One of the most common questions I have heard (and asked) about prayer is, "Does prayer work?"
In order to even consider that question, we would have to define what we understand that to mean. Most of the time, we say "prayer worked" if we get what we asked for - if our loved one gets healed, if we get the job, if we arrive home safely, etc.
We draw on passages like James 5 that tell us that "the prayer offered in faith will make [the sick among you] well" and "the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." We conclude from these passages that a primary goal of prayer is to ask for certain things and therefore we can measure prayer as effective if what was prayed for occurs.
It is common to build onto these passages with verses like John 14:14, when Jesus said, "You may ask me for anything in my name and I will do it." Combining just these verses leads many within Christian circles not only to see prayer as a means of getting what we want from God but as a guaranteed method for a person who truly has faith to get what they are asking for from God.
Very quickly, these ideas of prayer make it primarily a transaction between God and people. God becomes little more than a means through which we get what we want. On one hand, God is seen as the one who has the power to accomplish things in the world. On the other hand, God is bound to comply with our requests. God becomes little more than a divine genie, but we have unlimited wishes if we just have enough faith!
In a very real way, this idea of prayer wrests any real power away from God and puts everything into our control. Our prayers become little more than appeals for our desires. Whether or desires are selfless or selfish is of little consequence to the reality of how we interact with God. I can seek to control the genie for altruistic purposes, but that doesn't change the relationship between me and the genie! Now, I recognize that we include other things in our prayers - praise and thanksgiving are most common - but the "meat" of the prayer is often what we ask of God. And our measure of power and effectiveness is if we get what we want.
But two weeks ago I suggested that prayer is really about an invitation into a love relationship with God. And last week we emphasized the love between God and people that is shared in prayer. If love shared between people is at the heart of prayer, the real power of prayer doesn't seem to be whether or not one party gets what he/she/they wants out of it. It isn't about a business transaction. It isn't about the delivery of services. Those things aren't truly relational!
Questions about power and effectiveness change when we approach prayer as an invitation into a love relationship. The real power of prayer comes through the joining of heart and mind. With the context of a relationship, it makes sense when Jesus says, "If may ask me for anything in my name and I will do it." That statement isn't about his power or our power. It is an act of surrender which, in a true healthy love relationship and true healthy prayer, is mutual. So we ask, not looking to God as a genie, but also working alongside God in acting.
If we pray that God will comfort someone, we will also be looking for ways in which we can be a comfort. While we pray that God will keep people safe, we will also be doing whatever we can to keep others safe. (This is particularly significant during the current COVID-19 pandemic.) Prayer that begins with a relationship finds the "answers to prayer" carried out in a relationship. That is, perhaps, the most powerful and effective working out of prayer - our actions when we come away from prayer.
Does this mean that things don't change when we pray? Absolutely not! Does prayer change things? I definitely think it does. But we'll explore that more next week.