What is accomplished when we pray?

Above photo by Daniel Nockles, 2017

I enjoy playing boardgames with my daughter. One of our favorites is Twilight Struggle. It has an enormous playing board, about a hundred pieces and a seriously complex rulebook. I think my daughter likes it because of the playing board and the pieces, but she doesn't really appreciate the rules yet because my daughter is only two years old. When we "play" the game, we sorta just move pieces around on the board haphazardly, but I know we're doing what she at least thinks is a game. If I was completely objective, I would say of the board game, the whole exercise is dull and boring, especially since I've played the real game before and I know exactly how it's designed to play.  I'm not objective however, because the experience I share with her has nothing to do wth the game we are playing, it is about the relationship with my daughter. The game is an instrument for us to spend time together. She will probably learn to play it one day, but even if she doesn't, I'm always more than happy to sit with her and push pieces around.


I think that's the first and most important thing I can say about prayer. I won't be the first person to describe my interpretation of what prayer is, but even if I am wrong or even if no one has ever been right, I don't think our heavenly father tires of engaging in what we think prayer is. 


That being said, I feel like I'm in a position where I've been pushing pieces around and I'm beginning to wonder if I'm actually playing the game the way it was designed to be played. There are still a whole lot of questions about prayer that I have and am still wrestling with, but I think I know what they all boil down to. "Is there evidence that prayer accomplishes something that would not have been accomplished had prayer not occurred?


There are some serious inherit complications in this questions. What can constitute "evidence" in spiritualmatters? The Bible actually says "FAITH is the substance of things hoped for, the EVIDENCE of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1, Emphasis mine) It is nice that the Bible says this, but as an answer to my question, it sorta sounds like "you can know prayer is effective if you have faith prayer is effective." Notwithstanding, supposing prayer did have immediate, consistent and obvious results, it wouldn't leave much room for faith. I imagine if I could simply pray "Lord, heal the sick" and that just happened as suddenly as I said the word "Amen.' Such result-driven prayer would drive out the need for faith entirely, and this doesn't jive well with the way God appears to work. His desire isn't to compel people with earthly rewards. Yet when I was younger, whether it was done deliberately or accidentally, I learned to see prayer through the scope of Mark 11:24,

"Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." 

So now I'm faced with the question, what does the reality of this statement look like?


Hands down, there are people who fully believe in the "power of prayer" (whatever that might mean) there are cynics of varying degrees, and there there are those like me, who engage in it while wondering if they even understand what they are doing.


Because I struggle with prayer, I did a little Bible research. I wanted to trace prayer to its roots and examine prayer in the earliest contexts. I was surprised because the very first usage of the word "pray" didn't occur until the time of Abraham (or Job, if you measure things chronologically but date rather than book order.) and it didn't occur in a way I expected, either. I expected the first prayer to be for one's own needs, but that isn't the case at all. 


The first thing that surprised me was how long it took before a prayer occurred. There are 20 chapters of Genesis before the first prayer. The story of Noah happens in those chapters, but Noah is never said to pray. Unlike Cain and Adam, he isn't even said to speak to or reply to God. Noah's response is as follows, "Noah did everything just as God commanded him." (Genesis 6:22, also in 7:5, then, in 8:15 - 18, "Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark"  [...] So Noah came out.") It is plain to see that not only is this communication one-sided, but the communication serves only to get Noah's vision in line with God's plan. In fact, even the rains ended and the land dried up, not even that was a result of Noah's prayer, but rather because "God remembered Noah" (Genesis 8:1)


The second thing that surprised me was what was prayed for. It wasn't a prayer for deliverance or protection. Both in Genesis and Job (the two earliest books of the Bible) the first prayers were for God's mercy upon someone else. Furthermore, the prayer came out of instruction from God, not out of one's own accord.


"Then God said to him in the dream [...] 'Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.' [...] Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again."

(Genesis 20: 6-7, 17)

"So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. So Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite did what the Lord told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.”

(Job 42:8-9)


The conclusion I drew from this reading (and what I believe is confirmed throughout the Bible) is that prayer is not merely a platform to present requests to God. It appears prayer is actually about aligning oneself with God's will.


Consequently, I have no problem praying for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts and minds of myself and others, but I am very careful about making more tangible prayer requests. I suppose there is a part of me that fears asking for something that won't be granted, but I know a large part of my deciding to refrain from making many requests is due to my conviction that I just can't imagine what I could pray for that would make me better off than I already am in the Grace. As Paul says, 


"I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

(Romans 8:38-39)


And also,


"I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me."

(Philippians 1:19-26)


I believe these passages so completely that, for me, to ask in prayer of anything other than "God's provision of the Spirit" is to cast a doubt on what Good is already doing. If tomorrow I was struck with some debilitating disease or misfortune, I know even in that God can be glorified and eternity will look no different for me. The fact that the world is full of pain and suffering does not appear to be something God needs to be alerted ofand start doing something about. Rather, it is a fact of our depraved reality and something God is already and has for all time been working on. His work isn't chiefly completed in the superhuman occurrences that we call miracles. His work is carried out in what He began in us. As it says in Philipians,


"In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."

(Phillipians 1:4-6)


I think an example is appropriate here. I have three brothers. We were raised in a Christian home. In fact, two of my brothers are involved in a church ministry today. In 2014, my dad died from cancer. Before his passing, I grappled with how to pray over the situation.  A friend mentioned a passage in the Bible, the implications of which I never forgot:


“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

(Daniel 3:17-18, emphasis mine)


Though I wanted God to rid my dad's body of the cancer, this passage reminded me that even if He didn't, my faith need not suffer. As it turned out, I never did pray for healing. Perhaps I should say I did not explicitly pray for healing, because I'm sure there was a "wordless groaning" about me. (Romans 8:26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.)  During that time, I prayed for preparation and peace for whatever would happen.


Even so, there was much prayer around and about him. A miraculous healing appeared to be the best possible response to those prayers, but God knew better. In those last months, my dad's faith emerged in a way I had never seen before. The peace in his heart left no room for fear. Even as he withered physically, he spoke on how "it is well with my soul." How can you top that? He raised each of his sons, not just in how to live, but how to die. I miss him, but I won't live my life wishing I can live longer, I will live my life in pursuit of the peace and confidence he had. This is much better, and it taught me that there is something to ask God for that is much more important than health and longevity. It helped me see and appreciate the Lord’s exemplary prayer:


“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.”

Matthew 6: 9 -10


To me, to “pray without ceasing” as it says in Thessalonians is to put on and never take off an attitude that says,”God, you’ve got this and I trust you. Use me as you will.” My prayer anthem is taken from the words of Job, a man who knew grief on a level unlike nearly anyone else, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” 


That being said, I can’t help but wonder to what extent I am limiting myself and limiting God by not presenting my requests. There are so many places in the Bible where God invites us to ask anything of him. Some times I wonder if I am settling for less. Like maybe I am a passenger on a cruise line and God is serving the food every night. There’s a menu on every table describing every delicacy you can imagine – all included–  but there’s also a snack table in the corner with peanut butter an jelly sandwiches. There are people around me who are asking for and receiving steak and when these people ask me why I’m not eating steak, my only response is “God provided peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches and I don’t want to seem ungrateful.” Or maybe deep down inside, I’m worried that I might ask for a steak only to be disappointed when I learn they just ran out. Either way, it seems like if I have the opportunity to order whatever I like, I should at least try.


I think there is a degree to which the above analogy is true for me. I know I ask very little of God and He invites me to ask much more. But if I were to continue the metaphor, then I would also say that the cruise has much more to offer than its menu. I believe the ship’s destination is so much greater than the dining room that, by comparison, the steaks are like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If you were on a cruise like that and you spent the whole time in the dining room asking for more food, then I'm no longer the person missing out – it's you.


For this reason, I find the rhetoric of prayer in church to be a little disturbing. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with praying for those in need, but when the “Prayer of the People” (as they call it in the bulletin) goes on and on, repeating the phrase “we pray for those who are…” it starts to sound a little like the burden is being placed on God, as if we are hoping for a miracle, rather than recognizing that God has already placed these people on our own hearts and maybe we should be praying that our own awareness will drive us to action. I really feel that if you pray for the homeless on Sunday, then neglect the homeless for the rest of the week, you wasted your breath. Not only that, but if it even appears that your prayer is wholly about asking God for things, it does a disservice to the visiting seeker.


Suppose I was trying to convince you to subscribe to Amazon Prime and I told you that a big selling point was the free shipping on qualifying purchases, you might ask me, “What types of things do you order through Amazon Prime?” And I might say, "Just yesterday I ordered ten gallons of mustard?" Surely, you would respond, “Why on earth would you need ten gallons of mustard!?” What would you think of me if I said “It was a qualifying purchase for free shipping.” You would think there was something wrong with me. If I don’t use Amazon Prime to order products I actually want or need, the free shipping is useless. Now if I started a little cult that believe like I did and everyone routinely ordered nonsense products from Amazon just to get the free shipping, you would probably not have much interest in joining. Furthermore, if one of its members ordered a product that turned out not to qualify for the shipping, he or she might be overly disappointed in the service.


If, by comparison, I told you that I always found what I wanted on Amazon of a higher quality and lower price than anywhere else and free shipping was sometimes, but not always, included, you might ask me to tell you about a recent deal I discovered. If a provided some really good examples, you might already be impressed. If I went a step further and added “AND it qualified for free shipping!” it might make some difference in your impression, but not nearly is as much, since free shipping isn’t the main selling point.


For most of my life, I’ve perceived “prayer” to be about free shipping. I’ve always thought it was a great concept, but there was too much emphasis on whether or not the pray was “answered.” Furthermore, the “unanswered” prayers always weighed heavily on my view of prayer’s overall effectiveness. I’ve heard people say “God answers all prayer, just not in the way we expect him to.” But honestly, when God doesn’t answer the way we expect him to, if you’re heart isn’t in the right place, it feels like unanswered prayer. 


The Bible says, and I believe, that our requests are heard by God and He cares for our concerns. I even think he cares for our concerns as much as we do, but I also believe he is capable of caring more than we are and he knows, understands and cares much more for the fact that when we pray, we open our hearts for Him to move into them. When He works in our hearts, we are able to see what is happening in our lives through His eyes and we can receive His peace. And that is the best package you can receive.


“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

(Phillipians 4:6-7)