This is a question I used to ask. After all it seems quite an important one. The problem of what to do with unanswered prayers is one that has troubled folk throughout history, and across the world. The Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo famously wrote about it in his brilliant book ‘Silence’ (looks like you can get hold of a second-hand copy for £0.01 on Amazon).
There have apparently even been experiments carried out where people have prayed for someone to get better. The results, so I’m told, show no difference to the control group of people not prayed for.
So, does prayer work? Seems not. At least not consistently. Maybe we should stick to more tried-and-tested forms of doing things. Maybe encouraging people to pray for Japan is a waste of time. Maybe attempting to go out to Japan by the power of prayer is a really bad idea.
Or maybe “Does prayer work?” is the wrong question to ask – at least of the God of the Bible.
This week I took part in a debating workshop. One of the key lessons we learnt was the importance of clarifying the question being asked, and making sure that it’s the right question. In our first mock debate (before we had been taught much of anything) the two sides ended up arguing for the same point. Not because we agreed on the solution, but because we were trying to answer different questions. Getting the question right is crucial.
But why is “Does prayer work?” the wrong question?
Well the problem is that thinking of prayer as something that either ‘works’ or doesn’t is actually more of a pagan approach to prayer than a Christian one.
Ancient pagan religions approached their gods with the view that if they were committed enough, if they offered enough sacrifices, if they gathered enough people together, or maybe if they used enough of the right words… then they could force the gods to give them what they wanted.
But think about that for a second. If those praying have power over the one being prayed to, to force them to respond to the desires of the prayers, then who is actually in control? If every time a person prayed, they got what they wanted, then that person would be God, wouldn’t they?
So, if prayer to the God of the Bible doesn’t ‘work’ what does it do? Or what question should we be asking?
The better question is “Does God answer prayer?” And the question is yes, with a big but! He answers according to His will. He knows what is good for us and sometimes He will say no. We cannot force Him into giving us what we want with long prayers, witty prayers, or by gathering enough people to pray with us. If we could, then God would not be God.
I know this sounds a lot like the clichéd, “God moves in mysterious ways.” I’m trying to say something more like, “God is God, and if we want to deal with Him we have to do it on His terms.”
I’m aware that isn’t a very complete answer. There is lots more that could be said. But come on, cut me a break! This is a blog, not a book. I’m not trying to give a definitive answer. I want to start a conversation. So what do you think? Does prayer work? Does God answer prayer? Or is there a better question to ask?
But just remember this other lesson I learnt from the debating workshop: be cool!