"Prayer moves the hand of God," I have often heard, but I wonder: "Really? Is that really how it works?" Now, maybe it is one thing to make this claim in the excitement of the moment while rejoicing at answered prayer, though I would hope that the tone is not self-congratulatory or even smug. It is quite another thing to seriously contemplate a cause-effect relationship between our prayers and God's actions given a view of God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving; and given a view of ourselves as none of the above.
What really happens when we pray? Do we think we can speed up the unfolding of God's will? Do we think we can change the cosmic calendar? If so, is his original will before we pray not quite as loving, or flawed in some other way? Or is his original timetable perfect, as befitting his character, but he lets us sway him from that plan to a less-perfect but more-accommodating one—perhaps because he is bound by the heavenly law about prayer moving his hand? Either way, it is disturbing to imagine that we are able to make God do what he wouldn't otherwise have done, perhaps even by means of prayers that aren't all that fervent, persevering, or even important to us. Really, if it boils down to God's judgment of what is best or my own, I'll vote for God, thank you very much.
What else might we infer about prayer, if it moves God to act? Does God wait to heal a sick child until someone prays for her? Or until a critical mass of prayers is finally reached? God forbid. What happens when equal numbers of people pray opposite prayers—for victory in sports or politics, for example? Do the prayers balance and cancel? Perhaps the prayers of some people carry more weight. Does God have his favorites? Children, maybe, or the clergy? If ten people pray, is an answer twice as likely as when only five people pray? Does God not know our needs, relying on us to fill him in on the situation down here? Does he pretend to wait until we "show him that we mean it" before answering us, like a rock band quickly filing off stage to trigger the big applause before returning immediately for their obligatory "encore."
When we frame the questions in these ways, some answers seem more clear:
- God doesn't or shouldn't show favoritism;
- God will or should help people even if nobody, or nobody else, is praying for them;
- God doesn't or shouldn't dole out mercy in proportion to the math; the same prayer prayed repeatedly or by more people shouldn't make God care about it more;
- God already knows or should know what is best before anybody prays.
Despite such beliefs, however, both how we talk about prayer and how we pray are different stories: We ask for prayer. We take comfort in having multiple people praying for us. We thank people for their prayers, even claiming that we could really "feel" them. We make lists of prayer requests so we can pray repeatedly about the same thing, and so we don't lose track of these requests so trivial that they must be written down or else forgotten. We bring desperate prayers to God as though he hadn't been paying attention. We feel guilty if we forget to pray, assuming that our dropping the ball makes an answer nigh unto hopeless. We pray prayers of logical persuasion, as much to convince ourselves that God should want to answer them as to convince God to do so.
All of which suggest a theology of prayer as mechanical device, or magic box, or flowchart of proper if-then conditions. I'm not sure which is worst, but all of them share both an assumption that answered prayer is within our control and a requirement that we have to do the right thing for prayer to work: push the button, say the magic words, or jump through the hoops. If so, God does what we want; if not, it's our fault. Misinterpretation of favorite verses reinforces this error. There's the one about two or three gathering together to loose and bind in heaven and on earth, and the "blank check" classics about asking whatever we wish and asking anything in his name. No wonder we are confused about how prayer really works and overestimate the extent of our power or influence to make God give us what we want.
In his brilliant essay, The Efficacy of Prayer, C.S. Lewis rejects such a causal relationship between who we are or what we do and God's response to our prayer. Reflecting on Jesus in the garden, where his request to his father was rejected, Lewis writes:
When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.
How then might we better understand prayer? Look for Part 2.