How Does Prayer Work?
I love the scene in the classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when all the friends of the hero, George Bailey, are praying for him just at the moment he’s thinking of taking his own life. I’ve always imagined the prayer works like that where group of people are concerned about someone and they raise their petition to God who intercedes to help that person. I just love it. I’m going to show it to you now in case you haven’t seen it.
But does prayer work?
Modern science says pray is nothing more than talking to yourself. In fact, a 2006 study reported in the New York Time reported, “Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.” While other studies suggest that if I know you are praying for me I might heal more quickly just having the positive thoughts that I’m cared about.
Science is confused by prayer and so are many Christians who believe prayer is simply there chance to influence God in their direction. You may have seen the video of Rev. Paula White praying for election victory.
Why would an All Powerful Being, require us to put into words what we want? Does God change her mind when a sufficient number of prayers come up to heaven? It would have to be a whimsical God impacted by the number of votes on an issue. Does good rely on likes, votes and thumbs up as some great algorithm in the sky?
I don’t think so.
Here are three key elements to the ways I understand prayer.
1. Prayer is not about influencing God
Let me say that again, prayer is important, but it is not about influencing God. God is in control.
When we tap into this power we are connecting ourselves to heavenly energy that sustains and guides us.
Prayer is not the opportunity to influence God, it is a time to allow God to influence us. To give us heavenly peace, new insights, joy and a broader perspective even when we can’t make sense of what’s going on from our own.
Faith means trusting that is a loving God in control. Even when we experience evil, God is working toward the good in us and the world. We can be at peace knowing that though we can’t see the whole thing and know we can’t solve all the problems. yet we have our role to play, and prayer is the best way to know it.
For this reason, our prayers must have as their basis the over-riding thought, Thy Will Be Done. This is right in the middle of the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus gives us a template for prayer. They will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This one line is really our only prayer.
When I reflect on my own life, I remember not getting what I wanted. Only over time have I realized that what I prayed to happen wasn’t the right thing, but I couldn’t see it.
There will be evil in the world. There will be sickness. All of us in this service today will die. These are the facts of this world. We will spend our life navigating these realities. We will have misfortune and suffering with joy and happiness. We will grow more spiritually in the midst of all of this
Seen in this way, we don’t need to get caught up in a debate like the scientists as to whether prayer is helpful. I’m here today to say it is the most important tool in your spiritual life tool kit. Develop your prayer life and you’ll develop your soul. Science can’t measure love, the good, true, real happiness, inner peace and beauty. Nor can it measure the power of prayer. Yet these elements of our lives are the most important things during our time on earth.
2. Our motivation determines the power of prayer
Our prayers need to be about our doing more of the good in the world and praying on behalf of others. Prayers that are just a list of things we want for ourselves don’t work. Our motivation in prayer must be from love for it to be powerful. That doesn’t mean we cannot pray for our daily needs as Jesus taught us in his prayer when we say give us our daily bread. We can ask for help and support and our needs to accomplish our God given purpose. Our true motivation determines the power of prayer.
Are all prayers heard?
This may surprise you. The answer is no. Swedenborg reports that prayers prayed for selfish things and reasons with no concern for others are not heard. They really are just a person talking to themselves about what they want for themselves.
3. Prayer is powerful
Many of the mystics and those who have had near death experience report if we knew the power of prayer we’d be doing it more often. Prayer is an energy force of love that we can send to one another and to situations. Miracles can happen in our life, if we are on the path and paying attention. Prayer is powerful.
Prayer then is a focused way of our sending out our love to others. It could be for them to know they are not alone; they are loved, they can be healed. When a group of us focus our thoughts and love toward another person through prayer that energy is sent to them through heaven.
It is not a substitute for action, prayer is a catalyst for it.
Our little community has more doers in it than most churches. We have people who are active in this world, and some of you are asking now Isn’t prayer a form of avoiding real activity hear on earth?
The answer depends. Jesus tells a parable of religious man praying at the altar. So, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
In the book of James, the writer reminds Christians:
14What good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith, but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you tells him, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that? 17So too, faith by itself, if it does not result in action is dead.
Prayer is critical for guiding our action in the world. Prayer is an opening us up to the path our life should be on. It can never be an excuse for not using that action to make a difference in the world. If we just run around being active in the world without prayer that won’t work either. We will burn out and become cynical. We need both prayer and action.
How should we pray?
Jesus gives us an outline for how to pray and it is why we use it each week. We begin by reaching out to God recognizing the Lord’s role in our life. Immediately is ask that the will of God be enacted on earth the same way it is heaven. We ask the Lord’s help to meet our daily needs of food and shelter. We ask us for help in forgiving others as we ask forgiveness for what we’ve done wrong. We ask for help to keep us from our own temptations to do bad thing by protecting us from the evil in this world.
In our busy and stressed world, sometimes just calming down to pray is the hardest part. You may have heard the expression from Buddhism of monkey mind. This our constant spinning making it very hard to focus. One trick I’ve found it us the Lord’s Prayer or a mantra to calm you down.
Simply saying the word Jesus over and over again can rest your mind so you are ready. Our old pastor at Church of the Holy City Jonathan Mitchell used to begin meditation from Psalm 46 saying, “Be Still and Know that I Am Lord.” What a great way to settle into prayer
Keeping a Journal
I worked with a coach who had a spiritual angle to his work. Tim Kelley wrote a book entitled True Purpose and helps people tap into their deepest purpose. He offers this exercise:
Begin your prayer by saying out loud something like this:
Please give me guidance on what I should be doing with my life.
If you have specific question ask it.
Then stop, and listen.
First you will likely hear chatter of the voices in your head. You’ll likely hear your own thoughts on this.
But wait, and if you can listen carefully you’ll get ideas, images, concepts that you didn’t have before.
Write them down. Over time you’ll be able to recognize what is the voice of God and which voices are not. This discipline is one of the toughest for followers of Jesus.
Keep a script going of your questions and God’s answers.
You’ll likely know the answers are not yours when they aren’t what you’ve been thinking.
Keeping a spiritual journal like this can be incredible way to pray and grow.
So how does prayer work?
Yes, it is the most powerful force in your life. Use it to seek God’s guidance for your life of service in this world. Use prayer to give you peace in these challenging times, remembering this message
Be Still and Know that I am God.