When Irene and I were first married, we decided to pray for three items each night until those prayers were answered. We prayed that an older man who had left the church would return. We prayed that a distant relative who lost his faith would rediscover Jesus. We prayed for peace in the Middle East.
We prayed in this manner, every night, for over twenty years. We did it earnestly and hopefully. In the end, though, the elder gentleman died without returning to church. The distant relative hasn’t changed his mind. And if you’ve been following the news about the Middle East this week, you will know that there is no peace in Israel or Gaza, Iraq or Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Our prayers came up short.
Still, many Christians insist that prayer has power. They talk as if prayer has the power to heal people, the power to convert people, the power to find you a husband or new job. For example, popular blogger Lorna Byrne wrote, just last week, "Prayer is such a powerful force. We underestimate it so much. Prayer can move mountains if we only would let it. If only you would realize just how powerful prayer can be, you would never feel hopeless." Unfortunately, the only mountains that I've noticed that have ever moved left landslides, death, and pain in their wake--all too commonly in places like The Philippines, where I used to live.
The power of prayer is also an Internet meme. A picture of a medical staff praying together showed up on my Facebook page this week, along with the words, "Type, 'Amen' if you believe in the power of prayer." More than 3,000,000 people "liked" this page, and hundreds of thousands had typed "Amen," as instructed. The picture showed medical staff praying together, intending, I think, to subtly undermine our perception of the power of medical science to heal. Or maybe it's suggesting that if even medical people feel the need to pray, so should you!
Personally, I don’t think that the notion that prayer has power is actually scriptural. In the Bible, only God has power. Of course, in some stories, God responds to the prayers of the oppressed and acts. But sometimes not. Sometimes God extends the life of ill people, sometimes not. The thing is, in the Bible it is God who decides, and prayer is, of itself, powerless to make God act one way or another. Prayer isn’t a magical wand that can be used to manipulate God.
And God is not a divine magician in the sky responsible for all the good or the bad that happens to people. In fact, humans are mostly responsible for their own problems—especially big ones, like climate change, war, or racism.
Moreover—a little known fact—in the Bible, most prayers have nothing to do with asking for stuff. In the Psalms, for example—150 public and private prayers—the majority are prayers of lament—that is, these Psalms are public or private mourning before the face of God about how everything is going wrong. They may also ask for God’s embrace and comfort or aid along the way. But judging from Old Testament Israel’s history, they rarely got it as the nation stumbled from military sack to exile, to fumbling restart, to being conquered not once but two or three times again—all before Jesus’ birth.
Still, the popularity of the idea that prayer has power—although it isn’t emphasized in the Bible—that idea has been around for as long as priests sacrificed children in order to ensure the growth of crops. And in recent times, the idea that prayer has power has received new life. In the late nineteenth century, the American Philosopher William James said that good religion should have cash value, that is, it should be good for something. James argued that there was no sense in believing if it didn’t get you valuable stuff. He said good religion is like a hallway that gets us to where we want to go.
And so the idea developed, especially over the past 100 years, that religion is a pragmatic means to an end. Churches are thought of as smorgasbords meant to fill us with good things. For example, religion is how you get your morals—the morals you need to succeed. Religion is how you get healing. Religion is how you turn out good kids. It is a means to an end—an end that usually involves our happiness, our wealth, our health, or maybe even some good for the people I love—like aunt Minnie, who needs a kidney stone removed. The bottom line here, however, is that the notion that prayer has power is part of a bigger movement in North American religion—a movement that experiences religion as a pragmatic means to an end.
But the truth about both religion and prayer is a lot more complex. For starters, even in the Bible, religion that is true always involves the wants and needs of our neighbours before our own, with an emphasis on mercy, piety, and justice for others rather than religion’s cash value for us. And prayer? Well, it is never portrayed in the Bible as something that protects Christians from the common lot they share with all other humans. In spite of all their prayers, Christians are not richer, do not live longer, and do not have healthier extended families or even fewer divorces than non-Christians.
So, E. Griffith Jones, a contemporary of William James, once wrote, Christians should only 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."
The truth, of course, is that the Bible never promises us that our journey through this life is going to be a trouble free smorgasbord. Actually, the Bible speaks the opposite; of hurting people stumbling under the weight of a sin‑broken, groaning world. Jesus actually warned us that there would be persecutions and crosses to bear—and many Christians through the ages, and now Christians in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, and Pakistan--many Christians know what he was talking about. Choosing, when the chips are down and we’re at the end of our rope—choosing for the other—for people we love, for neighbours, for principles of justice, for people on the margins—this is what the Christian life is about, even when such choices are costly, and even when such choices don’t have much cash value for us personally.
So what do we make of the Bible, when it says things like, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” On one level this does sound like if we pray for it, we’ll get it. It is dangerous, however, to take such texts too literally—especially when, in all of human experience, the literal sense of the text obviously isn’t true. Perhaps, in the context of Jesus’ whole life, what he means is that when we ask, what is given is divine guidance in scripture. When we search, what we will find—if not a personal experience of God—is the difficult path that Jesus walked and described in Sermon on the Mount—a sermon most Christians have no problem not taking literally! And if we knock, the door that is opened is the door to our own hearts, so that the Word lodged there will inspire us to compassionately enter into the suffering of others with enough mindfulness and energy so that we actually carry some of their pain and suffering away on our own shoulders.
Søren Kierkegaard said, "prayer does not change God, but changes him who prays." That makes prayer a risky proposition, of course. Will you dare?