In a small town in the American Middlewest, a young boy is diagnosed with terminal cancer. His church community rallies together to pray for his healing. Three months later, doctors find no signs of cancer; he has been completely healed. The church community celebrates the apparent miracle—the power of prayer saved this little boy’s life!
In a similar situation, in another small town in the American Middlewest, another young boy is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Likewise, his church community rallies together to pray for his healing. Three months later, the little boy dies.
What is the difference between the two scenarios? In both cases, a child has a terminal disease and, in both cases, a large church community gathers to pray for the boy’s healing. Why is it that one boy lives and the other doesn’t? Did the second group not pray as hard? Did they pray incorrectly? In either case, did prayer work?
These are hypothetical scenarios, but the reader is sure to be familiar with these kinds of stories. A disaster happens, someone comes upon hard times, a friend comes down with a terrible disease. No matter what, we are encouraged to pray, the assumption being that the act of prayer will help to bring about a positive outcome in the situation.
When it ends the way that we want, we rejoice in the power of prayer. Of course, when it doesn’t end positively, or when something completely unexpected occurs, we say that it wasn’t God’s will and find some sort of meaning in what does happen.
While this is a comforting approach for some, it leaves many questions on the table. It can be misleading and, as a result, might end up hurting more than it comforts. A reassessment is called for.
Prayer Request, Please
Christians cannot go far without hearing calls for prayer. Speakers will implore us, “Pray—it works!”; we are entreated, “Ask God for it—he will answer!”; and there is the ubiquitous Facebook post, “Prayer request for a special intention, please!” Everywhere we turn, we are urged to pray for someone or something. We aren’t quite told how to pray or what to expect; we are just obliged to do it.
To a large degree, this standard is framed in Scripture. The Lord’s Prayer, for example, includes the line, “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses.” The quintessential prayer is basically a petition.
Likewise, in Matthew 7:7, Jesus says, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.”
In John 12:16, Jesus says “Whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, that will I do.”
And in Exodus 32, Moses confronts God, Who is about to destroy a “stiff-necked” Israeli people, and beseeches Him to remember his servants among them and not to carry through with the destruction. Ultimately, we find that “The Lord relented, and spared his people the punishment he had threatened” (Exodus 32:14).
The impression that we get from all of this is that prayer is a means by which we mortals can ask God for something and get it—the efficacy of prayer is to get what we want, often changing God’s mind to do so.
Of course, no one will say it quite like that. No one believes that we can just ask for any little thing that we want and get it. But are the implications that far off? The notion is that, if something is important enough to us and we fervently pray for it, we will get it.
We are told stories of the power of prayer: We are told of a community which prayed for the healing of a terminally ill patient and he was cured; we are told of a mystic who prayed for the conversion of a number of people and the whole group converted; we are told of someone who lost a job, asked for prayers, and shortly was hired for another better job.
The thought is that in all such instances there is no other way the good outcome could have been achieved, and so the only explanation is that prayer made it happen—it was a miracle, and prayer was the catalyst!
Does Prayer Really Do All of That?
But, as uncovered in the hypotheticals above, this understanding of prayer creates a few theological difficulties. Namely, if we think that prayer can affect change in the course of the world and even bring about miracles, then we are saying that through our actions we can cause miracles to happen—we ourselves are miracle workers, and, in some ways, as powerful as God.
At the very least, we are saying that, by praying, we can convince God to cause miracles to happen that He would have otherwise not made happen. It is to suggest that we can change God’s mind through the act of prayer. If we aren’t as powerful as God, we at least have powers over God to do our bidding.
Now, good Christians will rightly balk at such notions. These ideas completely throw out the understanding we have of God and the working of the universe, not to mention the fact that they encourage a pride that is patently anti-Christian.
Consider the hypotheticals. We might say that the second congregation should not be hard on themselves, they did all they could, and that it wasn’t in God’s will for the boy to survive. But isn’t that to suggest that prayer wouldn’t have helped either way? That God has a will and it will be done no matter what? And, if that is the case, then what is the point of prayer in the first place?
What about the first case? If prayer isn’t a factor in the second, then it would be pure flattery to think that it had a role in the first—that prayer couldn’t have helped the second boy, but it was the cause of the miracle in the first case. If it was God’s will for the second boy to die, wouldn’t it also be God’s will that the first survived?
And, if that is the case, then what is the point of prayer here as well? If it is up to God, then why are we encouraged to pray for these boys or anything else for that matter?
What’s more is that they raise logistical difficulties: What if two people are praying for opposing things such as when the Patriots and Colts fans are praying for their team to win the AFC Championship game? Only one can win and thus only one can have his prayer answered. What if what we’re praying for is not really as good as we think it is? I remember praying for some pretty ridiculous things when I was in college. Clearly, it’s just not logical for prayer to work in a way that gives people things they ask for. And yet that is exactly how it is made out to seem.
So how do we reconcile this conundrum? Is there a way to view prayer so that we don’t reach these bizarre and unworkable conclusions? A clue lies in the very definition of prayer.
What It Is to Pray
The Catholic Encyclopedia describes prayer as “an act of the virtue of religion which consists in asking proper gifts or graces from God.” By ‘gifts’, they do not mean a Super Bowl berth for your team. They mean an ability or strength that allows you to better understand and fulfill God’s will. In short, prayer is an effort to align your will with God’s.
It isn’t a way to ask for God to change the world, heal a sick person, or make a million dollars appear in your bath tub, unless these things are in God’s will. It isn’t a way to persuade God to conduct a miracle that He hasn’t already planned.
It is simply a way to profess your desire for and request the ability to understand God’s will and the strength to align your own will with His.
Does this mean that we cannot ask for things that we want? Not at all. Church figures as great as Thomas Aquinas have stated that prayer is most basically an expression of desire and that we should use prayer to ask God for things. But we do so not to change God’s mind and persuade Him to do our will; we do so, rather, to change our own mind and persuade ourselves to do God’s will.
Asking God for something is a direct and effective way of making concrete our goals and presenting them to God so that we can more clearly see whether they are aligned with His will. When Jesus says “ask, and you shall receive”, it is not that He will make your team win the Super Bowl, but rather that He will give you the graces necessary to understand His will with regard to the Super Bowl, if he has a will concerning the sport, and, most likely, raise your eyes to that which is actually important. You might not receive what you have in mind, but you will receive what God has in mind, and that is infinitely better.
The statement from John drives the point home: Jesus does not say “Ask me anything—I’ll do it.” He says, rather, “Whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, that will I do.”
The “in my name” is crucial. It assumes that what you’re asking for is aligned with God’s will in the first place. If it isn’t, the act of prayer will likely draw out that fact, and direct the prayerful person toward the right aim.
The Efficacy of Prayer
If we return to the hypotheticals, we can answer the questions posed. Each scenario presents a terrible situation for the boy and the family. We are encouraged to pray for them, not in hopes of miraculously ridding them of cancer, but rather of receiving the graces to be able to deal with such a tragedy and to help the family where we can. It is the process of thinking diligently on the matter, trying to understand the way that you can best assist, and resolving to make it happen.
This understanding lends to a fuller practice of prayer. It isn’t quite as magical as the popular conception of prayer, and certainly doesn’t promise the worldly riches of the other. But it is still effective, and, if it leads to more concentration of what’s right and godly, it is more powerful than getting what we wish for anyway.
So, pray. When things go wrong, pray. When you’re down and out, pray. When all seems lost, pray. But also pray when things are great. Pray when you’ve come into good fortune. Pray when you are in good health. Pray because it will help align your will with His, and that is more valuable when you have everything you want than when you are in need.