Does prayer really matter?
As I was reading and thinking about this text from the Letter of James 5:13, I realised that I had more questions than answers about what it said about prayer. Maybe it is because of experiences that came to mind that led me to want to argue with James. Let me explain.
He says, Are any of you in trouble, suffering, enduring hardship? Then you should pray. Are any of you happy, having received many blessings from God? Then you should pray and sing songs of praise. Are any of you sick? Then pray and the Lord will restore you to health and make you whole. Are any of you sinners needing forgiveness? Then pray and confess to one another.
James sums up saying, “The prayer of a good (upright) person has a powerful effect” (James 5:17a). And then James refers to Elijah who prayed fervently that it wouldn’t rain, and it didn’t rain for three and a half years. Then he prayed again for rain and heaven opened and the drought was broken.
Here is my dilemma. Overall, I can’t disagree with what James has written here but the problem is this – he is so black and white when it comes to prayer. Pray and this will happen. Pray and the Lord will make you well. Like Elijah, pray and God will make it rain. Pray and God will get you through your troubles.
I don’t know about you, but in real life, do these things work out quite like that?
Some examples. Two sets of parents are sitting next to the hospital beds of their very sick children, both with serious cancer. Both sets of parents are constant in their prayers that their little one would be saved from this terrible disease. As time went on one child was discharged, the cancer was in remission, and went home, while the other died and left his parents grief-stricken.
They were people of faith who prayed sincere prayers, but the outcome was so different. Didn’t we hear James say, “This prayer made in faith will heal the sick; the Lord will restore them to health” (James 5:15a)? What bothers so many is the inconsistency in the way God answers the prayers of the faithful. Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive”, but is that the case in every situation?
Philip Yancey wrote a book entitled Disappointment with God and received a mountain of mail detailing how friends, supporters and congregations began with high hopes as they prayed for help and healing for people with breast cancer, brain tumors, pancreatic cancer and healing after surgery and accidents, only to have their hopes dashed with disappointment. It seemed their faith was dangling on a thin thread of unanswered prayer. Some blamed themselves for not having enough faith or a proper faith because if they had, the results would have been different. I might add that if an answer to our prayers depended on the quality and quantity of our faith, then we needn’t bother God at all.
Here’s another dilemma. It has been pointed out that the peaceful changeover of power and the collapse of apartheid in South Africa came because of the prayers of many people in Africa and around the world. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison and became the first elected black president, there could have been massive retaliations and terrible bloodshed. In that sense God answered the prayers for peace. But while these prayers were being spoken over many years, how many South Africans faced torture and execution by police hit squads, their homes destroyed, innocent people killed and often simply disappeared. Isn’t it possible that God was a bit tardy and could have spared so many people cruelty and hardship if he had answered those prayers sooner? Or was there a greater plan?
Every day a missionary couple in India and their young children prayed for peace in their local community, their new church, the people they served and for God’s protection over themselves as they went about their everyday tasks. One day they were attacked and the whole family was murdered. The question is inevitable – why didn’t God answer their prayer?
The whole topic of prayer is a complex one – too big to cover everything today. I have no doubt that God answers prayer and what James is telling us is true, “The prayer of a good person has a powerful effect” but what bothers me is the seemingly inconsistent and random way God answers our prayers?
Sometimes we can explain this inconsistency in God’s answers because it’s the way we pray. We pray thinking that God is at our disposal to do our bidding. “Lord, I’m running late for this appointment, and I badly need a parking space”. Or “Lord, please give us a sunny day for today’s soccer game. I’m sick of standing in the rain”. Or the person who kicks a goal and points to the sky as if to say, “I kicked the ball and God did the rest”.
We know the disciples made the same mistake when they asked for prominent positions in God’s kingdom. Our selfishness, our focus on ourselves gets in the way of our prayers, and we can understand God shaking his head when we treat him as our personal genie.
Of course, there is the problem of people praying for opposite things.
Two farmers are praying for their crops. One a wheat farmer who wants nice warm dry weather to ripen his crop and another farmer just across the road who grows vegies wants rain to push along his crop ready for the market. We can understand God’s lack of an answer to such contradictory prayers and perhaps he can look into the heart of the prayer and see that contradictory prayers very rarely consider the needs of the other person.
We know that God answers prayers not according to our schedule but in his time. Sometimes it’s better that our prayers are unanswered.
Country singer Garth Brooks had a hit song, “Thank God for Unanswered Prayers”, in which he recalls his impassioned prayers for God to melt the heart of his high school sweet heart. He was so sure this was the girl for him. Some years later he met her again and it was clear that this would have been a terrible mistake. He sings, “Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care. Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers”.
To this point I’ve explained some of the obvious reasons why God doesn’t answer some of our prayers – either they are selfish, and we are treating God like our own personal genie to fix things what we can fix ourselves; or contradictory prayers are spoken equally fervently, or God knows the right time and the best answer to our prayer.
Sometimes God simply and straight out doesn’t answer. Moses, Job, Jonah and Elijah all prayed to die – God ignored their prayers. Several times the armies of Israel prayed for victory over their enemies, but they were soundly defeated – this led the people to some deep soul-searching and a renewed relationship with God.
Having said all that, I come back to my original question that I asked when James makes it quite clear that prayer is powerful and effective. He says without any explanation, “Are any among you in trouble? They should pray. Are any among you sick? The prayer made in faith will heal the sick; the Lord will restore them to health. Pray for forgiveness and you will be healed. … The prayer of a good person has a powerful effect”.
Jesus said, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22)
There are 3 clear presumptions we get from what the Bible says about prayer.
1. God wants us to pray and invites us to pray.
2. He listens to our prayers, even though we can get everything so awfully wrong.
3. God made us and cares for us even though we might think that our corner of the world is really small compared with the big things that are happening in other places.
He asks us to trust his love and goodness to answer our prayers just as a child trusts a parent. He knows us, our circumstances, our future, the direction our life is taking, the people who are affected by our lives and a whole lot more – to put it like this – he knows a lot more about each one of us than we know about ourselves.
When it comes to the way he answers our prayers, he answers in a way that considers the bigger picture. It’s this bigger picture that we can’t see. We can only see what’s happening immediately around us and in front us – our loving God sees a lot more then we can see and lovingly answers with this in mind.
In the end we need to come to the same conclusion as the apostle Paul. “Oh, what a wonderful God we have! How great are his riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his methods! For who can know what the Lord is thinking? Who knows enough to be his counsellor?” (Romans 11:33-34)
When we think that God is ignoring our prayers, contradicting our requests; when we disagree with God’s answers, question him, shout at him, weep tears of sadness and grief, we are looking at his answers from our earthly time-bound perspective. Our emotions and feelings overwhelm us, but the truth is this as expressed in Psalm 139,
You know everything about me.… You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord. You go before me and follow me. … Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand! (Psalm 139:1b-6)
God knows us intimately and he does care about us because he is our heavenly parent. We know that when a child suffers, a parent suffers as well. When we come to him with our anguished requests, our helplessness, our tears of pain whether they are tears from physical pain or tears from a heart that is hurting, our heavenly Father feels that pain.
I, along with many others, will never be able to fathom the role prayer plays in events like the path that a cyclone takes, events like tsunamis and wars, or how God answers prayers of opposing political ideologies or theological debates that we argue passionately from time to time in the church, but the strange thing is this – God wants us to pray about these things and I know as we pray for these things we become more aware and more caring about our own world and the people for whom we are praying.
God knows us. He is our Father in heaven. He has shown us how much he loves us in his Son. The question remains for each of us, “How can I, in an even greater way frame every day with prayer, trusting God more and relying on his love to answer my needs and those for whom I am praying.”
A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller
Before Amen – Max Lucado
Vince Gerhardy Blog
The Essentials of Prayer – Edward. M Bounds
Prayer – Timothy Keller
A Rhythm of Prayer – Sarah Bessey
Praying with Paul – D. A. Carson
How to Pray – C. S. Lewis