Does Prayer Work?

Today’s message begins our three-part series on prayer.  Prayer is something that has always fascinated me and I find people have very mixed theology about.  Often times a person’s perception of prayer and what it can or cannot do makes for ideas that in the end are quite harmful to their ideas about God and his love for us. I hope that this series will help in your own exploration on prayer.

Does prayer work?

If you ask around you’re sure to get a variety of answers and not all of them consistent, logical, or have sound theology behind it. Whether or not prayer works often is in the eye of the beholder. The devout follower will undoubtedly tell you that prayer works. The skeptic will often tell you they aren’t sure. And the unbeliever will tell you it’s a fairy tale people tell themselves to feel better about living in a random and meaningless world. Science doesn’t help much here either. For as many studies that prove the benefits of prayer there are those that show they don’t matter at all and there was even one study where the subjects did worse when they knew they were the object of people’s prayers.[1] All of these results might seem confusing and lead us to conclude… absolutely nothing. It’s hard to know if prayer works when we get inconsistent answers. At least from our point of view. And perhaps that’s the real problem. We don’t know how to measure the effectiveness of prayer. The problem isn’t so much if prayer works as it is how do we measure the effectiveness of prayer. Dr. Candy Brown from Indiana University in Bloomington wrote that most researchers study prayer as they would any other phenomenon. They set up studies, they do double-blind trials, they set up a control group and an experimental group, and then they compare results.[2] But maybe that’s part of the problem right there. Maybe you can’t measure the effects of prayer simply by doing blind trials. As Brown noted, “…when people actually pray for healing, they usually get up close to someone they know, touch the person and empathize with their sufferings… Double-blinded, controlled trials are not the only — or even the best — way to gauge the effects of this kind of prayer practice.”[3]

Are we expecting God to work on our time or his?
Are we expecting God to work on our time or his?

I also wondered, “How long should we give God to respond?”

How long is long enough to say that a prayer didn’t work? Today we’re going to read a passage that’s really quite famous. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, would you please go to Matthew 26 beginning with verse 36. Matthew 26:36. The problem with testing God in this way is that we expect God to keep to our timetable. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But can we accurately gauge the success or failure of our prayers based on that alone? There’s a song by Garth Brooks called “Unanswered Prayers” that speaks to this point in particular. In that song, Garth points out that in his youth he kept praying and praying for God to help him get into a relationship with a girl in school that he liked. But God didn’t answer that prayer. At least not in the way he wanted. But it ended up that because he wasn’t in a relationship with anyone, he met the woman who would one day become his wife who he loved more than anything and he wonders what might have happened if God had indeed granted that one prayer. And he sums it up in the chorus, “Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care. Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” We’re going to read about one of those unanswered prayers in our reading today.

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

prayer-in-the-gardenNext to the Lord’s Prayer, this is probably the most famous prayer in the Bible.

Jesus, in the moments before he is arrested and taken away, goes off into the garden at Gethsemane to pray to God. He tells God how overwhelmed he is with sorrow and he asks God to take away what he is being asked to do. He knows what’s coming. He knows he is about to be put to death on the cross. He knows how painful and horrible of a death that is. And he begs God to let him off the hook. But God doesn’t do it. God doesn’t take away Jesus’ pain. God doesn’t save Jesus from a death most would consider cruel and evil. Instead, God lets it happen. If it were anyone other than Jesus, I think we would be upset about it. We would think that of all people in the world, God should have saved Jesus. After all, Jesus is blameless, without sin, and a miracle worker. Of all the people ever born on Earth, Jesus had the closest directly pipeline to God. And yet, God didn’t even save him. Why wouldn’t God answer this one prayer for Jesus? The thing is God answered many of Jesus’ prayers. Pretty much all of them except this one. He healed the man born blind, he fed the 5000, he healed the centurion’s son, he healed the man who was lowered through the roof of the house, he turned water into wine, and he even brought back Lazarus from the dead. And that’s the short list. But this one prayer God did not answer. We know why because we are at the other end of history, but at the time Jesus was mocked for God’s inaction. They ridiculed him. Dared him to save himself. Put a crown of thorns on his head and a sign above him saying “King of the Jews.” If there was ever any evidence that prayer didn’t work, this was it! Except that God had something else in mind.

We know the end of this story.

We know that Christ died for us. But at that time it must have been hard to believe. Look at Peter. He denied even knowing Jesus. Hardly any of the apostles came to watch him being crucified. Jesus was left alone by almost everyone. But we know how the story ends. We know that Christ rose from the dead. We know that because of his willingness to trust in the Lord, we have been forgiven for our sins. And we know that God had something greater in mind than what we could possibly imagine. We have such a limited idea of who God is that we judge him based on our criteria. We have such a limited idea of who God is that we judge him based on our criteria. And if God fails to live up to our expectations, we tend to think that he must not care, or he must not have heard, or he must not exist. But God operates on a whole different level than we do. The concepts of time and space are not the same for him as they are for us. And a being who lives in a reality so different from ours cannot and should not be judged by our standards. And this is where trust comes in. We need to trust that God hears our prayers. We need to trust that God hears our prayers. Our prayers are not falling on deaf ears, but on the ears of someone who loves us intensely. And just because we don’t get the response we’re looking for doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care.

I do believe God answers prayers.

Why he answers some and not others, I don’t really know. I don’t know if he actually doesn’t answer them or if we’re just not looking for the right response. It could be that God answers every prayer in his own time, in his own way. Some prayers seem to get an immediate response and some never even seem to get a number in the queue. Sometimes it takes years to see a prayer get answered, even decades. I am still struck by the story of a man I was able to baptize much later in his life. I believe he was in his 60s or late 50s. Either way, God caught up to him and struck him in a powerful way. He told me that pretty much his entire adult life his mother had been praying for him to come to know God, to be baptized and accept Jesus in his heart. And for decades that prayer went unanswered. Finally, he came around and only about a week or two after he was baptized, she passed away. He hadn’t been baptized just to please his mom’s dying wish because her death was unexpected. She was older to be sure, but had no indication she was close to passing on. It was hard for me to hear this story and not think she was holding on just long enough to make sure her son was alright before letting go.

Emma dressing up in monk robes and praying (and smiling) back in 2012
Emma dressing up in monk robes and praying (and smiling) back in 2012

Does prayer work?

It does. Scientists may not be able to prove a direct correlation between prayer and healing but they can’t disprove it either. Again maybe we have a far too limiting way of looking at prayer. When we pray for healing that healing can occur spiritually or emotionally instead of just physically. So when we attempt to measure the effectiveness of prayer, maybe we’re looking in the wrong place. Maybe instead of the body we should be looking for healing of the heart or of the mind. Maybe the healing that takes place isn’t in the person but the people around them. God’s idea of healing might just very well be different than ours. Or perhaps the problem is judging God by measuring what we want to see. Is it only healing if God meets X, Y, and Z criteria? Or could healing happen in different ways and in different times? If the apostles had their way, Jesus wouldn’t have died in the first place. But it was because he died that we know Christ today. They just couldn’t see it that way at the time. Maybe our vision is too narrow.

Also, maybe our definition of “works” is too narrow.

Science definitely proves there are benefits to prayer. Prayer has been shown to improve self-control, to make you nicer, to help you be more forgiving, to increase your trust, and offset the negative effects of stress.[4] Pretty awesome benefits. I would think that anything that give you more self-control, makes you nicer, more forgiving, trusting, and less stressed out definitely “works!” I want you to give prayer a chance. If you don’t already pray regularly, try doing so. Pray every day even if it’s just a little bit each day. Don’t worry about saying the “right” prayer. If you haven’t prayed much, believe me I think God will be happy with incremental steps. But just pray. And don’t go looking for monumental results right off the bat. If they happen, great! But if not, remember that doesn’t mean God isn’t listening. Maybe we just need better ears to hear. And if you do pray regularly, try spending at least as much time listening as asking. Sometimes God works in the silence far better than in the noise. But more prayer is something we could all benefit from. Does prayer bringing healing to a person every time, the way we want it to, when we want it to? No. Does prayer guarantee bad things won’t happen to you? No. But does prayer work? Most definitely, yes. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/candy-gunther-brown-phd/testing-prayer-science-of-healing_b_1299915.html

[3] Ibid

[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/more-mortal/201406/5-scientifically-supported-benefits-prayer

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