I wrote Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? because I felt so bad about my prayer life. Surveys show that the vast majority of people pray at least sometimes. Yet if you’re like me, when you read books on prayer you end up feeling guilty and inferior. Few people I’ve talked to experience satisfaction in prayer.
I write books about questions I don’t know the answer to, issues that are still unresolved for me. And I’ve waited a long time to tackle this subject of prayer, mainly because I didn’t know what to say.
Yes, it did. I used to see prayer as a spiritual discipline, one of those things you’re supposed to do. Now I see it as a spiritual privilege, an opportunity to communicate with the Creator of the universe who loves me and gives me the ability to converse.
For me, prayer is not so much me setting out a shopping list of requests for God to consider as it is a way of “keeping company with God.” God encourages us to be totally honest about what is going on in our lives. As part of my research I studied each of the 650 prayers in the Bible, and their frankness and honesty stands out. We need to be honest with God and then get an honest portrait of what God is like. The best way to do that is to get to know Jesus. Prayer involves a two-way relationship in which we make ourselves known to God and get to know God.
I like to pray with the image of a mountain stream. It starts high up, where I ask for a God’s-eye-view of the world, a kind of vision correction so that I begin to see the world more as God does. The stream starts small, and I pray for those who are close to me: my loved ones, close friends, people I think about every day. The stream keeps expanding, and I spread my prayer wider to encompass neighbors, missionaries, acquaintances. Finally, it ends in a reservoir, and I reflect on Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Americans have a lot of enemies these days, so that’s a big pool indeed.
I used to view prayer as a kind of transaction in which I waved my arms desperately in an attempt to get God’s attention. Now I view prayer as two things: inviting myself into God’s life and inviting God into my life. I know what God wants done in the world by looking at Jesus, who brings mercy and grace and justice and compassion. What part should I play as a partner of God’s activity on earth? Prayer connects me with God so that I “tune in” to what God wants accomplished through me.
Then, I invite God into my life, asking that I start viewing the world around me not through my selfish, American-culture eyes, but rather through God’s eyes. Again, I get the best clue into how God views that world through the life of Jesus. How did Jesus treat people, and how do I? It will take a lot of prayer to close that gap!
It sounds good to call prayer “the highest art form,” and in theory I have to agree. Most of the time, though, prayer feels like hard work. I’ve learned that everything worthwhile—whether creative arts, classical music, athletics, or spiritual disciplines—requires sustained periods of exercise and commitment. Prayer is like that for me. In my writing, I dare not wait until I feel “inspired,” or I would never write. I have to sit at the desk and get to work. The same with prayer.
I’m no expert on other religions, but I would have to say the personal aspect of Christian prayer stands out. Muslims have great reverence in their prayers, but not much intimacy. Hindu and Buddhist prayer practices can be esoteric or ritualistic. Even Jewish prayers lean toward the ritualistic. After following Jesus around for some time the disciples, faithful Jews who prayed daily, asked him, “Teach us to pray.” They sensed something different in the way Jesus approached the Father personally and intimately.
I would express it this way: things happen on this earth that would not happen apart from prayer. I fill my book with illustrations, not so much the miraculous, supernatural kind because I don’t believe that is God’s normal way of working. God works in partnership with us, and prayer is the primary channel of that partnership. It involves listening as much as talking. My pastor in Chicago used to say, “Each day I wake up and ask where God might be working in the world, then ask how I can be part of that work.” That’s a healthy perspective.
Yes, polls show that more people pray than believe in God! The writer Anne Lamott says she has two favorite prayers: “Thanks, thanks, thanks” and “Help, help, help!” That points to the natural human response we have. If something wonderful happens—a birth, perhaps, or surviving an accident or getting a clear report after a cancer checkup—we feel gratitude and want to express it. And when we’re in real trouble, we cry out for help. Those responses seem instinctive. Prayer offers a way to channel those instincts and connect us to the Giver of all good gifts, the One who can indeed help us in time of need.
Lots of studies try to quantify what difference prayer has on your health and recovery from surgery. Some say it makes a lot of difference, and some say it doesn’t make any difference at all. But every survey says this: a person who is connected with a close community—like a church—will recover faster and will live longer. What makes it hard for people to recover? Fear, anger, anxiety, stress, loneliness; any doctor will confirm that. The church can address those very things. God doesn’t miraculously heal every Christian who gets sick, but God can minister to those people through his Body. I think that is what we are here for: to surround the sick with caring people and let them know they are not alone. It’s hard to quantify it, and it’s not institutionalized. But it happens in every church I know of. That’s a great gift that the church can offer.
What a question! I find nothing in the Bible that might apply to this theological question, so we’re dealing in the area of speculation. There are examples in the Bible of “God’s team” praying to win military battles, sometimes with a favorable outcome, sometimes not. That’s as close as it gets.
If prayer really did make a difference in the outcome, I imagine we’d see a lot more national championships from Notre Dame. Even Jerry Falwell’s home school has a tough time competing in basketball. I would put prayers for victory in the trivia category.
Every parent who signs up a child for team sports hopes that it helps develop qualities that nurture maturity: teamwork, discipline, character, the ability to handle loss as well as victory. And sports indeed provides a rather concentrated “playing field” for those. We can certainly pray that the crucible of sports would help foster those qualities.
In the U.S. we have sterling examples of coaches such as John Wooden and Tom Landry who proved that emphasizing integrity and sportsmanship does not make victory less likely—quite the contrary. I feel very comfortable praying for athletes as role models in our crazy celebrity culture: that they would show fawning fans you can live a pure life, without relying on drugs, without giving in to lust temptations, without buying into our materialistic culture that quantifies worth with dollars and possessions. Some athletes handle that well, some don’t. But I don’t pray for one team to win above another.
Is it “wrong” to pray inappropriate prayers? I wouldn’t use the word wrong; I’d use a word like immature. Is it wrong for a five-year-old to ask for a sports car for Christmas? Just immature, inappropriate.
I would hope that a God who has a sovereign interest in a planet as messed up as ours has better things to do than intervene in a sporting event. God cares about how winners handle winning and how losers handle losing and how all of us live out our lives moment-to-moment. But I don’t believe God cares about which team wins.
God doesn’t seem to give me great words or great thoughts. Rather, prayer helps remove the distractions that interfere with mental focus—the most crucial ingredient in writing. “Cast all your anxieties upon him, because he cares for you,” the Bible says. That takes on stark reality in the composing process. I have anxieties bubbling up—over deadlines, creativity, finances, a million other things—and they can prove paralyzing. I bundle them up and present them to God. Then I trust God with the result. I hear later from people who have touched by my words, but in the process I simply commit them to God as an act of faith. God knows better how to use my words than I do, and I trust God with that part of the process.
While writing my book on prayer, I began reading Israel’s prayer book again, the Psalms. I remembered trying to come to terms with the “cursing” psalms, so a couple years ago I started doing what I called my “anger walk” on the hill behind my home. Every Sunday afternoon, I had a little ritual. I would hammer it out with God about all the people who had wronged me and how unfair it was and how that person didn’t see things right, blah, blah, blah. In the tradition of the psalms, I did that for quite some time, a couple years. Now, looking back, something’s changed. I still go on walks behind my house, but now they’re more “praise walks” than “cursing walks.” I had been authentic before God, exposing maybe the worst part of myself. And somehow, God was accepting me with all of that. I think I “made space” for God to pour grace into me. And God will come if there is space.Copyright © 2010 by Philip Yancey