On the Utility of Prayer

To the non-religious, prayer can seem like an exceedingly silly practice. Getting on one’s knees, closing one’s eyes and grasping one’s hands, mumbling unintelligibly to a God who probably doesn’t exist; the whole thing is really no more than a charade, something that makes us feel better. After all, life is impossible to control. By pretending that the universe is open-ended and that there is a personal God who actually listens to our petitions, we can come to terms with the fact that we have only a modicum of agency over what actually happens in our lives.

What if, however, this wasn’t really true? What if God not only exists, but he listens to our prayers and sometimes even grants our requests in ways that trigger unimaginable growth? To those seeking with an open mind and open heart, this possibility isn’t entirely out of the reach of reason. The main thrust of this article will be the efficacy of Christian prayer, but I’d like to start by proposing the benefits of prayer even for those who would categorize themselves as non-religious.

Defining a Mindset

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am a recovering alcoholic and have attended countless AA meetings over the last several years. While AA considers itself an agnostic organization, it regularly preaches the importance of prayer. Even for adherents who don’t believe in God, prayer is presented as an opportunity to center oneself at key moments in the day to redefine priorities and actively practice gratitude.

Recovering alcoholics pray the Serenity Prayer in group settings.

There’s an old quote that goes something like, “At night, place your slippers under your bed. When you rise in the morning, you will have to get on your knees to retrieve them. While you’re down there, remember to say ‘thank you’ for everything wonderful in your life, no matter how small.” The act of being on one’s knees is inherently humbling, and starting the day with a mindset of gratitude is almost a surefire recipe for manifesting positivity over the next twelve hours or so. The psychologist Jordan Peterson has risen to considerable fame in the last decade by hawking a philosophy centered around making your bed first thing in the morning. By accomplishing a simple, measurable task to start your day, you are automatically positioning yourself for further success.

“Gratitude” has become a bit of a buzzword lately, especially as it has been wrapped up with the all-encompassing term “self-care.” You’ll see wellness influencers talking incessantly about creating gratitude lists, and viral social media posts proselytize about the necessity of recognizing your own good fortune. It is almost as if we have re-discovered an ancient maxim: “Count your blessings.”

Gratitude aside, there a few other things that can be wrapped into your morning and evening prayer to mentally position you towards positivity. Jesus famously encouraged his disciples to pray for their enemies, and in practice it is a powerful recipe for forgiveness. In my own experience, my anger towards any individual in my life begins to dissipate considerably as soon as I start regularly praying for their well-being. At first, it feels about as comfortable as pulling teeth, but over time it is almost as if you can notice your heart begin to soften.

Prayer also helps position you for your day (morning prayer) or assists in unpacking the occurrences of the day (evening prayer). You can either set your priorities in order by prayer for guidance in the completion of your goals, or you can look back on your day and mentally check what went right and what went wrong. This is also an opportunity to examine your own role in each situation that played out that day. If something went wrong, how were you responsible? If you weren’t directly responsible, how could you have reacted in a more positive manner? This kind of nightly introspection pushes you to recognize flawed patterns in your behavior and gets you on the path towards remedying them.

Why Christians Pray

The benefits of prayer for mental health are clear, but thus far we have been discussing a form of prayer that is really more akin to Eastern meditation. It doesn’t necessarily foster any kind of connection to God, and is more focused on inward reflection than the manifestation of an outward connection. Simply put, while this form of prayer is certainly useful, it is a missed opportunity to tap in to something much greater than the limits of our own emotions.

In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul encouraged Greek Christians to, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV). While we see the element of gratitude that we unpacked in the previous section, there is also that fascinating admonition to pray “without ceasing.” In my estimation, a morning prayer and an evening prayer are more than enough to begin to see the benefits of prayer in one’s daily life. To pray “without ceasing” as a Christian would entail a near-constant communion with God. Surely, this can’t be what He wants; after all, wouldn’t such a practice stop us from effectively living our lives?

Saint Teresa of Avila praying.

There has been much written on the subject of prayer by great Christian thinkers over the last 2,000 years, and while I may not be adding anything new to the conversation, I can perhaps help to distill and clarify a few concepts. Before diving in, I would like to recommend the seminal essay “The Efficacy of Prayer” by C.S. Lewis. If you find yourself interested in this topic and would like to read a bit more on it by a much more capable writer, that is the direction in which I would point you.

The scientific method (championed by such devout Christians as Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes) teaches us to use rationality and empirical evidence to reach firm conclusions on the state of the natural world. Even using this method, we could never conclusively prove whether or not prayer was actually effective. If I prayed fervently every day for a week that I would finally get a raise at work and then on the eighth day my boss called me in for a conversation about a pay increase, who’s to say that conversation wasn’t in the works anyway? Sure, I prayed for the raise, but I had also probably been performing quite well at work and there’s a very solid chance the raise was inevitable. Perhaps my prayer pushed things in the right direction, and perhaps my prayer had no impact at all.

As Christians, our greatest reference for our own lives is the life of Christ. Jesus prayed constantly, often retreating from the large crowds that followed him so that he could find a moment of peace to commune with his Father. However, even Christ’s prayers were not always answered; in the garden of Gethsemane, he prayed that he would not have to suffer through the crucifixion, and his prayers seemingly fell on deaf ears. If even the holiest man who ever lived cannot guarantee the success of his prayers, what hope is there for us?

The God Who Listens

The Christian God is all good, all powerful, the sovereign ruler of the universe and the master and commander of our lives. If such a God exists, then the idea of prayer seems foolish and flawed at its very foundation. A sovereign God who is in control of all things will have already mandated the course of our lives. Making direct petitions to Him would be no more useful than making direct petitions to the sky for the rain to stop. A God like this would see us almost like toy racecars, traveling along predefined grooves to reach a destination that was created for us before we were even placed on the track.

While some Christians do, partially, believe in this idea (I will have a separate article on Calvinism in the near future), most reject it as it clashes with one of the central theses of the Bible. God loves us so much that He has given us the free will to choose a relationship with him. Could true love ever be fostered in a relationship where one of the parties is being forced to participate? Love can only come about through mutual consent, and this is what we see in the relationship being offered to us by God. With this gift of free will comes an idea of shared sovereignty. In the book of Genesis, God designates man as having dominion over the Earth – we are the only species that is actually out of the food chain. In this view, God and man are effectively ruling the Earth together.

James the Just, the brother of Christ, emphasized the importance of prayer.

In his eponymous New Testament book, James the brother of Christ writes, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up…Pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:13-18 ESV). Here, James is establishing prayer as the highest priority for the budding communities of new Christians that were popping up all over the Mediterranean. The Christian God is a God who listens, just as a friend may listen when you ask for a favor.

This is not to suggest we can change God’s mind. I once heard a pastor describe God’s vision as somebody who has DVR’d a football game and hasn’t watched it but already knows the score. The end result is already ordained, but the process by which the result is reached will have to be seen in how the players perform. If God lent us the dignity of free will in all we do, it really isn’t too much of a stretch to conclude that prayer can affect the world around us in much the same way that any of our other actions do. To quote C.S. Lewis, “[Petitioners] have not changed God’s mind – that is, His over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of his creatures.”

If there is a God, an Intelligent Creator, then He has the capability to make something out of nothing in the same way he made the Universe. It is evident by observing the natural state of the world that humans have a greater degree of dominion than any other creature, with the ability to alter events on a mass scale by even the smallest of actions. The God who designed us did so not just to have pawns, but to have collaborators; the existence of free will and an unmistakable moral compass that points us in one direction or another are pieces of evidence in demand of a verdict. Our ability to uniquely shape the world around us speaks to the fact that we have been given a great power. With power comes purpose, and a necessarily greater power who may hear the earnest petitions of the purposeful and perhaps breathe them into reality.

To the Christian, prayer is not the act of closing one’s eyes and asking for something in the same way that a child would write a letter to Santa Claus. Christian prayer is the unique opportunity to commune with our Creator, a Creator who burns with desire for a personal relationship for us. While we may come to God with petitions in prayer, we are also encouraged to come to him with our worries, our doubts, our repentance, and our concerns for others. Christian prayer is not a request box – it is our finite entrance into the infinite presence of God.

Prayer is, by nature, a personal act. I can no more prove the utility of prayer to the Christian God in your life than I can prove that negative thoughts lead to wrinkles. I simply ask you to give it a try, and see the results for yourself. Putting aside biases, it is not too shocking to surmise that there may be a kind ear listening in on your prayers.

God gave us the free will to pray, and thus is willing to meet us where we are. As Christ himself said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11 ESV)

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