Studying the Bible with Brother Jack
Part III: Does Prayer Work?
July 24, 2011
Q Do you know what one of my biggest insecurities has been?
Prayer, especially praying out loud. I have worked with pastors who are eloquent and insightful; I am stumbling and clumpy (whatever that means).
· I know that it goes with the position, but given a choice, I will let someone else pray every time.
Part of that is because I am not “smooth of speech.” But it also used to be the awkwardness with prayer itself.
I have been given books filled with stories about great men and women of faith and the amazing prayers God has answered, but they don’t inspire me, they depress me.
Q Do you know what has helped me the most?
It’s not desperation – being desperate helps me pray a lot for a short period of time. But most important thing for me in becoming a man of prayer is understanding prayer better.
I know that many of you cannot relate – you might say that we don’t need to understand internet code in order to use Facebook, nor do we need to understand prayer. I envy you.
· I am a weird duck, and I know that, but the better I understand prayer the better I am at doing more frequently.
Here is how I think: God is all knowing and all powerful; he doesn’t need our permission. Won’t he do what’s best? And if that is true, then isn’t prayer a meaningless ritual?
· So I will pray as best I can, but don’t be surprised if it lacks consistency or passion.
And here is where Lewis comes in for me. He was a man of prayer, but you can tell he had struggled with the same thing, because he thought more deeply about the “why’s” of prayer than most.
He has two main works on prayer, “The Efficacy of Prayer” (link online) and “Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer,” a collection of letters to a fictional person.
· This has helped me, and I hope it helps you.
Scripture reading: James 5:13-18
Prayer under a microscope
Have you heard about the most recent scientific study of prayer? I found out about it via some of my atheist friends posting in on their Facebook account.
Patients who had heart surgery were divided into three groups, on that was not prayed for, one that was prayed for but did not know they were being prayed for, and a group that was being prayed for and were so.
The first two groups had no difference in recovery rates, but the third group actually had worse recovery. The study hypothesized that the knowledge of the prayers created false hope and a pressure to recover.
Q So what do we do with that? Does it mean prayer doesn’t work?
The funny thing is that Lewis saw something like that coming some 60 years ago:
I have seen it suggested that a team of people—the more the better—should agree to pray as hard as they knew how, over a period of six weeks, for all the patients in Hospital A and none of those in Hospital B. Then you would tot up the results and see if A had more cures and fewer deaths. And I suppose you would repeat the experiment at various times and places so as to eliminate the influence of irrelevant factors.
The trouble is that I do not see how any real prayer could go on under such conditions. “Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” says the King in Hamlet. Simply to say prayers is not to pray; otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men for our experiment. You cannot pray for the recovery of the sick unless the end you have in view is their recovery. But you can have no motive for desiring the recovery of all the patients in one hospital and none of those in another. You are not doing it in order that suffering should be relieved; you are doing it to find out what happens. The real purpose and the nominal purpose of your prayers are at variance. In other words, whatever your tongue and teeth and knees may do, you are not praying. The experiment demands an impossibility. “The Efficacy of Prayer”
· That’s like praying for all the patients in Skagit Valley Hospital, but none of those at United General in Sedro.
Okay so you can’t create an experiment to figure out if prayer works. But that sounds a bit like a cop-out. So how can we know if prayer works? The problem, according to Lewis, is that that is the wrong question.
For up till now we have been tackling the whole question in the wrong way and on the wrong level. The very question “Does prayer work?” puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. “Work”: as if it were magic, or a machine – something that functions automatically. “The Efficacy of Prayer”
Gumball machine prayers
When I left His Place to come here, after being a pastor almost 9 years, Pastor Bruce gave me a gumball machine – thee gumball machine – he’d had in his office for years. It doesn’t work great, skips, doubles up, so the kids keep turning it until something comes out.
· That is how so many treat prayer – a gumball machine; we have all the tricks to try to get the prayers answered.
But sometime you can keep turning it until your fingers are numb, and God still doesn’t give you any gumballs. So if the purpose of prayer is to dispense favors, our experience tells us it doesn’t work.
· That is the wrong question; the right one is “What is God’s purpose for prayer?” Otherwise, we can’t know if it works.
Jesus’ prayer didn’t work
The Bible was not written like a theology book, so it doesn’t have a nice set of questions and answers. There is no place that says, “This is the reason I set up that whole prayer thing.”
Instead we have stories, lots of stories. Some are about good prayers, others about bad prayers. Some about prayers that are answered, other about prayers that are ignored. And from these stories, we learn through observation just what God is up to.
One prayer in the Bible stands out to me among all the others. It calls into question so many of our ideas about prayer and why God answers them:
Mark 14:32-36 32 ¶ They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” 35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Here is Jesus, God in flesh praying to His Father. He is prefect, there is no sin, there is no doubt. Every qualification for the perfect prayer that should be answered, yet the answer is still no. Everything is possible with God, yet he says no.
Q Did Jesus prayer work?
Well, why was he praying? Was it to change God’s mind? Was it because he thought there was another way? No, Jesus knew the answer would be no. He and the Father had hashed this plan out in Heaven long ago.
Jesus purpose for praying was not to get something. What did he really want? What we all want when we are in our darkest times – to be comforted by those closest to us.
· Jesus was praying in order to be with His Father.
As near as I can tell from this and many other stories in the Bible, a key purpose of prayer to develop and deepen our relationship with God.
Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us. “The Efficacy of Prayer”
Prayer is first and foremost and act of relationship with God, the creator of the universe, who is higher than we can possibly imagine, a fact we are frequently to flippant about.
Solomon understood that when he dedicated the temple:
2 Chronicles 6:18-20 18 ¶ “But will God really dwell on earth with men? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 19 Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence. 20 May your eyes be open toward this temple day and night, this place of which you said you would put your Name there. May you hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.”
The temple was never really meant to be God’s house, it was a meeting place. But now we are God’s temple, we are the meeting place, and in us, through prayer, God meets with us.
But if Jesus purpose was to be with God, why did he ask for the cup to be taken away?
Because that is what he wanted; he’d seen many crucifixions and he really, really did not want to be crucified. And nothing kills real relationship like being fake.
Q How many artificial relationships do you have in your life?
You might be friends with that person, but you feel as if you are playing a part. Not fake, but not entirely you.
Q Is your relationship with God one of those relationships?
It is easy to slip into the mode of praying what we should pray, but that it of no use at all. The Bible is filled with authentic, brutally honest prayers.
· It is far better to authentically pray for the wrong thing than to inauthentically pray for the right thing.
“The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.” (Letters to Malcolm, chapter 15)
A running dialogue
As I understand prayer as relationship building, it makes prayer far less intimidating. Prayer can simply be a running dialogue with God.
· Praying correctly becomes less important than talking to God.
This has become very important to me, the knowledge that God is there when I speak, that I am not just speaking the empty sky is one of the core experiences that defines me.
· At the same time, I cannot appreciate how foreign this may be to some of you, especially late converts.
prayers of Petition
This would be a good, safe place to stop. It makes sense; God wants to build relationship. But we can’t stop there – the Bible doesn’t allow it. Time and time again we are told to ask:
Philippians 4:6 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
And this isn’t window dressing, asking for something God would give you anyway:
James 4:2 You do not have, because you do not ask God.
For many of you, especially if you grew up in the church, this seems painfully obvious. But is it really?
This is the God of the universe we are talking about, all-knowing and all-powerful. If something was in his will, would he not do it without our permission? And do it better?
Agents of change
According to James, the answer is no. But why? In another article, Lewis address this through a fictions conversation:
“Praying for particular things,” said I, “always seems to me like advising God how to run the world. Wouldn’t it be wiser to assume that He knows best?” “On the same principle,” said he, “I suppose you never ask a man next to you to pass the salt, because God knows best whether you ought to have salt or not. And I suppose you never take an umbrella, because God knows best whether you ought to be wet or dry.” “That’s quite different,” I protested. “I don’t see why,” said he. “The odd thing is that He should let us influence the course of events at all. But since He lets us do it in one way I don’t see why He shouldn’t let us do it in the other.” (God in the Dock, “Scraps,”)
Think about what he is saying here: The great mystery is not that God would stoop to answer our prayers or wait for us to ask before acting.
The great mystery is that allows us to do anything. If he set up this entire universe to run under his plan, it would work better, but it would not be what he wanted.
He welcomes, requires us to be agents of real change. Mark Grungor tells the story of his son playing video games with him, with the controller unplugged...
· What prayer means is that God has not unplugged the controller; we are players in this game, alongside him.
Sometimes we control things through physical actions – passing the salt as it were. But there are many times that we can’t work through physical things:
· Someone need helps and we don’t have the resources.
· Someone we love is doing sinful, foolish things and we can’t talk them out of it.
· Someone is sick and we have no way to make them better.
· We see the darkness in our own heart, but stand powerless to change.
Prayer is a divine privilege to affect change through spiritual channels when the physical channels are closed to us.
Here is the kicker – when we pray, God may use us as the instrument to answer our own prayers. Whenever we pray “your kingdom come,” we are offering ourselves as agents of change.
A theory: God’s eternal view
Now let me “geek out” for a couple of minutes:
Q How does God manage to coordinate our prayers with the prayers of others and with his divine plan?
EG: When we pray for nice weather and we get it, how could that have possibly been an answer to prayer? That weather was caused by countless factors that took place long before you prayed.
Elsewhere Lewis wrote that if prayers are answered at all, they were written before the foundations of the world. I think this makes sense – God lives in eternity, outside of time.
· If time can be drawn as a line on a page, then eternity is the paper the line is written on.
This is classic Lewis stuff – the present is nothing else then the point at which time and eternity meet.
· Chew on that for a second.
· Cf. “There is a God: by Anthony Flew
If this is true, then a weather pattern beginning in Asia a month ago being affected by a prayer offered yesterday is no issue at all. It is only from our “line-based” perspective that it is a problem.
Let’s take this a bit further: Week before last in community group we were discussing Romans 8:28 (“God works all things...”) and a fellow Lewis enthusiast gave this analogy:
From outside of time, God was able to weave the entire scope of human history taking into account every action and every prayer and every act of free will. It is like a great tapestry, with each thread playing its own role.
· Interesting thought, huh?
Let’s take this back to everyday life: I have said that God’s big purpose in prayer is both to build relationship and to partner with us, plugging in our controller.
Consider: Your prayer life is perhaps the greatest indicators of what you really believe about God’s actual presence in your life.
Q What does your prayer life say about what you believe about God?
· Is God intimately involved in your day to day life?
· Do you believe that he is there listening to your every breath, your every prayer?
· Do you believe that he is taking your prayers and weaving them as part of his bigger picture?
Take a moment to think about your prayer life:
· If your prayers are fake, inauthentic, filled with the things you think you should say, perhaps you doubt his acceptance.
· If you only pray at specific times and lack that inner dialogue with God, perhaps you doubt his presence.
· If you never pray petitionally, then perhaps you doubt that God really wants to work through you.
Evaluate this during worship, and ask for God’s help.
Here are some specific challenges I want to leave you with; they are intentionally simple steps:
1. Spend some time God “how you feel,” no agenda
2. Pray over your meal or before bed and specifically include a prayer of petition.
3. Write out three things or people you want to prayer for and pray for them a couple of times this week.