Does Prayer “Work?”

I have a friend who is very keen to study if prayer “works.” His theory is that if someone were to measure the number of prayers said in various regions of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, and compare those numbers to the rates of infection, numbers of deaths, etc, for the same regions, one could “prove” whether or not prayer is effective.

I don’t think my friend is being sarcastic or overly cynical– I believe he is sincere in wanting to study prayer. I accept his desire to study prayer–to quantify it, even to “prove” it, or legitimate it for those who are skeptical. Unfortunately, he wants to study it as an observer, and not a participant, and he wants to conduct a physical study of a metaphysical practice.

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Scientists are conducting several studies during this time, to see what “works.” Does social distancing “work” better than building up “herd immunity?” Is there a treatment that works better, or faster than others? Can we develop an effective vaccine? What practices– social, hygienic, medical, political– might help mitigate the spread of future viruses? Even these studies will not be definitive. The results will depend a great deal on methodology, and the conclusions will be open to interpretation.

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There are additional problems in studying whether or not prayer “works” or not, because prayer is metaphysical. Here are just a few of the “measurement” problems:

  • How do you measure prayer? By length of time? Number of words used? The number of prayers prayed by each person over a certain period of time?
  • Do you count ritual prayers? Mantras? Meditation? Unspoken “thought” prayers? Recitations? Prayers spoken “in tongues” or in ecstatic states?
  • Do you count corporate prayer as a single prayer or by the number of people in the group?
  • What about social media? Do you count all the people who say they will send “thoughts and prayers?” Do you count those who say they “will pray,” or only those who are “praying,” or “praying now.”
  • If you are testing by geographical region, how do you account for people who are praying for others around the world?
  • How do you measure the efficacy of prayer (as opposed to other factors)? If a region has a higher mortality rate, even though many people prayed, does that mean that prayer “doesn’t work?” Or does it mean that the mortality rate would have been even more devastating (given other factors) without prayer?

More than just measurement problems, there are problems with the very nature of prayer that make such a study impossible:

  • Even if you could come up with a standard definition of “prayer” in order to get a count, prayer is not a physical substance or action. Prayer is not a “cause and effect” exchange. It is communication. If ten people say the same thing at the same time to the same person, it is not necessarily “more effective” than a single person-to-person exchange. If a thousand people pray to the same “god” who is not a god–“Mother Nature” or “The Force,” for example, it cannot be compared to a single person praying to a Loving and All-Powerful God.
  • God’s ways are not our ways. If we are measuring for one thing, God may be working for a different, unseen outcome. If more people contract the virus during the “study period”, we see that as “failure.” But God may be preparing that region to build up a resistance or immunity for a future outbreak. God answered prayer in a mighty way that we won’t see immediately. I have known a great many people, and prayed for a great many people who have not received physical healing in this world. They have suffered. They have died. But that doesn’t mean that prayer “didn’t work.” Their sufferings and eventual deaths have often brought about unbelievable works of God– salvation, families restored, friends discovering renewed purpose, strengthened efforts to fight disease, injustice, poverty, etc., and communities coming together in unity and hope.
  • Prayer is not about measurable results. Prayer is a heart-cry to a caring Creator. It doesn’t just involve asking for healing or miracles or “wish fulfillment.” Prayer involves thanksgiving, worship and adoration, repentance and confession, sharing burdens, asking questions, and building an eternal relationship with God Almighty.
  • In the end, any study results will be interpreted differently by different people. Some people will be convinced by numerical comparisons to re-consider their view of prayer. Others will never be convinced, no matter how much “evidence” someone else presents.

Prayer isn’t like taking an aspirin, or holding a protest rally, or doing research for a cure. Prayer isn’t about “winning the battle.” It isn’t about “what works.” It isn’t about “what” at all. It’s about WHO.

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God “works.” God is sovereign, loving, and wise beyond what we can imagine. His ways endure. And He has vanquished the power of death and disease. Yes, it can still touch us in the here and now, spreading havoc and pain and mourning. But it will never triumph over Hope, and Life, Truth, and Faith. And when we pray, we connect to the source of all that is Eternally victorious! Beyond ANY measure!

WWJD–Coronavirus edition

What Would Jesus Do? This question, shortened to the acronym WWJD, appeared as a fad on bracelets, t-shirts, billboards, etc., a few years ago. The idea was to ask oneself how Jesus Christ would act or react in various situations.

While I don’t disagree with the premise, I have never been a fan of this trend– mostly because it calls for people to speculate or imagine what Jesus would or might have done in their place. There is nothing wrong with wanting to act like Jesus– that’s what we’re supposed to do–to be disciples of Christ, and be His ambassadors. But our minds and hearts are not perfect; in fact they can be deceitful and arrogant, self-righteous and self-justifying. It is more common for us to justify how Jesus would act like us, than for us to adjust our thoughts and actions to those we know Jesus took during His time on earth. Would Jesus be angry about injustice– of course! Would He want us to have empathy for others– undoubtedly! But what would He actually DO? There are some pretty clear examples in the Bible– both examples of what Jesus DID, and what He DID NOT do:

  • Jesus drank wine; He visited and ate with known sinners; healed on the Sabbath (in direct violation of the church leaders of His day); interacted with the Romans (soldiers and leaders, etc.)who were oppressing the Jews– without protesting their rule or joining rebel groups; healed and performed miracles for some, but not for others; forgave sins for some, but not for others; paid His taxes without complaint; challenged religious leaders and spoke harshly against their practices; refused to get drawn into condemning and stoning a guilty adultress….
  • Jesus prayed. He want to temple regularly; read and studied God’s word; He rested, meditated, and spent time alone; He listened to strangers and treated those He met with compassion and respect; He honored His mother, but did not put her above His work; He loved his friends, even those who did not understand Him and the one who betrayed Him; He did not flatter those in power or disdain those in lowly positions; He cared deeply, wept unashamedly, and laughed heartily…
  • Jesus did not own a home. He didn’t have a “regular” job; He had no savings account or retirement fund; He had no donkey or horse for transportation; He wasn’t a member of a particular congregation or church council, like the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t have a university education; He didn’t run for public office; He never got “employee of the month;” He never married or had kids; We have no evidence that He ever gave to a particular charity, or joined any activist group. Jesus never hosted a barbecue, or led an evangelistic gathering, like His cousin, John the Baptist…
  • Jesus never addressed many of the issues we deal with today– civil rights, gay rights, abortion, health care, income inequality, democracy/socialism, smoking, drug use, pornography, violence in the media, global climate change, speed limits on highways, income tax structure, campaign finance reform, gender dysphoria, unisex bathrooms, vegans vs. meat eaters…

But the point of Jesus’ ministry on earth was to preach the coming of the “Kingdom of God,” and to fulfill His promise to go to the cross, die for our sins, and to rise again on the third day. He spent time teaching and discipling twelve very different individuals, who saw and did things very differently from each other, and differently from Jesus himself. Peter was fiery, John was a quiet observer, James was stern and concerned about actions, Matthew was concerned with history and prophecy. And all of them were loved by and commissioned by Jesus to spread the Gospel.

In these days of COVID-19, faced with fear and panic, many Christians (myself included) are struggling with the “right” response–we all want to show the love of God, and honor Him above all. In doing so, however, I find myself spending a lot of time justifying my own actions, and condemning the words and actions of others. And I find myself getting hurt and angry when someone I know and love reacts differently, uses different words or tones, or gets caught up in arguments about what “we must do.”

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We MUST seek God’s wisdom in these times. And we MUST listen to and obey His word. But beyond that, I believe that God wants us to be very different “parts of the body” (see 1 Corinthians 12) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+12&version=ESV And I believe that God wants us to work together, honoring the various gifts and personalities that we have been given. Some of us are going to be fiery in our defense of health care workers, and advocating for the best and fastest medical care and treatments available. Some of us are going to be spreading small words and acts of encouragement wherever we see the opportunity. Some of us are going to be standing up against threats of corruption and injustice lurking among the actions of those in power. Some of us are going to speak boldly about our Hope in Christ, evangelizing and calling people to repentance. Some are going to be “standing in the gap” in prayer and counseling. Some are going to be providing money, food, PPE (personal protective equipment), and other services. And we must honor the other members of the body– in whatever role they take on– and seek unity, rather than division.

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Instead of blasting each other on Facebook or angry e-mails, we need to bring our initial reactions– anger, disappointment, hurt, confusion– to God. HE is the one who will judge our actions and motives in the end. Unless we see Christians who are flagrantly violating God’s laws– looting, cheating, spreading malicious lies and causing division, cursing God and/or misrepresenting Him in heretical fashion–we should ask, not just what Jesus would/might do in my situation, but what DID Jesus do in my place.

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Because He died for me when I was still a sinner. He sacrificed His life. Not because I had done anything “right,” or “good enough.” He didn’t keep a list of all the things I got “wrong.” He did not bring condemnation– He brought forgiveness, mercy, and hope! And His mercies are new every morning. If I “get it wrong,” if I do something, or don’t do something–because I am still human and I don’t know everything about COVID-19 or the global economy or what tomorrow will bring–God will still love me. God will forgive me.

My prayer is that I will do the same for others– that I will extend Grace, and true encouragement (rather than flattery or mutual congratulation), and Love, because I know without a shadow of doubt or speculation, that this is What Jesus Would Do.

A Miss is as Good as a Mile

I heard a phrase, an idiom, recently..one I hadn’t heard in many years: “I’m as good as dead.” It is an odd phrase, but English is filled with similarly odd sayings, like, “good as gold”, “good as finished”, or “a miss is as good as a mile.” “As good” in each case signifies being close to, or similar too, without being the same; nearly or akin to being. A child who is “good as gold” is one whose behavior is nearly faultless, whose actions and demeanor shine like gold. Someone who is “as good as dead” is someone who is either in very poor health or in dire trouble, and expects to die soon. “A miss is as good as a mile” refers to the idea that a miss, whether narrow or wide, is still a miss..an inch or a mile makes no difference. A puzzle of 1000 pieces, minus one, is still incomplete; missing one’s train by a minute or an hour still leaves one at the depot.

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In hearing this phrase, “as good as dead,” I was arrested by the juxtaposition of “good” and “dead.” There is nothing good about death or dying, yet we don’t say, “I’m as bad as dead.” We compare being close to anything as being “good as..”

I think there is an important spiritual and psychological reason. Deep in our soul, we have a desire to be “good.” To be whole, and righteous, and complete. And we also know that we are not whole; not really “good” as we now are. We long to be “as good as” our aspirations; as good as…God. We spend our lives comparing and measuring and striving to be better, and closer to His perfection. And sometimes, we feel comparatively “good.” Other times, our goodness only seems to measure up to failure and death. https://www.theidioms.com/a-miss-is-as-good-as-a-mile/

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But we cannot be “as good as dead” any more than we can be “as good as gold” or as good as God. Because “a miss is a good as a mile.” Being almost as good as God will never be enough to save us from the wages of sin, which is death. Being “almost dead” cannot separate us from God’s love, or His gift of everlasting life.

In the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), there is a short story of a young man who struggles with this concept. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+10%3A17-27&version=NASB The young man asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In asking the question, the young man already reveals a certain lack of understanding. An inheritance is not something that can be earned; it is a gift that can only be received by an heir after someone’s death. It can be accepted or rejected, or divided between many heirs. There may be stipulations or conditions– and this may be what the young man meant to find out–but inheritance is determined by the giver, not the conditions of the person or persons expecting to receive an inheritance. Secondly, the man assumes that whatever is required, he can accomplish it easily. He expects, in fact, the beginning of the answer Jesus gives him. But Jesus doesn’t begin with the answer. He cuts directly to the heart of the question: “Why do you call me ‘Good?’ No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18) At the heart of this man’s question is the desire to become “Good” like God– to earn eternal life– to be complete and whole through his own actions. This young man doesn’t want to be challenged. He wants to be justified, lauded, and congratulated on his own wisdom and performance. And Jesus starts by giving him the answer he expects. He lists several commandments– five things NOT to do, and one general principle (honor your parents). One can almost hear the sigh of relief from the young man. “I’m as good as guaranteed to get into heaven!”

But that’s when Jesus speaks again. He doesn’t offer a lengthy list of impossible feats; no pilgrimages or vows of silence, no special diets (not even a reminder to follow the Jewish dietary restrictions), no pledge to give more money to the Temple, or lead a rebellion against the Romans. Instead, He gives a single challenge– sell what you own and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven– followed by an offer to follow Him.

Jesus did not offer this challenge as a kind of “gotcha” to the man’s initial question. In fact, the Gospel of Mark says that Jesus felt a love for him as He responded, and a great sadness when the man walked away. But “a miss is a good as a mile.” The young man wanted to know what he could do to be (or if what he had already done was) “good enough” to inherit eternal life. He had done all the things he expected would be enough. He had compared his life and actions with others around him. But he had missed the heart of the matter– inheritance. When he walked away, he was depressed and discouraged– “as good as dead.” Not because there was no way for him to have eternal life, but because he could not hit the target; he could not do the one thing Jesus asked of him, and he could not trust Jesus enough to “follow” the “good” teacher.

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The disciples, too, missed the point at first. Jesus had not given the young ruler a simple task in earthly terms. But it wasn’t the action that was difficult; it was the heart attitude. The young man wanted– he wanted the respect of the “good” teacher (not a relationship with Him), the acclaim of all those surrounding him, the honor and prestige his wealth had brought him, AND eternal life– because he was “as good as perfect” in his own eyes. He did not want eternal life more than any of these other things, but in addition to all of them, and by his own efforts.

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Lord, forgive me for the times that I have wanted to earn eternal life for myself. Help me to seek you with all my heart, so that I may not miss the blessings you have for me by even the narrowest margin. And thank you, thank you(!) that in those times when I do stray and miss the point, I am not “as good as dead”, but you are always gracious and loving in showing me how to “follow you” and live!

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