I am far from a theologian, so don’t expect a complete or perfect answer to that question.  But I was recently sent the following message from an atheist friend of mine.  I love when God makes you think about something you may take for granted.  I would like to share my thoughts in response.  First the question:

“Prayer….I still don’t get it. Is it there to make people feel better rather than for results? I don’t see that things happen any differently one way or another. How does it help? I don’t think it does. There is still pain and suffering….it never seems to “solve” the problem. Is it just a coping mechanism? I once again never find it my initial response when things are going wrong or I need to deal with something. What is the true purpose of prayer?”

The question stemmed from seeing a Caring bridge entry where a friend was going through some health problems.  Some of the people left comments like “we will be praying for you”.  We have all seen this kind of situation.  Perhaps some of you, like I, were praying for Ben.  Over 50,ooo people were praying for Ben, a local toddler who was in a household accident a few weeks ago.  He has since passed, but his family could still use the prayer.

So many people, willing to pray, what does it mean, what is their purpose of prayer?  I suspect there are three different motivations/beliefs from those who say they will be praying:

  1. It is just the thing you say in the Christian culture we grow up in. “I will pray for you”, they may not really mean much by it, it is just what you say, a message of general support.
  2. Those who will say a quick prayer about it, thinking that it is the “Christian” thing to do. I mean, it can’t really hurt, it only takes a few seconds to say, “God please help Ben and his family through this difficult time” or “God, please make Ben better”, and it makes you feel good to have done “your part”. But I don’t think most people pray believing that it will really make a difference.
  3. Those who truly believe that God still heals, that prayer has power, and are praying with the expectation that Ben will get better.

I think number 1 relates mostly to the general Christian culture we live in here in America. Number 2 is probably the one that relates to people who go to church on a regular basis. And 3 is more like what the Bible says about prayer. When I tell someone that I am praying for them, I honestly usually have attitude number 2, not too serious about it, but it can’t hurt and it is “the least I should do”. On a good day I may have attitude number 3, which is really what the Bible says about prayer.

What does the Bible say about prayer? It says “Ask and it shall be given to you” “Whatever you ask in my name, that I will do” “Make your requests known to God” “You have not because you ask not” Wow, so all we have to do is ask? If that is the case then everyone would be healthy, live in a huge house with a nice car and no debt. It is obviously not quite as simple as this. So what is missing?

Jesus’ disciples where once praying for someone to be healed, which sometimes worked for them, but it wasn’t in this case. Jesus came along and the disciples asked why isn’t this working? Jesus said that it was a lack of faith, He said “if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed (very small) then you would have the power to say to this mountain “be thrown into the sea” and it would. So do we lack faith? I think that certainly could be part of the case. Look back to number 2, the attitude most of us have. Doesn’t seem like much faith.

Another aspect is do we want things our way or God’s way? Most people are somewhat familiar with what is called the Lord’s Prayer. Some people asked Jesus, how should we pray? And his response is called the Lord’s Prayer. Part of it says “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. So what if we are asking for something that is not what God wants for us? Well, I don’t think that prayer will work in those cases. The Bible does give a few examples of God “changing his mind” (for lack of a better phrase) in response to a conversation (prayer) with someone. But I think if you are praying for a new car, even if you really believe He can do it and have tons of faith, but it is not God’s will, then you shouldn’t expect to see it in the drive way the next morning.

I will admit, this is a cop out. If I pray and it works PRAISE GOD, PRAYER WORKS! If I pray and it doesn’t work, well then it just wasn’t God’s will. I win either way, right, it is not a fair argument, but I think this is just how it is.

At the end of her message she asks, what is the true purpose of prayer? I think the discussion about does prayer work to heal sick people or relieve pain, or get a new car is interesting, but that part of prayer is only a tiny fraction of its true purpose. I think the true purpose is to draw is into a closer relationship with God. The Bible teaches (and my life experience tells me) that we are created, that our creator cares about us very much and wants to have a relationship with us. Prayer is simply how we talk to God. For the years that my dad and I were not talking much, we grew very distant, I got to the point where I hardly knew him and had to rebuild our relationship. How did our relationship get rebuilt? By spending time together and talking with one another.

We may be relatively good people, especially when we compare ourselves to other people we know. We think, at least I’m not like that guy. But we all have sin in our lives. Let’s take an extreme example. Let’s say I took $1,000 out of our checking account behind my wife’s back and went and lost it all on a bet. That would put a barrier between us. She would be upset with me, and I would be ashamed and not want to face her. We would not communicate well, our relationship would break down. How does it get better? First step would be apologizing for my mistake, for my “sin” against her. Second, by not doing it again, trust gets rebuilt. And third, by communicating with each other, the relationship strengthens. Our sin in our lives, even little ones build a barrier between us and God. I liken it to a brick wall; each sin is a brick, which stack to become a huge wall between us and God. Each time we apologizing for a sin, the brick is removed, eventually the barrier we built up is knocked down to a point where we can start to have a relationship with God. How is a relationship with God built? The same way a relationship is built between two people, communication. That is prayer. That is the true purpose of prayer, to build our relationship with our Heavenly Father.

Now the more you communicate with God, the closer you are to Him, the more your faith will grow (problem #1) and the more you will know God’s heart and what His will is (problem #2). So I think the real reason why it doesn’t seem like prayer “solves problems” is because we don’t use it for its main purpose, which is to draw us closer in our relationship with God.

Just in case this article inspired you to pray, consider praying for Sandy Towle.  Sandy is the wife of a high school friend of mine, Andy.  She is 26, mother of 2, has been fighting a long battle with Lupus, and has recently been diagnosed with Metastatic Melanoma stage 4.  It is not the best prognosis, but she is getting the best treatment available, has a cancer killing attitude, motivated to be the in the 3% who survive, and she has the power of many people praying for her.  With God all things are possible.

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  1. I think it’s just a kind of moral smugness masturbation.

    Obviously, if prayer actually helped anybody get better, statistical studies would bear this out. They don’t – either there’s no god, or he’s useless, or he doesn’t care.

  2. The only thing prayer does, and religion as a whole for that matter, is provide an outlet for guilt and a something to blame if things don’t go perfectly on one’s life.

    One can always state “It’s god’s will” or “god has a reason for doing this”. It’s an easy out as far as I’m concerned.

  3. From my exspereince 30 years in christian culture…” I will pray for you” is a genuine gesture of ” I hope things get better for you”, as they show genuine confusion why somebody would find offense at this and attribute this offense to some satanic influence.
    I am waiting for prayer groups to travel to the amputee ward at a military hospital.
    Maybe we could plug that oil leak in the gulf with lots of prayer… a “top-kill” of prayer if enough people pray at the exact same time…
    I imagine how many people prayed during the Black Plague….did it help? No.
    Prayer is nothing but thought-action fusion, a belief that inner thoughts control the outside world .This is #1 sign of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

  4. Prayer always struck me as a remnant of witchcraft. If you speak the right magic words and perform the right magic actions, God will do stuff for you.

    I’m glad to see that you’ve really thought about it, and at least you don’t seem too attached to this version of prayer. But the other side of it, the “it’s how we communicate” side, is only slightly better. Communicating with your wife to maintain or repair your relationship is one thing. Doing so when you’ve never been married is quite another. That’s the thing that disturbs me – once you start talking about magical beings that no one else can see or hear, I start thinking about delusion or schizophrenia.

    When you say that you communicate with God through prayer, does he talk back? If so, what is he telling you? And how do you know that the messages are from God and not from Satan, or simply a hallucination? How are you able to differentiate the actions of God from the actions of Satan in your day-to-day life?

    If God doesn’t talk back, we’re no longer looking at communication. After all, communication takes two partners. In this case, how do you distinguish between a silent God and a non-existent God?

    Ultimately, it seems to me that it all comes back to faith. That just seems very flimsy to me, since faith is so very subjective. The schizophrenic may have faith that the giant pink bunny really is there and really does want him to burn a house down. How can you trust faith when, for all you know, it’s born out of delusion?

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