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8 Feb 2009

The power of prayer – A few months ago, my friend Kevin wrote a piece on petitionary prayer. The piece was sparked by a news article concerning an Al Qaeda leader praying for President Bush to be humiliated, and it deals primarily with the question of whether or not prayer can be said to be physically efficacious: “Can you consistently pray away a storm? A drought? A disease? A raging cancer?” He delivers an early verdict in the next paragraph: “there’s no consistent evidence that it works.” He also makes it clear that he’s not talking about prayer in the abstract, but prayer “as an instrument of physical manipulation.” In other words, is the focus of prayer, like the Force, something that you can control or manipulate?

“...prayer is not a magic spell with which to command some greater power.”

That’s not even a summary, but just a brief selection of quotes and half-quotes, so you should really read it yourself before going on. I will offer a more extended quotation here, though, because it gets to the heart of the reason why Kevin felt the need to write the essay in the first place:

The reason there's a discussion about prayer at all is because many people of faith insist on making the claim that "prayer does X"—e.g., prayer heals. This is a claim about prayer's physical efficacy, which means the results of prayer should be observable and measurable. ...If the theist tries to evade systematic skeptical inquiry with a dismissive, “No, no; you're missing the point," it's actually the theist who's missing the point: you don't make an unsubstantiated claim about the physical world (“prayer can cure cancer”) and then walk away before the claim's been tested! The burden of proof lies squarely on the claimant.

I am tempted to rattle off a quick response—the response that immediately popped into my head upon reading Kevin’s essay—but it would be too pat, and it wouldn’t really address the issue. So I’m going to arrive at my response by a longer and slightly more circuitous route (which will no doubt come as shock to regular readers). And if you’re wondering why this response comes over three months after the original post, well, let’s just say that the route was circuitous in more ways than one, and required a lot of pondering and a number of drafts.

Just to get the disclaimers out of the way, I am a theist, as Kevin notes in the comments to his essay. This means I believe there is a God, although I don’t claim to know what form he takes (I use “he” because the English language doesn’t have a non-gender-specific pronoun... and I don’t capitalize the “h” because I think that’s kind of like wearing an American flag pin on your lapel). Kevin specifically avoids discussing the question of whether or not God exists, which is understandable, seeing as it is a logical quagmire from which there is no escape. I will likewise avoid discussing this question, but I will be approaching the issue from a theistic point of view and attempting to reconcile the reality of prayer with this point of view. I honestly don’t know where I am going to end up, but I guess that’s why I take these journeys in the first place. There really wouldn’t be much sense in going if I knew where I was going to end up.

I’d like to start out by looking at what the Bible says about prayer. Actually the Bible says a lot about prayer—enough to write numerous books, let alone a journal entry like this one. For starters, I’ll narrow it down to the New Testament, and then again to the teachings of Christ (although I will be looking briefly at Paul later on), and even further to a few specific verses that are often quoted when referring to prayer. I’ll get to the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) in a bit, but I would like to start in the next chapter of Matthew.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)

These are the words of Jesus, taken from what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. There seem to be no restrictions on prayer here, since everyone who asks will receive, and the comparison of prayer to knocking on a door brings to mind—at least to the mind of the folklorist—a magical act (knocking was once a magical or superstitious act—thus the phrase, “knock on wood”). Later, though, when speaking only with his disciples, Jesus offers a slightly modified version of this formula:

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:21-22)

The Gospel of Mark offers another version of the same statement:

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:22-24)

For those not familiar with the context, Jesus went to a fig tree hoping for fruit but found only leaves. He cursed the fig tree and it immediately withered, and the disciples marveled at this. I mention this passage because it is, I believe, where the “misguided rhetoric” that Kevin refers to in his post comes from, and to be honest I have had a hard time with it myself. Taken by itself, the logic of this verse can indeed be inverted to say that if you pray and you don’t get a positive answer, then you didn’t have enough faith. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen too many mountains pick themselves up and throw themselves into the sea lately. It is true that Jesus often spoke in symbols and metaphors, but the fundamental logic is still problematic.

However, this is not all that the Bible gives us to go on when it comes to prayer, and I believe that isolating this verse leads us away from the truth about prayer. While I can’t claim to have inside knowledge of the truth about prayer, I will try to get as close to it as I can later on. For now, though, I’d like to look at some more concrete examples of prayer in the Bible to see how it works in practice. I’m going to stick with New Testament examples, as it is New Testament theology that most Christians consider to be applicable to the world today.

I suppose I should start with the most famous example of prayer in the Bible, the passage now known as the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus prefaces his prayer with two pieces of advice: don’t pray in the open in front of others, and don’t babble on, because God knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:5-8). The content of the prayer itself will be familiar to most, but I’ll quote it here for the sake of completeness.

This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’

There are only five elements to this prayer: praise of God, confirmation of God’s will, a request for sustenance, a request for forgiveness, and a request for spiritual protection. Only one of these elements directly relates to the physical realm, and that is the request for sustenance. It is interesting because the prayer only asks for what is needed and no more. There is no talk of anything as grandiose as mountains throwing themselves into the sea. The only condition applied to this prayer is that we must forgive others their sins if we want to receive forgiveness for our sins (Matthew 6:14-15).

This presents a much different picture than the two passages I quoted above. For one, it is a practical example of prayer rather than a statement about how prayer works. Still, if this is how Jesus taught us to pray, you have to assume that it is going to be an effective way of praying. We can see Christ putting his words into practice in perhaps his most famous prayer, the one he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. (It is also interesting to note that here, as elsewhere, he followed his own advice about where to pray—Luke 5:16 says, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”)

The prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is so important that all the gospels except the Gospel of John contain it (Luke says that Christ went to the Mount of Olives, but the Garden of Gethsemane was at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and so is referring to the same place). It is a simple prayer, but very powerful. Matthew has Christ saying, “‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will’” (Matthew 26:39). A little later, he prays again, saying, “‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done’” (Matthew 26:42).

Mark only records the prayer once, and has: “‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36). Luke paints a much more vivid picture: “‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:42-44).

Two things are remarkable about this prayer. The most immediately remarkable thing is that Jesus did not get what he initially hoped for. Luke’s account shows us just how anguished he was about what lay before him. Did he not have enough faith, then? For all the miracles that Christ performed, for all the times he had evaded or stymied the Jewish authorities before, could he have not slipped the net this time as well? It doesn’t really seem like that much to ask. Except it wasn’t just capture, torture, or even death from which he begged to be spared. It was taking on the sins of the entire world and being cut off from God the Father. This was the cup that he did not want to drink, but this was the cup that had to be drunk if God’s will were to be fulfilled. So Jesus submitted himself to the will of the Father and basically said, “I am praying for this, but only on the condition that your will can still be fulfilled.”

I can think of another famous instance where God said no to a prayer in the New Testament. When Paul wrote his second letter to the church at Corinth, he spoke of a thorn in his flesh, a “messenger of Satan” to torment him. He prayed three times that it would be taken from him (interestingly enough, the same number of times that Christ prayed in Gethsemane, according to both Matthew and Mark), but the reply he received was: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9a). Paul’s commentary on this, which follows immediately after, is: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. íŽ For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9b, 10b). This is another excellent example of submission to God’s will.

So not only does the Bible not show us that prayer will always be answered in the affirmative, it explicitly shows us that it will sometimes be answered in the negative. God will hear our prayers, but he may not always answer them in the way we hope he will—prayer, in a word, is not a magic spell with which to command some greater power. This brings me to the thought that popped into my head when reading Kevin’s essay: we can’t scientifically prove that prayer heals because prayer doesn’t heal, God does. To be perfectly honest, I find attempts to reduce prayer to a foolproof formula insulting. I can do without a God that is nothing more than a source of primitive magic.

And yet, this is exactly what many Christians do when they misinterpret phrases such as “the power of prayer.” I’ll get into what I think the true power of prayer is later, but right now I’d like to take a look at something that I stumbled across not too long ago: the Fellowship Baptist Creation Science Fair 2001. At first I doubted it was real—I thought it had to be a parody site—but apparently it is indeed real. (Note: It turns out that my initial suspicion was correct, and it is a parody site, so take what follows with a grain of salt. I’m going to leave the link and the quote, though—even though it isn’t real, it is an effective parody precisely because there are people who think like this. My commentary on the site, though, has been changed from the original post.) Here is the first place entry at the high school level, which deals directly with the physical efficacy of prayer:

Eileen Hyde and Lynda Morgan (grades 10 & 11) did a project showing how the power of prayer can unlock the latent genes in bacteria, allowing them to microevolve antibiotic resistance. Escherichia coli bacteria cultured in agar filled petri dishes were subjected to the antibiotics tetracycline and chlorotetracycline. The bacteria cultures were divided into two groups, one group (A) received prayer while the other (B) didn't. The prayer was as follows: “Dear Lord, please allow the bacteria in Group A to unlock the antibiotic-resistant genes that You saw fit to give them at the time of Creation. Amen.” The process was repeated for five generations, with the prayer being given at the start of each generation. In the end, Group A was significantly more resistant than Group B to both antibiotics.

The thinking behind this is that the “power of prayer” is equivalent to a physical force or a law of nature—if you insert the same variables into the equation, you will always get the same result. This isn’t science—it isn’t even religion—it’s magic, and although this is a parody, there are children being taught that this way of thinking is a valid approach to faith and the world at large. God is no djinn or daemon. You can’t rub a lamp and get your three wishes. It just doesn’t work that way. And this is ultimately why we cannot make scientific claims about prayer—because God cannot be manipulated to create results that can be tested and reproduced.

I think this is the only response that is valid for a theist, unless you want to degrade God from omnipotent being to mystical imp. I don’t think this is any big revelation, which is why I don’t plan on ending today’s entry here. In the process of formulating this response, we’ve raised other questions, both implicit and explicit. One of those questions is: does prayer really have any power, and if so, what is it? Another question is: if petitionary prayer can’t be proven to have any sort of physically efficacy, why do we bother praying at all?

I stated above that I do believe prayer has power, but it’s not the power to unlock latent antibiotic-resistant genes. When it comes to petitionary prayer, prayer itself has no power to effect the desired result. God may choose to move in such a way as to bring about that result, or that result may occur naturally. I don’t believe that the coincidence of result with prayer necessarily means that the result is an answer to that prayer (in other words: “correlation does not always indicate causation”). For example, let’s say I pray for a new car, and then I go out and win the lottery and buy myself a new car. Is that an answer to my prayer? I would have a hard time seeing it as such, especially since the God of the Bible generally takes a dim view of gambling. I’m getting a little off topic here, but the bottom line is that the act or content of prayer itself is not physically connected with any result (I know I keep harping on this point, but it is ultimately what separates prayer from magic, so I think it is important).

So what is the power of prayer? Let me relate an experience of mine that may help illuminate my answer to this question. This happened shortly after I first came to Korea. I was at the immigration office to renew my visa, but I had overstayed it by a few days. I was brought upstairs to wait outside an office where an official conducted investigations into cases like mine (you might be surprised at how many people overstay their visas). There was someone in the office when I arrived, an Australian who had overstayed his visa by a single day because he was ill and couldn’t come to the immigration office. I listened as he argued with the official, and it was like arguing with a (if I can borrow a Korean poetic phrase) stone Buddha. The Australian grew more and more agitated, but the official was adamant: “I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do. We have to follow the rules.”

I felt a little sorry for the Australian, because it was apparent that he had been on the wrong end of some bad luck. At the same time, I also realized that my chances of leniency were next to nothing. I don’t remember why I had overstayed my visa, but I do remember that I had no good excuse, so I basically resigned myself to my fate. I prayed, but I didn’t pray for God to change the official’s mind or for some other sort of divine intervention—in fact, it never occurred to me to pray for such things. Instead, I prayed for peace, that I would be able to remain calm throughout the proceedings. And when I finished praying I did feel much more at peace. I wasn’t nervous, and I was ready to face whatever was ahead (most likely a stiff fine).

When it was my turn to go in, I started talking with the official, and I remained calm the whole time. I didn’t try to offer any excuses because I didn’t really have any. He asked me what I was doing in Korea, and I told him that I was currently learning Korean, and we spoke in Korean for a short while. Then he was quiet, and after a moment he said, “Let me talk to my superior and see what we can do.” I was surprised, because just a few minutes ago he had told the Australian that nothing could be done. To make a long story short, my fine was cut in half, but that wasn’t all. By the time we were finished it was too late to go to the bank, so I normally would have had to return the following day (the process involved going to the bank to pay the fine and then returning to the immigration office to get the proper stamps), but the official told me that he would pay the fine himself the next day. So he took the money and stamped my passport right then and there, and I was free to go.

So what happened? Did God touch the heart of the official so that he would have mercy on me? Maybe, but that’s not what I prayed for. I realized that what I needed was not divine intervention but peace of mind, and that’s exactly what I got. As I had many times before, I experienced the power of prayer in a very real way. By stilling my mind, I was able to let the peace I needed flow into my heart.

Theist or not, there is probably something about this explanation of the “power of prayer” that nags at you. If you are a theist, you might be thinking that I am reducing prayer to something very mundane, something that may be difficult to distinguish from simple meditation. If you are not a theist, you might think I am putting an unnecessary religious spin on what is essentially a non-religious activity. Since I am approaching the issue of prayer from a theistic point-of-view, I should probably address the question of how prayer differs from meditation, but that ties in with my answer to the question of why we pray, so I will put that aside for the moment and instead conclude my answer to the this first question: what is the power of prayer?

Put simply, the power of prayer is power over our own selves. I’ve heard people say that “prayer changes things.” I’ve also heard people say that “prayer changes lives,” and I think this is more precise—although to be even more precise, I would say: “prayer changes the one who prays.” If you pray, you will find yourself becoming a different person. Taking time out of the day to focus on something (i.e., God, or whatever name you ascribe to the object of your prayers) outside of yourself and the minutiae of daily life ultimately gives you more control over yourself. I suppose it could be compared to taking a step back in order to see the bigger picture. When we allow ourselves to become too involved and too caught up in life, we can be blinded to this bigger picture—we lose perspective. But when we take the time to pray we give ourselves the chance to put things into perspective.

Prayer is also an opportunity to unburden ourselves of the things that weigh us down, but which we might not be able to share with others. Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I have experienced the power of prayer in this regard many times—in fact, it was the memory of this verse that prompted me to pray in the immigration office.

I could go on, giving more specific examples, but this should suffice to make my point. To summarize: prayer is not a magical formula by which we can summon God and make him do our bidding; instead, the power of prayer lies in its ability to change us personally.

To wrap up this entry, I want to deal with the one question that remains (at least of those I’ve raised): why do we bother praying? It may seem as if I have already answered this, at least in part, with my answer to the previous question, but it could be argued that other practices could easily be substituted for prayer—in terms of centering ourselves and finding peace, meditation is one option, and in terms of unburdening ourselves, communicating with a really close friend (or a priest, or some other confidante) might be just as effective as prayer.

So if we don’t need prayer for centering ourselves or casting off our burdens, why do we do it? To bring this entry back around to its original topic, why do we engage in petitionary prayer? As both Christ and Paul showed us above, we should pray for God’s will to be done. But if it’s God’s will, isn’t it going to be done anyway? Why do we need to pray for it to be done? Doesn’t that make us like a guy who stands in front of an automatic door and pretends to open it with a wave of his hands? When someone trips the sensor, those doors are going to open whether we wave our hands or not. Likewise, God is going to do what he is going to do whether we pray for him to do so or not. Can you imagine if he didn’t? “Ooh, you know, I was going to heal Ted of his cancer, but Jack just didn’t pray enough. Sorry, Ted.” It’s a laughable idea, and it once again reduces prayer to a magical formula.

Before I give my answer to this question, I’d like to share another personal experience. When I was in high school, I went on a short-term missions trip (for the uninitiated, groups of young people will often travel to other countries or regions in their own country for the purpose of helping the local community and assisting the local church in evangelization efforts) to Germany. This was shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, and it was an exciting time for our group of young people. After we returned, we became aware of another opportunity, a missions trip to South America. I wanted to go, but the trip to Germany had not been cheap, and ultimately I was not able to raise the funds. One of my friends did manage to raise the money, though, and he joined the group. The first day after they left I was feeling a bit glum, but then I was struck with the desire to pray—for my friend, but also for me. I prayed every day while my friend was away, and as I prayed I realized that my motives for wanting to go on this second trip were not the purest—I had had an exciting experience in Germany, and I wanted to have another exciting experience. I’m not saying that I was wrong to think this way, but I realized that because I stayed behind I had this opportunity to get in touch with my real feelings and motivations, something that probably wouldn’t have happen if I had gone to South America. I learned a lot about myself, and I think I grew a lot. When my friend came back and told me about the great time he had had, I did not feel the slightest bit of jealousy.

I did, however, wonder if my praying had made a difference—if maybe God had moved more because I was praying. Later on, though, I realized what I discussed above, that prayer is not granting God permission to do something. Ultimately, that time of prayer changed me and helped me to grow. It was an act of submission to God’s will, to show that, even though I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to go on the trip, I still trusted him and had faith in him.

And that is my answer to this last question: we pray not to command God to do something or give him permission to do his will, we pray as a sign of faith and trust, and as a sign of submission to his will. In my mind, this is the single most important aspect of prayer. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, yes, he poured out his heart and begged that he would not have to drink the cup that had been placed before him, but ultimately he was telling his father in heaven that he would drink it—that he would submit to his father’s will.

As Christians, prayer is important for a lot of reasons, a number of which I have mentioned in today’s entry, but ultimately it is this act of submission and obedience that differentiates prayer from meditation and makes it a central part of our spiritual life. I believe that making claims about the physical efficacy of prayer is not only futile, it is harmful to our understanding of prayer and the role it plays in our lives as Christians.

This has been a rather long journey, both in terms of the number of words I have committed to digital ink and paper, and also in terms of how long it has taken me to write those words. I started writing this the week after Kevin wrote his post, and here I am, after three months of thought, rewriting, and yes, prayer, at the end. If I have learned anything by writing this entry, it is that I need more prayer in my life right now. I have been stressed by a lot of things that are going on in my life, and I would be lying to you if I said I had real peace in my heart. But this entry has been an opportunity for me to rediscover the importance of prayer, and I hope that it will be a step toward finding peace again.

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