I’m reading a novel in which one of the characters, going through a difficult crisis and feeling desperate, does this thing which he used to do but hasn’t done in years: he lowers his head and brings his hands together on his lap and begins to pray.
He starts out feeling self-conscious but then the self-consciousness goes away and he feels what he sees as “the onset of a proper humility”. “Because I am nothing, he thought, just an ordinary man, a tiny speck of consciousness on a half burned-out star, precisely because of that I lower my head and pray. And it seemed to him at that moment that it did not matter if there was nobody listening; the very act of prayer was an acknowledgement of his humanity, a reminder of true scale.”
What struck me, though, was his thought afterwards:
“How foolish, he thought, to imagine that words uttered by him could change the world in the slightest way” – I feel this really touches on a very common misunderstanding of what prayer is. Or at least, what prayer can be – it kind of depends on who you’re praying to.
And this connects with my huge discomfort with the phrase “the power of prayer” – when people talk about that, I feel as though they’re (unintentionally) assigning some kind of magical powers to the act itself, as though by speaking out our requests we’re making stuff happen.
When I pray, I do it because I know who I’m praying to and I know that He is almighty and benevolent. Can words uttered by me change the world? No. And if there was nobody listening, then it would be pretty pointless (except for the emotional catharsis of verbalising your feelings). If you pray to some inanimate/abstract thing, then all you’re doing is expressing yourself – but when you pray to the Creator of the Universe whom you know personally as your loving Father in Heaven, then your words are going in the right direction and yes, things happen as a result. Things happen not because the words you utter have power in themselves; not because you, the aforementioned tiny speck, have power; but because you’re submitting your requests to the one who can change things.
I don’t believe in the power of prayer. I believe in the efficacy of prayer when you pray to the right God – the one who made the heavens and the earth and all that’s in them, and who loves us and listens to our prayers because he cares about us.
I’ve seen some amazing answers to prayer. Of course for the unbeliever none of these things will serve as conclusive evidence that God answers prayer – if you’re determined to pooh-pooh the whole thing then you can always find alternative explanations. I know what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced. I know the very close shaves I’ve been rescued from, the perfect “coincidences”, so many of them over the years – I’ve seen for myself that God does answer prayers. I also know that he doesn’t always give us what we want, I know that prayer isn’t like pushing a button on a vending machine and knowing that if you’ve put the right money in and asked for a Coke then that’s what you’ll get – and I know he doesn’t owe me anything, he has already given me so much more than I deserve by sending his only Son to die for me, so anything else is just grace upon grace. I’m also conscious that God knows a lot better than me what’s good for me, and there are times when a loving parent will not give their child a whole bag of sweets so that they’ll get a tummy ache.
So, where was I going with this rambling? Bottom line: prayer is only as powerful as the God you’re praying to; it’s not magic, it’s a submission of requests to the one who does have power to change things. That is, if you’re praying to the Creator of the Universe – if you’re talking to anyone/anything else, then all you’re doing is verbalising, venting, expressing your feelings. Which can be cathartic, but it won’t change the world around you.
It’s not prayer that changes things. It’s God who hears our prayers and chooses to act.