Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying—Week 3
What evidence is there for the efficacy of prayer? This is an old, well worn question but if you believe that God intervenes and saves people with a terminal disease or illness because of prayer, why does he not re-grow the limbs of amputees or unfortunates born without limbs?
Why would he help you because you prayed, for example, to pass an exam, when he ignores the prayers said for something far less trivial like helping a seriously ill, close relative to recover?
Prayer is a delusion. (So writes Trevand, 6/7/10)*
Trevand is not really asking what seem to be good questions, but is trying to make a point: Even if there is a God, he’s saying, prayer doesn’t work, and we’re fooling ourselves to think it does. In his conclusion, he is assuming that a good, all-powerful God would never answer some requests and neglect others, meeting relatively minor needs while ignoring the most serious appeals.
But are his assumptions correct?
In spite of the fact that Psalm 103 says that God “heals all our diseases,” should we really expect that God will always heal us or help us whenever we pray? And just because prayer doesn’t “work” sometimes, does that mean God never answers prayer? And when we do not receive what we ask for, are there ways to understand what is happening in our lives other than concluding that prayer is worthless?
I’ve struggled with these questions, and others like them, ever since my first pastorate in the mid-1980’s. Alongside a multitude of wonderful experiences of God at work in powerful and life-changing ways are a host of disappointing or disheartening times of unanswered prayer.
When Al was dying, for example, he asked for prayer. As a new pastor, I eagerly gathered the elders together and went to his home on a cold, wintry night. We laid hands on him and prayed for his healing. I was eager to see what God would do in response to our faith.
However, within a matter of a few weeks, he died. I was crushed. After several more equally disappointing attempts to seek healing through prayer, I started to question my faith. I couldn’t figure out what God was doing (or not doing), and why God wouldn’t honor our efforts.
Was our praying for Al a waste of time? If one measures the value of prayer by whether someone is healed, and stays healed, then our prayer didn’t work. Maybe we were wasting our time.
But that’s not what Al thought. I remember well his saying to me that he had “felt something he had never felt before” when we prayed together. Al was thrilled by his experience of prayer with the elders, and wore a look of wonder and gratitude on his face. When his illness resumed in full force, he accepted his impending death with peace that he didn’t have before.
My confusing experience with Al (and with many others who suffered and died without apparent intervention from God) forced me to re-evaluate my assumptions about God and prayer. However, I did not draw the same conclusions as Trevand. Rather, instead of concluding that God or prayer was failing me in all the unanswered prayers of my life, I realized that it was my expectations of God and prayer that were failing me.
I was assuming that if Jesus and other New Testament figures healed others, we could heal in Jesus’ name on demand. However, while I have seen God heal and have even experienced healing myself, what would make me think that God would always do so at my bidding?
Think about it. Jesus promised resurrection, which comes after death, not deliverance from every disease, calamity, sickness, and cause of suffering while we are in our human bodies. We are all going to die eventually. At some point, everyone’s prayer for healing will fail. If saving us from death were the requirement for faith, then there would never be a basis for belief in God, since we all die.
No, the Christian perspective on life is that our earthly existence is a very brief season in eternity, a time for coming to know, love, and serve God in ways that may or may not include long life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I cannot speak for God, and I cannot fully know why God does not answer prayers in every way we want or think he should. However, there are alternatives to Trevand’s assumptions and conclusions—ways of thinking and relating to God that are rooted in humility, openness to mystery, and faith, while still being intellectually honest:
1. Accept that suffering, decay, and death are indelibly etched into the fabric of human existence. Do not pray to try to escape life’s hardship and frailty, but to find greater meaning, purpose, strength, and courage to face reality and make the most of your life.
2. Give up trying to prove something about God that cannot be proven. Instead, focus your attention on what it means to live by faith in the God of the Bible. Do not simply pray for what you want, but to come to know better the God who created the universe, makes covenants with people, provides a Savior for humanity, loves sinners, forgives those who confess their sins and repent, and who promises life after death for those who put their faith in Jesus Christ.
3. Be humble enough to let your false assumptions about God and prayer be exposed and changed by your experience. As you do so, let Scripture continually inform your changing beliefs and practices. Learn how to live with unanswered questions and tensions in the biblical view of God and prayer, while never giving up on asking the questions that are burning within you.
4. Seek from God whatever God offers, on God’s terms. Pray wholeheartedly, trusting that there is a God, who wants to be in relationship with you; that this God is good, loving, and active in the universe and in your life; and that prayer does make a difference. But do not for a minute think that you can ever control God by your prayers or your will.
Faith is not having the ability to answer every logical question that comes to mind. It is a mindset that requires humility and openness to being in relationship with your Creator, whom you can never fully understand, but who rewards those who earnestly seek a meaningful relationship with him. These “rewards”—along with many disappointments, frustrations, longings, and heartaches—are well worth the effort and the difficulty of spending a lifetime walking by faith and not by sight.
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see… And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” —Hebrews 11:1, 6 (NIV)
A Prayer “Loving Creator, you perplex me sometimes. I really can’t understand why you seem to work in such beautiful ways in my life in some circumstances, and then leave so many fervent, desperate prayers unanswered. Your “no” seems so cruel and heartless in some situations. Please help me to grow in my ability to know the truth about your involvement in my life and the lives of others, so that my worship will be appropriate, my relationship with you genuine, and my spiritual growth real and fruitful, according to your good purposes for my life. In Christ’s name and for his sake, I will continue to pray… Amen.”
*To read the original Huffington Post article that prompted these responses from bloggers, click here, “When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.”