today at