“Prayer Works!” and its bossier sibling, “Pray. It Works!” are sayings I’ve seen on everything from tote bags to t-shirts, bumper stickers to Bible studies. You can get a “Prayer Works” apron for the saintly cook in your life or a package of “Prayer Works” pencils for those in need of a little Number Two inspiration. And don’t even get me started on books. Seriously there are about a gazillion books with that phrase or a close variation in the title. In just a quick glance, I saw Prayer Works for Teens, Prayer Works for Business People, and even a Prayer Works for Dieters. (Just might buy that last one, cause really: I can use a little supernatural assistance in that department.)
And I get it; I do. Who among us does not need a reminder that the practice of prayer is an important spiritual discipline? I sure do. But is that what we mean when we say that prayer works?
Too often, I’m afraid it means that we got what we wanted from the prayer. We say it after saying “I got a promotion!” or “My child got into her college of choice!” or even, “My beloved has been healed of cancer!” Then of course, like all good Christians, we turn to social media to Instagram, Tweet, or Facebook the good news, challenging followers to “Pray! It Works!” I think most of us mean well, bless our hearts. We are so grateful for the blessings we’ve received we want to share the good news. We mean “Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus!” But that’s not what we say. Instead, we tap out pithy theology that just doesn’t hold up to the trials of life.
Think about it. No one ever says “Prayer Works,” when they get laid off, or a child’s dreams are crushed, or a loved one doesn’t make it. Yet prayer works then too. It works to bring peace in the storm. It works to bring hope to the hopeless. It works to draw us closer to God. Of course prayer works. It always works.
Over the years, I’ve seen prayer work whether I got the job I wanted or not. I’ve prayed for career outcomes I just knew were within God’s perfect will for my life, praying with all confidence that I had heard God’s voice correctly, only to be devastated when things turned out differently. Prayer helped me deal with disappointment, sort out solutions, and overcome the sense of loss that frequently accompanies career frustrations.
Prayer works as high school graduates accept admission to the last school on their lists, because despite their excellent high school records, their dream schools have refused them. Prayer helps them ask “Why?” Prayer leads them to sing new songs. Prayer reminds them that they are more, so much more, than admissions decisions and test scores.
Prayer worked in 2008 when a child I knew and loved died of cancer. People prayed without ceasing for that little boy to be cured—really cured, on earth, in the flesh. But he passed from this life to the next at just over three and a half years old. My prayers were not answered in the way I wanted. And when that precious boy died, I felt as if my spirit was shipwrecked. But prayer worked. Prayer washed me onto shore, warmed me, sheltered me.
I think the function of prayer is well stated by twentieth century theologian CS Lewis. He said, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God–it changes me.” Wow. Prayer changes humanity? Now that’s some hard work right there. To God be the Glory!
*This piece was first published on June 1, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.