A man loses a valuable ring and prays for its return, offering to give half the value of the ring to charity if he gets his ring back. Finishing the prayer, he opens his eyes and sees the ring in front of him. “Never mind, God,” he says, “I found it myself!” (Got this story from Sally Kempton’s blog).
I’ve been involved in an email exchange with some progressive Christian colleagues. The thread began with an innocent, tongue-in-cheek quip, “I guess God answers prayer”. Another colleague who is writing a book on prayer responded by making the point that even if it’s a joke we shouldn’t be perpetuating the illusion that God answers prayer. We ourselves are the only possible answer to prayer, she continued. We are the answer to poverty, injustice, and to family and friends who are suffering. God doesn’t magically intervene in a way God would not have if “He” didn’t hear our prayers. Too many people have been hurt, she claimed, by the assumption that if you don’t get the desired outcome, then a) God doesn’t care b) I’m bad c) I must have prayed wrong. Too often people just give up on God altogether. I mean what use is God if “He” can’t, or worse, chooses not to heal my brother of cancer? Good points, all.
So, does God answer prayer? The short answer is that it depends on one’s worldview:
Traditional: Yes. If you don’t get what you prayed for, just remember that God’s ways are not our ways, and who knows if that “no” might not be, in the great scheme of things, the way things were meant to be.
Modern: No. It’s all superstition.
Postmodern: Define your terms. Define “answer”. Define “God”. Define “prayer”. Most folks here, especially those who are “spiritual but not religious”, regard intercessory prayer as the kindergarten of the prayer world, and prefer to meditate.
Post-postmodern: Here, you are willing to take another look at prayer. You might imagine God as the Unified Whole of which you are a part, and yet which is not itself a part of any greater whole. You might even imagine this Whole in personal terms—not necessarily “a” being, totally separate from you, but rather the personalization of Being Itself. Let’s call that Love. Your own evolving personhood is an expression of That.
Intercessory prayer is an expression of deep need and humility. You are pouring your heart out to the Heart of the universe. There’s nothing wrong with asking God for what we need or for what the world needs. It’s unlikely, from this perspective, that you believe in a satellite God who receives prayers and then beams answers back to Earth. But you don’t get twisted out of shape if someone does imagine that this is what is happening in prayer.
“What is bounty without a beggar?” Rumi writes. “What is generosity without a guest? Be a beggar, for beauty is seeking a mirror, water is crying for a thirsty man!”
Many Sundays I wander out into the congregation I serve and ask for their prayers. These are very bright people who might not be able to articulate exactly what they think is going on when they ask the community to hold a member of their family in prayer. But what they do know is that the prayers of the community matter. We offer these prayers to the Mystery that holds us all – the More that is also within us, and is able, in Paul’s words to “accomplish abundantly more than we are able to ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:30).
To be scientific about this, the largest study on intercessory prayer, conducted by Dr. Herbert Benson, showed that patients who were prayed for after surgery showed no improvement — actually some fared worse — than patients who were not prayed for. On the other hand, there is a whole lot of other research (read Lynn McTaggert’s The Field) showing that our intentions can affect water crystals, plants, and human beings for good or ill.
We all are expressions of a single, unified Field, in which everything is everywhere, and everything is connected. Spiritual types, like me, are persuaded that this unified field has a Heart, and we are that Heart having a human experience. My own experience is that following a deep meditation, I will feel powerfully moved to offer prayers on behalf of somebody or for myself. This is beyond reason. To deny that impulse because of a belief that God doesn’t answer prayer would be very weird. I don’t know if “God” will “answer” those prayers. Truthfully, the prayer itself feels like the “answer”. It feels like I am powerfully connecting with Mystery by honouring the impulse. Mystics of every religion got this, Jesus got it, and Paul got it:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness: for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
Yep, that’s what it feels like to me — Spirit praying through me, and as me. If we refuse to offer intercessory prayers are we denying Spirit a voice? Is it possible that our intercessory prayers are in themselves God’s way of answering prayers? Our love and compassion goes out and into this seamless, interconnected universe and is brought to bear on illness, loneliness, and grief. It’s not a distant God intervening, but the God within our very own sighs of compassion and longing for wholeness. We offer our prayers, remaining unattached to outcomes, yet confident that love is a healing power. And, of course, we take any other action that seems appropriate. We pray for the people in the Horn of Africa, and send money, and do what we can to end systemic poverty.