It’s one of the oldest questions in the book. Besides the theodicy question (which we’ll leave for another blog post), it’s probably the most common question asked by and of people of faith in the 21st century. We Christians spend a lot of time talking to God: thanking him, praising him, making requests of him, and the like. And yet, it often feels like God isn’t talking back to us, at least not in ways that we can hear. So why is it that we spend so much time and energy on prayer? Does prayer actually do anything?
I think it’s impossible to escape this question. I know that I’ve wrestled with it myself. Even people with deep, sincere faith commitments go through times that force them to wonder if God’s out there listening or if they’re simply talking to themselves when they pray. It’s an inevitable part of the life of faith, and we shouldn’t feel ashamed for it. After all, if you find yourself asking yourself this question, you’re in good company among biblical authors, theologians, and great leaders from Christian history.
In order to answer this question, I think we have to be open to new understandings of what it means for prayer to “work.” If your definition of a successful prayer is one that is answered exactly the way you hoped it would be, then no, prayer doesn’t work. At least, not the way you’d like for it to. Rather, prayer works in other ways that are deeper, less easily recognized, and sometimes more mysterious than we often imagine. I’m not claiming to have this whole issue figured out or even to be an expert on prayer, but I would like to offer a few ways in which I think prayer does in fact work.
Prayer works as an act of obedience.
One of the most basic reasons that we pray is because God tells us to. Even when we don’t want to, even when we feel like there’s no point, even when we’ve said all that we can say and run out of words, we still pray out of obedience to our God. One of the most amazing truths about God is that he wants to be in relationship with us, and relationship requires communication. So even if we don’t think that we’re doing anything more through our prayers than simply carrying out God’s desire for us to reach out to him, we’re still accomplishing something by doing so because obeying God is ultimately what’s best for us, and he blesses those who do his will.
Prayer works as a means of formation.
A line I often hear in reference to prayer is the cliche, “Prayer doesn’t change things; prayer changes us.” While I fundamentally disagree with the first half of that statement, I understand where it’s coming from, and I agree with the idea that prayer does have an effect on the one who prays. When we pray, we’re communing with God, and we can’t help but walk away from that kind of encounter changed in some way. Even the act of starting a prayer is an act of trust that helps us to express and grow our faith. And ultimately, the more time we spend with God, the more we know him and become like him. Prayer changes us by forming us more and more into the people who God created us to be, and if that isn’t prayer “working,” I don’t know what is.
Prayer works by changing things.
And finally, prayer works by actually changing the way things are in the world. This is ultimately the reason that we pray, right? Because we believe that by bringing our concerns to God, we can somehow influence the situations and issues that we face in our lives. And amazingly, God made it so that our prayers do exactly that. I don’t pretend to understand all of the mechanics behind it, but my reading of scripture, my study of theology, and my experience in my own faith journey have all taught me that the prayers of the faithful somehow influence God in such a way that the world is different as a result of those prayers.
Diseases are healed through the power of prayer. Relationships are mended through the power of prayer. Droughts end, jobs are attained, and lost pets come home as a direct result of the prayers of God’s people. I can’t say I completely understand it, but I believe it because I’ve seen it and because God’s word tells me that it is true.
It’s important to note that not everything we ask for in prayer is granted to us. Although prayer is powerful, there are other forces at play as well—especially the will of God—that may not always line up with what we want, and we have to be graceful enough to accept when this happens without giving up on prayer. Like any good parent, God sometimes tells his children no, and that can feel devastating. But we believe that God, in his infinite love and wisdom, is ultimately in control and working all things together for good for those who love and pursue him.
And so we pray. Even when things seem bleak, we pray. We pray out of obedience to our heavenly father. We pray in order to become the sort of people the Lord is calling us to be. And we pray with hope that our prayers will influence God and ultimately change the situations that we find ourselves in. Prayer is a powerful thing, and when we properly understand what prayer is for, we can say with conviction that prayer truly does work. Praise God that it does.