As a book editor who works in a Christian publishing house, I know prayer works from a sales perspective. Books on the topic of prayer are consistently among our best sellers. It seems that many of our customers and readers—mostly people of faith, but including people who are interested but uncertain about faith—are keen to be reassured that prayer works and to find out how best to do it to ensure that it does work for them.
As a writer who has spent a lot of time and words exploring aspects of faith and faithful living, I have not been tempted to write one of those books. I struggle to know what to say about prayer and I am uncomfortable with glib answers to the questions of prayer and supposed formulae for how to pray “successfully”. I’ve been uncertain about how to talk about the mysteries of prayer and hesitant to poke the bruises of many who have tried to pray but feel their prayers have remained tragically unanswered.
Yet, as a believer, I pray.
I have regular devotional or prayer time each day, and set aside moments for prayer on specific, significant occasions. I also pray for friends, family members and neighbours when I hear of a specific need they have. I pray regularly with colleagues for the work that we do and the people we work with. I often spend significant time praying while walking the dog. And prayer is one of my usual responses when confronting a life decision, question or challenge—whenever these arise. There are many different types of prayer or instances where you may pray—and I find myself often using them all.
So I don’t know how it works—but I believe prayer matters and often makes a difference.
Prayer is Human
A quick survey of world religions will show that most of them teach and practise some form of prayer. It might be one of the most obvious qualifiers of a philosophy or religious worldview. While taking many different forms, practices of prayer are not restricted to the leaders, the ordained or the mystics. Although there are elaborate rituals attached to some forms of prayer, most praying is accessible to and practised by even the most fringe adherents.
In many cases, the habits of prayer or blessing are often looked down on as final desperate measures by those who lack faith; if only as a kind of superstition. Given the breadth and variety of its practise, it is tempting to suggest that prayer is more a human thing than solely a religious undertaking.
In contrast with many of our first thoughts about prayer as primarily seeking divine intervention or blessing for ourselves, in many of these traditions, prayer is more. It’s about reaching out to, connecting with and even aligning ourselves with some kind of higher energy, power or personality. In this way, prayer should be one of the key spiritual practices for shifting our focus away from ourselves. We recognise that we are not situated at the centre of the story or the heart of the universe. But we suspect and begin to trust that the heart of the universe is somehow interested in us or available to us.
This understanding of prayer is that we either trust or desperately hope (sometimes both) that there is something more to the arrangement and meaning of our lives than merely what we can see and feel around us. Faced with the realities of life and death, we take mostly tentative steps to engage with and even submit to something or Someone larger than us. Prayer offers a bigger perspective and invites us out of the urgent and the ordinary to the eternal yearnings that seem to be planted somehow within us (see Ecclesiastes 3:11). This impulse transcends our humanity but also seems to be essentially and ubiquitously human.
Jesus Told Us To Pray
Christian prayer holds an important place in a Christian faith for one dominant reason: Jesus said so. While prayer is practised, often assumed and sometimes discussed across the breadth of the Bible, prayer is a significant and recurring theme in the life and teaching of Jesus, as recorded by His first followers.
The Bible shows us in the New Testament that Jesus prayed regularly, often getting up early in the morning or even praying through the night. There were also times of distress and grief in which He appealed for God’s intervention, with varying “success”. Believed to be God in His own right by His followers, it is notable that He nonetheless prioritised prayer as a life practice and as key to maintaining His connection to His divine Father.
And He taught His followers about the importance and role of prayer, even offering a model prayer that is still used today in most Christian traditions. Recorded as part of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer (recorded in the Bible in Luke 11 and Matthew 6) is a masterpiece that balances the transcendent with the personal and the practical, inviting the reality of God’s kingdom into our world and our lives.
We are tempted to assume that Jesus offered the assurance of God’s always-positive response: “Keep on asking and you will receive what you ask for. . . [I]f you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:7,11). But Jesus’ own experience of earnest prayer in the garden of Gethsemane before His crucifixion seemed to culminate in one of His final anguished prayers—“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46)—as His tortured death loomed close. For all the importance of prayer, even for Jesus Himself, it did not guarantee a life free of pain, loss or grief.
So Does Prayer Work?
Answering the question of whether prayer works depends significantly on how we are looking for it to work. I have been to too many “unnecessary” funerals to be able to accept that prayer guarantees the smoothness or safety of our lives. Supposing that God has power to intervene can render such tragedies somehow more tragic. On the other hand, while I am alert to confirmation bias, coincidence and even wishful thinking when it comes to stories of miraculous answers to prayer, I know people who have had unlikely experiences that correspond closely to the ways and outcomes for which they had been praying.
Anyone who tries to sell you a formula for prayer as a never-failing key to blessing, prosperity and wellbeing is simply trying to sell you something. As certain as Jesus was about the importance and effectiveness of prayer, He was critical of those who “think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again” (Matthew 7:7).
“Successful” prayer is not about getting the phrasing right, praying hard enough or offering the right sacrifice, either literally or metaphorically. Prayer is more than just repeating the platitudes which thank God for our “daily bread” or addressing your prayer to “Our father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name”. The trajectory of the Bible moves us away from this kind of pagan transactionalism.
The Good News About Unanswered Prayer
While this might sound disappointing at first, this is good news, because it speaks of the kind of God we are invited to pray to. A formula that provides automatic answers to prayer with the correct formula, phrasing, incantation or donation would connect us with a Power that might be little more than a cosmic vending machine. And that offers only a shallow and intermittent exchange.
In his book on prayer—Letters to Malcolm—C S Lewis points us in this direction by reminding us that prayer for specific answers or intervention are best understood as requests: “The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted.” This is a helpful reminder that still leaves us with troubling and unanswerable questions about why some requests seem to be granted readily and abundantly, while others seem to be cruelly ignored.
But perhaps it also alerts us to a larger invitation found in the teaching and example of Jesus Christ in relation to prayer. Demands—or vending-machine transactions—are justifiably judged on the outcome of that specific order at that specific time; the answer is either delivered or not. But a request suggests a larger context and an ongoing relationship; a relationship which is a two-way relationship and not a single direction one.
This is the good news about unanswered prayer: a relationship is built on more than a single transaction or request. In His model prayer, Jesus pointed to God as “our Father”, offering the best possible understanding of a parental relationship with One who “knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” (Matthew 7:8). While an intercession from God may not occur after every prayer, this does not mean God is neglecting us.
The overwhelming emphasis of Jesus’ teaching and practice of prayer was that God is keenly interested in us—think, counting the hairs on your head (see Matthew 10:30) as an extreme example—and is working out His plan to restore us and our world. Even in the depth of His suffering, as He voiced His feelings of abandonment by God, He somehow still entrusted Himself to God (see Luke 23:46).
Prayer—and the One to whom it is addressed—is not best judged as an unreliable vending machine whose mechanism is faulty and only sporadically delivers what it promises. Instead, prayer is the practice of conversation with a great and good God, who does not always intervene because He values freedom, even at sometimes terrible cost to Himself, to our world, and to us and those we love. The invitation to pray is an invitation to trust our lives to His bigger plan, purpose and goodness.
Who We Pray To
This doesn’t answer all my questions about prayer, how it works and why it doesn’t. I don’t expect it to answer yours either. I might not be able to write that best-selling book about prayer, but I do continue to pray. When we understand prayer as a human phenomenon—something we all do sometimes, somehow, even if almost unconsciously—the more important task is to invest time in thinking and learning about what we pray to, and seeking the best recipient for these expressions of our human fears, requests, aspirations and desires.
Jesus introduced us to a Father who so wants to connect with us—He is the God who opened the conversation and genuinely invites us to communicate and align our lives with who He created us to be. Somehow prayer is one of the most practical ways that we can live our lives with a growing appreciation of His presence with us, even amid tragedies, disappointments and seemingly unanswered prayers.
Nathan Brown is a book editor for Signs Publishing in Warburton, Australia. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia website and is republished with permission.