The million-dollar question: What is an answer to prayer?
Whilst on summer holiday this year I was given a little “welcome pack” on the coastline by a local Church member, and in the pack was a little leaflet about Try Praying. All credit to the local Church for trying some outreach to visitors, but the leaflet left me wondering. Try Praying is a prayer initiative, aimed at “those who wouldn’t darken a Church door.” I’ve darkened the doors for some time, nevertheless I thought I’d see what Try Praying was all about, especially if we are ever thinking of directing people towards it. So, the stats tell us 27 million adults in the UK pray, 10 million of them pray regularly and half of them believe God hears, and 1 in 5 who are not religious pray. Interesting figures. If only 5 million believe God hears, what are the others doing when they pray?
Within the darkened doors, what do Church folk think of prayer? And what do we believe prayer is about? Ministers long being seen as “the ones who pray” and lead prayer in worship possibly makes people retreat a little from prayer because they are not “close enough” to God or have the right words to use; unwittingly we may have stifled the conversation of people with God when prayer is perceived as a semi-professional pastime, perhaps consolidated by the “prayer that is offered for use in the Church” from some high office holder in the Church as if we are all incapable of putting words together in our conversation with God. That said, the well-chosen words of others in printed prayers are often helpful as we can get into a rut with our own favourite phrases. We have grown so accustomed to our ways and our cliches that perhaps we need to try contemplating prayer again? How often do we hear it said – “that’s an answer to prayer” – and yet only hear it said when we have a perceived “positive” outcome? When things don’t go the way we want we never hear someone say “that’s an answer to prayer”.
The Try Praying booklet says, “you don’t have to have a problem to pray – many people simply want to know if there is something that can make sense of life.” It also states – “fundamentally, prayer is less about getting something and more about knowing someone.” If only the booklet was shorter! These sentiments go down fairly well, but the detail that follows is harder to swallow.
Try Praying tells us that God might say yes or no or wait, but that faith is a crucial ingredient. But then it goes and spoils the conversation by saying that we might have to “check there is nothing in our lives which offends God. If we cling to wrong doing in an area of our life then he will not hear our prayer.” So, if our prayers are not “answered” do we start, in the style of Job’s friends, to look for something that we have done or are doing wrong in our lives in order to “put it right” and get back on track with God and let his “blessing” flow again towards us in answered prayers? Shudder the thought!
In terms of healing, prayer can do that, according to the booklet, from infection to broken toes. We are told that prayer helps us move from “thinking God might heal to knowing he can.” Further, we are told “faith” is what makes the difference between the many that just hang around and the one who really connects. The more the booklet tries to explain prayer, the more we are led to surmise that if you really have faith then you will be healed! I’m sure that’s not what is meant, but that’s what comes across when you read some of the lines, never mind between the lines!
The transformation of East Germany by the power of prayer (exampled in the booklet) is a better example, for me, of how prayer works – for as more and more people pray for something positive and good, the more likely it is to come to pass. Take world peace, for example, something we all long for and pray for. But it will only come to pass when more and more people pray for peace because then their hearts are changed, their words and actions are changed, and it flows out into the wider world. When we pray for peace in Ukraine are we expecting God to deliver it? If so, then why did he “let war happen” in the first place? Peace does not come because God has authorised it – peace comes when we let that conversation with God change us and change our hearts by his Spirit.
Who am I to write on prayer when thousands of books have been written on the subject over the years and much more eloquently? Who am I, despite being a minister, and a faltering pray-er, to have an opinion on this? Simply an ordinary person who has long been fed up with the glib “that’s an answer to prayer” cliché that is often dished out with a smile. From the booklet I am left with the perception that IF you have faith and persistence then God will answer your prayers, and occasionally he may not but we have to live in trust with that puzzle. I am not prepared to assign people into the puzzle category. It is quite a conversation when God heals a big toe but not a young mother’s cancer.
I am left with more questions than answers. Why do we talk of answered prayer if prayer is essentially a conversation? When prayer is “not answered” does it then have to fit into the “not enough faith” category or “there is a fault-line in my life” category or does it have to go into the puzzle bin and “there must be a reason for it but we don’t know what” category – another phrase I have come to loathe! Jesus healed. Yes, he did. Was it to demonstrate God’s power and love in his day? Was it the norm for his followers? Is it a lack of faith in the Church today that stifles healing or are we simply viewing prayer and healing through one lens? If prayer doesn’t change or heal, have we not persisted enough or been good enough? When we hold others and our world in prayer before God, what are we asking for? Does it matter if 1 or a 100 pray for a person? God doesn’t have a magic number that when reached the answer to prayer is delivered! Could it be that when we hold others in prayer we are not always asking God to do something specific but simply to hold them in his love and care and to give them strength to face whatever life brings?
Where does that leave prayer? I continue to try praying, simple as that. It is essentially a conversation with God as we travel through life with all its ups and downs. And the more people converse with God then the more possible his loving Spirit will work in us and in his world. There is plenty I do not understand, perhaps persisting in prayer will bring more light!