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“Prayer was never meant to be magic,” Mother said.

“Then why bother with it?” Suzy scowled.

“Because it’s an act of love.”  

(Madeline L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light)

Rachel Held Evans is in the hospital, and the world is praying for her.

If I needed proof that the Holy Spirit works in our weakness, I’ll say that even in this time when Rachel is in a coma, she’s teaching me about prayer. Twitter is teaching me about prayer. This L’Engle quote, for example, was offered by a well-wisher for Rachel on twitter, retweeted a bunch, and then landed on my screen as a gift. For me. A healing.

It put to words something that I’ve struggled to articulate for a long time. Prayer isn’t magic. Prayer is an act of love.

My dad dropped dead one Sunday morning when I was a teenager, and since then I haven’t been able to make the same kind of sense of prayers for healing. I haven’t wanted to explore the questions that it raises for me about God, about control, about why some folks plan funerals and others plan vacations. Why some folks are in the prayer chain for weeks, and others are gone before anyone can ask for anything.

When I was a college chaplain, there was a healing prayer service that was offered on campus. My snarl of reactiveness to the idea of being compelled to participate in it woke me up to a truth: I haven’t wanted to open up the spaces of grief that this exposes for me. Twenty years later, and I’m still mad that I didn’t get to plead with God to save my dad.

I remember sitting with my mom once while chemotherapy dripped slowly into her from an IV, in a room full of really, really sick people. I remember asking her what she thought about healing prayer. She loved it, she said. She does it. “But what about the times when people die?” I wondered, suddenly a child again.

“Maybe healing includes death,” she said.

It’s Easter. It’s a time when death, and life, and healing, and suffering, are all wrapped up together. It’s a time when the simple good news is also so complicated, so layered and messy and unfinished. It’s a time when the goodness of the Lord is visible in the land of the living. And among those who have died.

I’m one of those desperately praying for Rachel Held Evans, though I’m not sure what I mean by that most of the time. She’s a woman I’ve never met, but who’s shown me what courage and faithfulness look like. I love her, want to share love with her. So I’m praying in imperfect, pleading, half-sentences for healing — not practiced, not polished, not magic.

It’s helping me believe that prayer can indeed achieve healing. A healing, first, for me.

Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • carl kammeraad says:

    From your heart to ours…thank you Kate for expressing our wrestlings with loving God via the intimacy of prayer.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks Kate for tackling a tough subject, prayer. Have you ever noticed how many different perspectives there are on prayer? Why is that? Certainly the Bible says a lot about prayer, and even Jesus addressed the subject a lot. Looking at the examples of prayers in both the Old and New Testaments, petitionary prayer stands out first and foremost. Sure there are other aspects to prayer such as ACTS, which you could say put supplication (petition) last. But if you listen to Jesus’ many teachings, then if you ask for the right things (or even anything in his name) he assures his audience they will receive what they ask for. That’s amazing. Only problem, it doesn’t work. And we all know that. It’s a crap shoot whether you win or not. Sure the easy things (like help me get over my cold) generally get answered. Chances are that you will come out on top whether you prayed or not. It’s the hard things we pray for that just don’t make sense when it comes to prayer.

    So what do we do? We make up or listen to what others have made up about prayer to help it make sense. Instead of going to the Bible, we go to Twitter to find an answer for prayer, or we believe what the minister or youth director of our church has said about prayer. “Pray as though it all depends on God, but act as though it all depends on you.” And, of course, common sense tells us it really does depend (to large extent) on you whether your problems or needs get solved or not. The prayer part has little or nothing to do with the solution to your problem or need.

    I think the Christian, like the Jews of the Old Testament, want to think of God as a personal God who has the best interests of his own children in mind as he carries out his plans for the world. If we express our love and actions toward the God of the Bible (or if the Jews love and obey God), then God will favor his own above all others with daily expressions of his love (such as answered prayer). But guess what? It didn’t and doesn’t seem to work that way. Christians get sick and die, experience catastrophes, are victimized the same as anyone else. And prayer (answered and unanswered) is just one way this becomes obvious, that God has no favorites (even though the Bible says he does).

    Kate, I respect your effort to make sense of prayer, including healing prayer. If we call ourselves Christians, then something as important as prayer should make sense. So thanks for sharing your thoughts. You are right, prayer is not magic. Doesn’t come close. So if prayer is still important, your guess at its place in the Christian’s life is as valid as anyone else’s. But (in my mind) it’s still a guess. Thanks for your article on a tough subject.

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Kate, thanks for writing on this difficult subject. Including your perspective following your Dad’s death brought back a lot of memories of that time. We’re taught to include “Your will be done” but that’s so hard to prey sincerely when you prey for healing.

  • Elizabeth VanderHaagen says:

    Love to you and to Rachel

  • Randy Lubbers says:

    Beautiful. Wrestle with the same things–often. This June will be ten years since I lost my wife to cancer, and my kids (9 & 13 at the time) lost their mom. I think there are parts of me still angry. I know there are.

    Would you mind if I reprint this for our church’s monthly newsletter–with attribution of course.

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