I was asked recently to respond to a few questions regarding prayer, specifically around the efficacy of prayer (i.e. does it actually do anything?)
I find that I’m generally okay at giving answers to questions like that on the spot but more often than not I have a better answer a couple days later. Good questions seem to have the power to dominate my thoughts in my downtime.
And so here we are. I feel compelled to write out some of my ‘better thoughts’. It seems especially applicable since one of things things we want to focus on this year is prayer.
The greatest question regarding prayer is, I suppose, that if God is all-knowing and all-wise, and is good and is love, why should we pray? If we know that ‘for those who love God all things work together for good’ (Romans 8:28) why do we even need to pray?
I like what C.S. Lewis has to say in his essay, Work and Prayer, in God in the Dock.
In his essay, Lewis separates prayer into two kinds: ‘high’ or ‘more advanced’ prayer, which consists solely of conversation and communion with God, and ‘low’ or ‘old-fashioned’ prayer which involves asking for things:
“The case against prayer (I mean that ‘low’ or old-fashioned kind) is this. The thing you ask for is either good–for you and for the world in general–or else it is not. If it is, then a good and wise God will do it anyway. If it is not, then He won’t. In neither case can your prayer make any difference. But if this argument is sound, surely it is an argument not only against praying, but against doing anything whatever?”
If I were to pray for the end of world hunger, does that prayer make a difference? Doesn’t God want to do that anyways?
Before we answer this in terms of prayer, let’s think about our choices in general. What you and I do matters. I think to some degree we can all agree on that.
I can choose to make my diet consist solely of baked goods and chocolate, or I can choose to make my diet consist of a healthy balance of foods. Whichever decision I go with, my life is going to be impacted.
For whatever reason, God has chosen to allow humanity to make real choices which lead to real events. Lewis writes, “It is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method.”
If God has chosen to allow us to make real choices (real in that they have an actual impact) in our actions, it doesn’t seem to be that much of a leap to say he’s allowed us to have a real effect on the world in prayer.
In fact, it seems that prayer is the far more wise option. In prayer, “God has left Himself a discretionary power. Had He not done so, prayer would be an activity too dangerous for [humanity],” writes Lewis, “Prayers are not always–in the crude, factual sense of the word–‘granted’. This is not because prayer is a weaker kind of causality, but because it is a stronger kind. When it ‘works’ at all it works unlimited by space and time. That is why God has retained a discretionary power of granting or refusing it; except on that condition prayer would destroy us.”
In short, allowing our ‘impact’ to be passed through the discretion of God is as wise as a child allowing their choices to be passed through the discretion of an adult, otherwise, their diet may very well consist of only baked goods and chocolate. And, the even grander thing of prayer is that when it is ‘granted’ the power that works in prayer is far greater than any power we could ever muster from ourselves.
What’s left from there is trust, and perhaps that’s the more difficult thing. Trust that when we hear ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ (or we hear nothing at all) God is still at work, even if we can’t see it.