Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Prayer Changes What Now?


I’ve been spending some time in prayer recently. No, it’s not because I’ve suddenly gotten better about my “prayer life” or because I’m growing spiritually (I hope I am, but I’m not sure there’s a direct correllation). I’m praying because sucky things are happening to people I love, and since I always tell people “I’m praying for you!” I figured I’d better do it.


And here’s the thing: I don’t understand prayer. At all.

I pray a fair bit anyway, but I’ll admit it’s sometimes perfunctory. I have things to pray for — the usual things.  I’m raising two kids, trying to keep them safe and not mess them up too badly. I have (slightly) aging parents and a (rather more) aging great-aunt, who are prone to all the obvious perils of getting older. I teach at-risk youth who are usually in some crisis or another. And I want world peace, and hunger to end, so I pray for all that.

But occasionally something comes up that’s a real crisis situation, and then my praying kicks into high gear. Unfortunately, so does my relentless analytical brain.

I have friends whose faith is so much stronger and simpler than mine, and they say “I’m praying for you!” and I know they mean it. They say things like “Prayer changes things!” and they seem confident in that, and I wish I could be that way, but I’m not.  I play around with different ways of trying to understand prayer, and none of them fits properly.

1. The “Prayer Changes Things!” approach.

This is the approach of my friends who seem strong in faith. They quote Bible verses about prayer, including the really audacious ones like “Whatever you ask in My name, you will receive!” and seem to take them at face value.  They start prayer chains. They are prayer warriors, and they really believe that if you ask God in faith, He will come through.

Some Christians — the “prosperity gospel” or “name it and claim it!” people — take this to extremes, as if God is a waiter who will fill their orders if they just make things clear enough.  Most of the rest of us are “If it be Thy will” Christians, hedging our bets by giving God an out in case He doesn’t come through. That’s the first obvious problem with this attitude to prayer — we have all seen examples where it doesn’t “work,” where we pray as hard as we can and terrible things happen anyway. How do we go on believing in prayer then?

Apart from that, there are huge theological problems with this approach to prayer. Yes, it agrees with the plain sense of some Scripture verses.  But what kind of God does it give us? One who is capable of intervening, but chooses to intervene sometimes and not others? But why? Or is God bound to change His will if enough people pray hard enough? If so, doesn’t that make us, the pray-ers, into gods? Or is God absolutely sovereign, working out His own will and purpose in all things? In which case, why pray at all?

2. The “Prayer Changes Me” approach. 

Some great person whom I can’t bother to look up right now said something like, “I do not pray in hopes of changing God; I pray in hopes of changing myself.” (Actually, I did look it up later, and similar quotes are attributed to a lot of people). 

OK, I can see there are places where this makes sense.  Like if I’m praying for some poor person to have food, hopefully in the act of praying I’ll have a moment of enlightenment, go “Oh, DUH!” and buy them a meal.  If I’m praying about a situation where I can help at all by my action, my choices, my love and concern, then the act of praying will change me enough that I will do something about it.

Problems with this approach? First of all, it leaves God out entirely. You don’t have to be praying to the Christian God for this to work; you don’t even have to be praying to any god at all.  You could just be doing some nice meditative exercise — you could be doing yoga with an intention for the good of that person or situation — and the same effect of change in yourself would occur. Which is fine, but is that really all prayer is — an opportunity to sit down and think things through more clearly?

The other problem, of course, is that the situations I pray most fervently about are those where I have no control.  The two current situations that have driven me to pray are 1) a good friend, younger than I am, has a particularly nasty and virulent kind of cancer, and 2) another good friend is pregnant with twins and is in hospital in very premature labour, while the doctors try to do everything to slow down labour in hopes of saving one or both babies.

Now, praying for these friends may make me more aware and more concerned about their situations, more likely to express that concern if there’s anything I can do to help.  But there’s not a single damn thing in the universe I can do to cure cancer, or to make those babies be born healthy.  It’s my own impotence, my own powerlessness, that makes me want to reach out to a God bigger and more powerful than I am.

3. The “Good Vibrations” approach.

I have a group of wonderful women friends who are very diverse in terms of religious beliefs, ranging from the somewhat-conservative evangelical (that’s me) through the “spiritual-but-not-religious,” to the neo-pagan, to the atheist, with some other points on the continuum in between.  We are very supportive of each other in good times and bad, and when one of us, or someone we care about, has a need, we always bring it to each other and say that we are sending out “good vibes.”  Obviously this means something different to each of us, and I know that I and at least one or two others in the group simply mean “I will pray for you,” but out of respect for those who don’t believe in God or prayer, we don’t phrase it that way.

It does connect, though, to a currently-popular idea that while there may be no personal God manipulating events, there is some kind of energy field out there that we can tap into through prayer, or through ritual, through intentions or lighting candles or casting benign spells.  The ritual doesn’t matter, in this theory; what matters is your desire to pull down some of that good energy to bless someone.

I can’t argue with this theory or say it’s wrong. It could be true.  But it’s so vague as to be almost useless to me, and although it removes the issue of a personal God deciding who to save and who not to save, it actually has some of the same problems as the “Prayer Changes Things!” approach.  If all we need is enough Christians praying, or enough happy New Agers sending out good vibes, how exactly does it work?  If we get 1000 people praying, will my friend be less likely to die of cancer? If we get 2000 people praying (or vibing), would he be two times less likely? What’s the critical mass here? How many prayers, or good vibes, or chants, do I need to save one of my friend’s twins? How about both? Once again, if you analyze it too much, it all falls apart. (Or it does for me anyway).

The other problem I have with “good vibes” alone is that by taking God out of the equation, you smooth over some theological problems, but you also remove the element that matters most to me: the belief that there is actually Someone out there who loves me and cares about what I’m going through, what my friends are going through. Who weeps when I weep, who holds me when things are dark and scary.

If you were hoping I’d wrap this up with option #4, the satisfying conclusion I’ve arrived at, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I got nothin’.  I have this need and desire to pray, this conviction that I should, and absolutely no idea why, how, or if prayer works. Maybe if there’s a “right” answer, it’s some combination of options #1,2 and 3 that I can’t quite figure out or predict.

Years ago some young people I was working with brought up this very problem in a small group, and we thrashed it out.  Shortly after that I went to a youth ministry event and happened to have a quiet chat with some very high-profile youth leadership person.  Sadly I cannot now remember who that person was, although I want to say it was Mike Yaconelli.  That seems delusional though — did I really have this conversation with Mike Yaconelli? Maybe, maybe not.  Suffice it to say that this wise person who may or may not have been Mike Yaconelli listened to me talk about what my youth group kids were wondering about prayer, and confessing my own doubts, and said something along the lines of “You know, I don’t really understand it either. I just cling to the fact that Jesus told us to pray, and so we do it, even if we don’t really know why.”

Twenty-plus years on, I have no better answer than the answer of maybe-Mike-Yaconelli.  I recently read Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, in which she talks about apophatic theology.  No, that’s not apathetic theology, the theology of not caring one way or the other — it’s the theology of negation, of saying that we can only know what God is not, never what He is.  I think maybe there’s room in my life for a little apophathy (but never apathy). And that’s the approach I’m trying to take now to prayer.

I don’t know what prayer is. I know more about what it isn’t.  I don’t know how it works, though I might have some guesses about how it doesn’t work.  But I believe in prayer, on a gut level that I absolutely cannot explain. So I choose to treat it as a holy mystery.  I do it, believing that it’s important and it matters even though I cannot hope to explain why.  Jesus told me to pray in His Name, and I do it.  I ignore the voices who say it’s pointless to do something if you don’t understand how it works or can’t even guarantee it works at all, because they are forcing the deepest spiritual truths to try to conform to the laws of science.  I believe there are things beyond the laws of science, and they are deep and mysterious.  “There is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness,” said the poet Henry Vaughan, and when I pray, I immerse myself in that darkness, and it dazzles me.

So if you tell me what’s going on in your life and I say I’m praying for you, I mean it. You need to be aware you are not talking to a prayer warrior, or anyone who is likely to get a “Prayer Changes Things!” bumper sticker or a  praying hands tattoo anytime soon.  I don’t understand a thing about prayer and if you think someone needs to have a certain quotient of faith for their prayers to work, then you might want to ask someone other than me.  I am praying my way through mystery and doubt and fear and hope.

God bless us all, however He does that thing.


14 thoughts on “Prayer Changes What Now?

  1. I just love how real you are, especially in this post. You echo many of my thoughts. I don’t know how prayer works, but I know it does. It doesn’t always work as I pray it will work, but yet it works, it does something. I think that’s where I’ve come to. I don’t know how or what to pray, but I know I need to pray, and I have to leave the rest in God’s hands.

  2. I love your apophatic prayer theology. That’s the way it is, a mystery.

    One way to understand your friends with strong faith in prayer is through spiritual gifts. Some people do have a gift of intercessory prayer and the way they often pray makes the rest of us feel like we don’t have strong faith.

    The approaches you mention probably have some truth in them, but they certainly don’t explain the dynamics of prayer.

    An additional way to see prayer is through the biblical concept of this world not being under God’s rule at the moment but being governed by the evil one. Prayer could also be seen as an invitation to God to be present here and intervene in the darkness we live in. When invited, God gets a “visa” to enter the territory of another power.

    Let’s keep praying and/or vibing no matter how it works.

  3. Such sad updates to this post … I am spending the weekend visiting Jamie, the friend with cancer, who is doing OK for now, but while here I got the news that the friend who was pregnant had lost both her babies. And having mentioned prayer for my students, I just learned one of them died suddenly yesterday. Such sad times as I struggle with asking God to work in the lives of those I love.

  4. I don’t believe in any of these theories—quite. Prayer is a conversation with God, like with a loving Father. Sometimes, He’ll do the things we want Him to, but sometimes, He won’t. There is always a good reason.

    For example: James Allen wrote in one of his books (the one about peace) how if what somebody lives is different than what they pray for, then they will get what they live. God is loving. He never supersedes our will.

    Sometimes, it’s because He knows something is good for us, even though it hurts. He never took away Paul’s “thorn in the side.” It kept Peter humble.

    Then there is the part that changes us. If we offer our will to God, He will “educate” our will, as my dad once told me. We pray, “I want such and such, but Thy will be done.” That is an invitation for God to change us, but not necessarily to go do something physical, but to grow spiritually.

    But to me, requests and praises, etc. are just describing what people can pray. Prayer is one thing: communion with God. (But that’s just me. :grins: )

  5. Oh my, such sad news. Prayers to you and those you are keeping company in the valley of shadow of death. May the Spirit of God carry you through.

  6. The thing I had the hardest time with is when Jesus said “whatever you ask in my father’s name”. Well, I’ve asked lots of things in his father’s name over the years, and all I can say is that the verse, such as it is, isn’t true.

  7. Yes Jamie, the use of that verse is actually one of the best arguments AGAINST Biblical literalism, since it’s obvious that the literal meaning of the verse simply isn’t true.

  8. That depends entirely on your understanding of the original languages. In the culture Jesus grew up in, a name didn’t mean using a word (we can all do that and it means nothing—you can kill in someone’s name, but it doesn’t make them guilty). A name was the sumtotal of everything a person is. To pray in Jesus name, in anything like a Jewish concept, meant that you had to be like Him, in His attitude and mind and heart. And how did He pray?

    (paraphrase) “Let this cup pass from me, but not my will. Thy will be done.”

    That’s a far cry from just expecting our wishes to be granted because we said “in the name of Jesus.”

    • Megs, I’m just reading this now so excuse my coming into the conversation late, but I don’t think you sounded blunt at all and I actually found your explanation enlightening. It makes sense to me. To pray in Jesus name means to be so in tune with Him that your prayers would be what He would pray. I can’t say I have ever, or will ever, reach that place, but I can always hope and try. My shortness in reaching that place explains my “unanswered prayers” that I have thought I prayed in His name simply because I had used His name in the prayer. I need to put more effort into becoming like Him and less effort in trying to invoke His will and authority by using His name. Hmmmmm…. Thanks for making me think.

  9. And that read a lot blunter than I intended it too. I was trying to explain a concept, not contradict anybody (esp. not harshly). So sorry for my lack of tact.

  10. That’s OK, Megs — I didn’t think you sounded harsh or anything. But I see (maybe not everybody sees) a contradiction between Jesus’ own prayer “Thy will be done” and “Whatever you ask in my name, you will receive.” The first gives all the power to God, the second (taken on its surface, anyway) to the petitioner. If Jesus had just meant “Tell the Father what you want, and if it’s His will, He’ll give it to you,” that would have been much simpler and clearer!!

  11. You forgot the importance of lots of exclamation marks after vibes!!!!! Nah, I kid, of course. I am a lot like you when it comes to the idea of praying. I do pray for people and I do mean it when I say I’ll pray for someone. But I don’t believe my prayers will necessarily make things turn out the way I want. Of course, at times, in the begging, beseeching prayers, I do hope that my prayers will be answered but, Garth Brooks was right about God’s greatest gifts being unanswered prayers (sometimes). So, when I pray for someone, I also ask God to give them the peace that I think only He can and to help them with what they are going through. Sometimes, that’s what I think God does, help us find some way to get through the crappy stuff–with humour, with peace, with strength, and love. There are times when the silent touch of someone’s hand can help so very much and that, I believe, is where God is, and what He helps us with. He lets us know when to reach that hand out and helps us feel the love when it is offered.

  12. I think it would be safe to say that prayer encompasses all the reasons you mention above (I had similar thoughts reading your book review blogs about suffering)…in my personal experience, prayer is mostly about relationship. I think the whole idea of saying “prayers” is rather ridiculous, but I talk to God all the time, and have found that he has ways in which He very much seems to talk back – whether my prayers are answered by something I hear from an anointed preacher, something I read in the Bible, or something that he drops into my heart as I go about my day. No matter what my dilemma, if I take a minute to pray, that simple act of committing it into hands greater than mine accomplishes something – call it a placebo if you must, but really, whatever is wrong with the placebo effect if it is perceived as real??? Ask anyone if they care whether the effects they feel from any intervention are placebo or real…they’ll tell you that they really don’t care as long as it makes them feel better. I long ago decided that real or perceived, life on this planet is just better with God than without him…
    Incidentally, I wrote a little about prayer here:

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