What is Prayer, and Does it Work?
This week’s Free-for-All Friday question focuses on prayer:
What is prayer all about? Do you think prayer works?
This is a great question, and one that comes up for so many of us as we have gone/are going through the decomposition of our faith. How I approach or think about prayer has shifted dramatically over the years. To be blunt I no longer see prayer as a way to get what we want, or as a way to manipulate “the man upstairs” to intervene in our lives. I do, however, believe prayer is an important and potentially life-giving discipline.
Why do I no longer see prayer as a method to bring about intervention? The simple answer is that it creates far more problems than it actually solves. The God who gives front row parking spaces at Target, and doesn’t act to bring healing to a twelve-year-old cancer patient, just doesn’t seem worthy of the name God. I’ve been in conversations in which one party shares how they walked away from an accident unscathed, because God was watching out for them, knowing that in that same conversation is a parent who had to bury a child because of a car accident. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in gratitude. I believe walking away from an accident is something for which we should be deeply grateful. The problem is the contrast. An interventionist understanding raises more concerns that it solves; for every act of intervention there are an incalculable amount of non-interventions. A God who does for one and doesn’t for another, what kind of parent is that?
Further, this interventionist understanding places God “up there” or “out there,” separate from creation. This perspective, which is a common understanding today, has more connection to Platonic philosophy than the Christian Tradition. God isn’t somewhere else and occasionally popping in to bippity-boppity-boo something when we get the words right. God, the writer of Acts has Paul tell us, is the one in whom we live, move, and exist. If we are fish, God is the water.
These experiences have led me to see prayer through a different lens. Now I see prayer as a way of centering ourselves, of intentionally opening ourselves to the Sacred, to the journey of transformation. Prayer is about opening our eyes, bringing awareness, and committing ourselves to action.
So, does prayer “work”? I guess it depends on what “work” means. Does prayer mobilize an intervention by God? It doesn’t seem that way. Yet, I still pray for people all the time: family, friends, church members, the state of the world. Why? I guess one reason would be that I don’t assume that something isn’t possible just because I don’t understand it.
Several years ago, when my oldest child was around two or three, he ended up getting sick with a high fever. We took him to urgent care, and while we were waiting to be seen he had a febrile seizure in the waiting room. Holding his limp body in my arms, watching him seize, I can promise you I prayed as hard as I could pray. Out loud, silently, in wordless sobs. I reached out to others asking them for their prayers, and I would do the same in a similar situation even today.
For me, that’s the real power of prayer, the ways it can make us feel loved, seen, and connected. I pray because I love. When someone prays for me, or I them, it means we are thinking of one another. It’s a form of caring that feels so natural to me. Praying for someone brings them and their needs/situation to my mind, creates awareness, and makes it more likely that I will act in whatever way I can to be supportive and helpful.
In these ways I do think prayer is powerful. I think it ‘works,’ even if it’s not in the ways I used to think. I love how the late Marcus Borg put it:
“So I don’t believe that God sometimes intervenes to answer prayer. But this doesn’t prevent me from thinking that prayer sometimes has effects, even though I can’t imagine how. I am very willing to think of other ways of imagining God’s relation to the world, such as speaking of divine intention and divine interaction. At the very least, I am convinced that prayer changes us – that it transforms those who pray. This has been my experience.”
That has been my experience as well.