Today marks Epiphany– the day traditionally celebrating the arrival of the Magi to see the Baby Jesus. (Matthew 2:1-12) The Bible does not give us many details about the Wise Men. We don’t know if there were three or thirty. We don’t know if they all came from the same region, or if they came from many different nations and regions and met up along the journey. We only know that they had studied the skies; having seen a new and very bright star (or comet or conjunction of stars), they plotted its course across the sky and “followed” it to Israel– first to Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem. They brought gifts fit for the king they expected to meet.
What a surprise it must have been for them to reach Jerusalem. After many days (weeks? months?) of travel, they arrived, only to be met with shock and confusion by the leaders and wise men of Israel. Hundreds of prophesies pointed to the birth of Messiah, yet the Jewish leaders were oblivious to His arrival, almost under their very noses! They were not ignorant of the prophesies– they “knew” that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Yet, they showed no interest in traveling with the other wise men to meet their own redeemer. Instead, they sent the foreigners to pay homage, while they plotted in Jerusalem to help Herod kill hundreds of innocent infants. These are the same priests, prophets, and wise men who had been studying, praying for, and waiting for the arrival of Messiah for hundreds of years. How could they have missed it?!
Epiphany is not just the name for this day of the Kings with their three gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh– it is a word that tells of a sudden realization or understanding of the essence of a truth. But how often do we chase an epiphany–pray for answers, or memorize scripture–only to miss the point? How often are we focused on the pages of history, or our computer screens, only to miss the wondrous star in the sky? Are we, like the Jewish leaders of their age, missing the Epiphany?
God is ready to show us the miracle of His Mercy, the sufficiency of His Grace, and the depths of His great Love– are we chasing an Epiphany that is right under our noses? Let’s be ready to look up, to follow the star, and to be amazed!
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.
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.
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.
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!