When I logged into Facebook this morning, the first post that popped up on my news feed was a question a friend had posted: "Do you believer prayer works?"
As could probably be predicted, several comments had already been posted, all of which were either an exuberant "yes!" of blind faith or a more guarded "yes, but...."
The "yes, but..." is our way of getting out of a sticky theological situation. Nobody wants to say that prayer doesn't work, but the truth is that most of us have spoken a prayer or two into heaven and received nothing but silence in return. Most of us have knelt at the bedside of sick friends and loved ones only to watch them die anyway. Most of us have fallen to our knees somewhere just out of sight of rock bottom and turned the corner to find the rocks waiting for us anyway. Most of us have prayed earnestly for the chance to take that next opportunity, to take that next step, to do that new thing and found ourselves stuck in the same ruts, doing the same things, standing on the same step. Most of us think that yes, prayer probably works, but we've never experienced it. Or rarely so.
What makes this so sticky is that when prayer doesn't "work," we're left trying to explain why it hasn't. Usually, this means one of two things. Either we blame ourselves for not praying "right," for not doing prayer the way God would like us to do prayer, and therefore, our prayer is fruitless. Or we resign ourselves to some unknowable will of God that is probably good and we just don't understand it right now, concluding that God does whatever He wants to do anyway, with or without our input.
Neither of these answers is particularly satisfying. Nor is either theologically sound. You can probably see why. If we say that prayer depends on how we do it, then we put all of the pressure and all of the responsibility on our own shoulders, as though we could control God if we could just get it right or as if God is so stingy that He's waiting on just the right formula, something worthy of presentation to Him. If we say that God does whatever He's going to do, we devalue prayer entirely and at the same time, create sort of an enigma of God. Who can possibly know Him? Our very personal, intimately relational God cringes when this is our conclusion.
So when we have this question - Do you believe prayer works? - our answer ought not to be an exuberant "yes!" or a guarded "Yes, but...." Our answer ought to be another question:
What, exactly, do you mean by "works"?
See, we've gotten the idea that prayer "works" when we get what we want. When we or our loved ones are healed. When our finances straighten out. When doors open. When friends forgive. When we're pulled away from the pit. When God hears our request and answers with the same exuberant "yes!" we are so quick to give Him, then prayer works.
But that's not what prayer is. Prayer is bringing your heart before God, not your requests. Even Philippians, in one of its most famous verses, makes this distinction. Don't be anxious about anything, but instead, with prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, bring your requests before God. Notice it says prayer and petition - two separate things. Petition is a request we make; prayer is a heart we bring.
And prayer brings us into the heart of God.
When I pray, I don't expect God to give me everything I want in the world. Sometimes, I hope He will, but I don't expect Him to. That's not why I go to God in prayer. When I pray, I expect God to remind me of what it's like to lay my heart wide open in His presence, to expose myself, to be vulnerable...and to be loved. I expect not that God will approve my request, but that He will accept my prayer - that He will respond in His very personal, intimately relational way and that by the time I have reached my amen, I find that all I actually want is to have this kind of God and...God has given me that.
The same is true, by the way, when I ask you to pray for me. Yes, it'd be nice if God would hear our petition and grant me this or that specific result. But I find that most often, when I ask you to pray for me, I discover anew what it's like to be in the very heart of God. Whatever situation I'm facing, I feel lost. I feel alone. More than anything else, I desperately need to know that God is still there, that He still cares, that there's a place in His heart for me. That our very personal, intimately relational God cares even about me. That I am this God's person, that I am His friend (and so much more). And if, as you pray for me, all that happens is that I come again into the heart of God, then our prayer has been answered.
No matter what.
Does prayer really work? That depends on what you mean by that little word "work." Does it get us everything we want? No. I don't think any of us can say that we've ever been granted every petition. but petition isn't prayer. So does prayer really work? Does it bring us back into the very heart of God?