Does Prayer Really Work?
As a young Christian, I felt that there was no spiritual activity more beneficial for my success and well being than prayer. After all, the Bible emphasizes that God is personally involved in the intimate details of our lives. Christianity is not a religion of rules, but a relationship of love between a heavenly father and his children.
My belief in the power of prayer was based on the teachings of the Bible along with the testimonies of my fellow Christians. I read how biblical characters were able to accomplish amazing feats through prayer such as heal the sick, cast out devils, raise the dead, bring rain during times of famine, and to defeat their enemies in battle in the face of incredible odds. In addition, I heard stories of how Christians used prayer to overcome life's greatest obstacles.
In the Pentecostal church, no one ever doubted the miraculous power of prayer. In fact, if you didn't pray frequently and consistently you were considered a 'lukewarm' Christian, and you were depriving yourself from receiving God's best for your life. During service, one sister would stand up to testify how, after praying, she miraculously received a check in her mailbox just in time to pay her rent; a deacon would then stand up to testify how his wife, who after being crippled for years, was prayed for and miraculously stood up from her wheel chair and walked! God had an answer for every problem, and in order to tap into his limitless resources one had to learn the power of praying in faith.
My prayers were frequent and intense. Although, I never witnessed the miracles that other Christians talked about, I sensed God's presence in my life, and I believed that he was communicating with me directly through a 'still small inner voice.' Even though I had no empirical evidence, I believed that God was talking with me and answering my prayers.
During my post high school years, as I transitioned into adult life, my faith in the power of prayer came increasingly under attack. First, I discovered that my 'still small voice' did not always lead me down the right path. For instance, there was a pretty female singer that I used to play the piano for during youth services. I was very attracted to her. During my prayer sessions, I started getting strong feelings that she was my soul mate and that we would be married and work together in the ministry. I really believed that these feelings where coming from God. When my prophetic intuition failed to materialize, I began to doubt whether God had ever spoken to me through the inner voice. Of course, at the time, I was so spiritual minded that I had no earthly sense when it came to romantic relationships. As I look back, the whole incident seems silly. But as a young man seeing my prophetic fantasy go down the drain was quite disheartening.
Was the 'still small voice' really the voice God? Sometimes it seemed to steer me in the right direction, and other times it would lead me astray. How does a one distinguish God's voice from his or her own reason and intuition? Shouldn't God have a 100% batting average?
As my doubts came to surface, I was beginning to realize that many of my prayers were not being answered. Besides spiritual things, I prayed for material and emotional needs, such as jobs, girlfriends, advice on college, etc. Such prayers were not trivial to me since God is concerned about every detail of my life. Although I prayed with a great faith and sincerity, God was not responding. I kept track of my petitions and honestly sought answers. I reasoned that perhaps my unanswered prayers were due to lack of faith, or that it was simply not within God's will to grant such requests.
How much faith does it take to move the hand of God? And, how does one know whether he or she is praying within God's will? If I pray for a terminally ill person, how can I know whether it is God's will for that person to live or to die? After all, everyone has his appointed time to pass on to the next life. If I'm praying, night and day, for a terminally ill person to be healed and it is not in God's will to heal the person, am I not wasting my time?
I've noticed that in most cases God does not miraculously heal terminally ill people. In fact, I have never, personally, witnessed such a healing. This is not to say that miracles never happen. But, honestly, such a phenomenon has not been a part of my religious experience. Elbert Hubbard said, 'A miracle is an event described by those to whom it was told by people who did not see it.'
Some of the sweetest and most faithful Christians that I have ever known have died prematurely of debilitating diseases. I once had a Pastor who was involved in a deliverance ministry with his wife. During the course of their ministry, many were reportedly healed of their sicknesses and delivered from demonic oppression. However, my pastor became seriously ill one day, and was unable to find the same healing and deliverance that he had brought to others. He was first stricken with a debilitating stroke that robbed him of his memory; shortly afterwards he suffered a massive stroke that took away his life. In addition, his wife, who was one of the sweetest and most dedicated Christians that I had ever had ever met, became afflicted with cancer and died at a fairly young age. Why does God supernaturally heal some while allowing others suffer and die, regardless of their faith?
Christians describe God as omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (all-present), omni-benevolent (all-good), and eternal. Therefore he knows everything that we have ever done in the past and everything will ever do in the future, and he has ultimate power over all of our destinies. What are the implications of praying to such a God? Does it make sense for me, with my limited reasoning capability, and lack of foreknowledge, to ask God to make changes in my life? Can God alter his will to accommodate my prayers? And even if he can, why should he?
God's attributes, as described by Christian theology, make certain forms of prayer vain and senseless. For instance, if I am a Christian, and I board an airplane to fly across the country, it's a waste of time to pray for God's protection. Why? Because if it's NOT God's will for me to die, then he's going to protect me whether I pray or not, and if it IS God's will for me to die, then no amount of prayer is going to spare my life.
It is simply irrational to offer petition to an all-powerful and all-knowing God. To further illustrate my point, I'll use another scenario. If your wife is a financial guru and for some strange reason she has supernatural foreknowledge of what is going to happen in the worlds financial markets over the next 100 years, and she devises a plan to invest the family savings based on her unique knowledge, wouldn't it be foolish for you to disregard her advice, and insist on doing it your own way, knowing that her knowledge of the markets is far superior to yours? How much more ludicrous is it for you to tell an all-knowing and all-powerful God, who has a perfect plan for you, how to run your life, and to expect him to change his will to accommodate your prayers? From such a perspective, prayers of petition are unnecessary and potentially damaging. Richard J. Needham said, 'God punishes us mildly by ignoring our prayers and severely by answering them.'
I would think that being in the presence of an all-knowing and all-powerful God would make a person feel small and inadequate. What sense does it make for a tiny human being, with limited reasoning capacity and no foreknowledge, to instruct such a powerful being, as God, on how to run his or her life? You must be very careful how you speak and act before such a deity. Of course, God knows words of your heart long before you open your mouth, so why open it at all?
Having a personal relationship with such a God is strange indeed! Can you imagine being married to a woman who knows everything that you have ever done in the past, and everything you will ever do in the future? How scary! You could never surprise her. You could never do naughty little things and get away with it. Having foreknowledge takes the mystique and fun out of a relationship. In fact, it makes for quite an awkward and unbalanced relationship.
So, is it useful for a person to engage in a prayer of petition with the Christian God? I would conclude that it is philosophically unsound to expect such a God to answer petitions. Of course, there are other forms of prayer, such as a prayer of thanksgiving or a meditative prayer. Quietly listening to an omniscient God would far more beneficial than attempting to instruct or manipulate him.
One might ask, is it possible to derive some psychological or emotion benefit from prayer regardless of whether God answers or not? In a research paper entitled 'The Material Nature of Spirituality,' Savithri Ekanayake states, 'Among regular practitioners of meditation and prayer, a higher level of psychological health has been observed. Anxiety and depression are lowered. Regular meditation and prayer decreases the stress hormone, 'plasma cortisol'.' The research suggests that there are psychological, emotional and physical benefits to praying that are unrelated to any specific religious belief.
The effectiveness of prayer depends not only on how you pray but on what you expect to receive from it. Often people are not looking for miracles to drop out of the sky; they pray out of habit or religious tradition. Prayer helps to release tension, stress, and anxiety, and makes them feel close to God. Just having a few moments of quiet time can improve a person's state of mind.
In conclusion, prayer presupposes that there is a personal god listening on the other end who is intimately involved in the details of our lives. Although I know longer believe in such a God, I can benefit psychologically, emotionally, and physically from certain forms of prayer.
As a Panentheist, I believe in a non-personal God who lives in all things. I benefit greatly from meditative prayer, for it aligns me with God, and thus, unites me with all things.
About The Author
Cleveland Glass was licensed as a Minister in the Church of God in Christ at the age of fourteen. He is now an independent thinker who writes and speaks on subjects related to theology, philosophy, and spirituality.