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Prayer is difficult in a technological age like ours. Our minds have been shaped by the efficiency, quantification, objectivity of the computer. We value precision and clear answers. Prayer defies all of those things. And so we ask, “does prayer even work?” and the answers are unsatisfying: “sometimes?” “I don’t know.”

Not only are the answers unsatisfying, but they lead to all sorts of other painful theorizing: Do we change God’s mind? Do I want to change God’s mind? What’s the point of praying if I am only going to keep praying, “your will be done”? Won’t that happen anyway? Or we take another track: is there a right way to pray? What if I say it like this? Or do I need to confess first? Or maybe I don’t have enough faith?

The problem is that the initial question is a bad starting place. Asking, “does prayer work?” betrays that we are thinking about prayer as a technology. We are imagining God as some sort of cosmic machine. One that is not very user-friendly, or is broken, or that will only spit out results and answers if we can get the technique down, push the right buttons. So we keep smashing the divine keyboard shouting, “Is this thing even on!?” or we give up altogether.

But prayer is less like mechanics and more like love. It is less like technique and more like friendship. The question “does prayer work?” is something like asking, “Does talking to a friend work? How does it work?” That’s just not how you talk about relationships.

Reading a text like Matthew 7:7-11 with a mechanical mindset often confuses us, because a phrase like “anyone who asks receives” seems formulaic. We read it and think, “If I ask I should get it, if I don’t it must not be working for some reason.” But the passage goes on to explain itself in terms of relationship between a father and son. A good parent gives good things to their child, and we can expect the same from God. This passage isn’t about how to get what you want, but about the dependability of a God who loves you better than a good father loves their child. It is not saying, “pray like you are going to get whatever you want” (or its more religiously worded counterpart, “just have enough faith!”). It is saying, “pray like you have a good Father, who you can trust.”

Even relationships between a good parent and their child take years of trust built, millions of small interactions, some of which disappoint while others bring joy. That is the shape of a healthy relationship. And that is prayer. Ask, seek, knock. Learn through a million interactions what you can expect from prayer: that no matter what happens, in joy and despair, God will continue to be good, will continue to be for you. Learn how to love in this way.

The scriptures insist that our God is decidedly personal, yet it has always been difficult to hold together the idea that God is both transcendent and immediate. In Psalm 8, David prays ‘how majestic is your name in all the earth,” and then, “what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” Sometimes it is hard to believe that God could be at once Almighty and intimate. But in Jesus we see a God who stoops to wash feet, to attend to little children, to notice Zacchaeus in the tree, to reconcile with Peter over breakfast.

In prayer we are invited to ask for what we want, but the goal of prayer is communion, it is friendship at the deepest levels. And this Friend is deeply devoted to you, so much so as to invite both your purest worship and your basest whining, and meet each with love and help. God is willing to act at the level of our daily frustrations and also deep within is, willing both to listen and to speak.

Prayer is not about, ‘does it work?’ or ‘will I get what I want?’ (though we very well might). It is about knowing and being known. It is about transformation and divine union. Fundamentally, it’s about love.

Jen Holmes Curran

Jen Holmes Curran is a pastor at Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She co-pastors and co-parents with her husband Tony.

10 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Prayer is friendship, communion, and love, not technique. This is very wise. Thank you. I think of it also as “abiding”.

  • mstair says:

    I hate your title!
    But I love the answer you provide.

    “ The question … is something like asking, “Does talking to a friend work? How does it work?” That’s just not how you talk about relationships. “

    Amen. I have learned prayer is a whole lot more about asking a short question (not a request) – and then a lot of listening.

  • This is very helpful. Thank you!

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jen, for your take on prayer. It would be nice if prayer was really about a loving father and child relationship by which the child can confidently come to his/her father with their concerns and expect a positive response. Over and over again the Bible portrays prayer, through teaching and example, as making requests of her father with the confidence of a positive response to her request. Of course our heavenly Father isn’t going to answer a request to kill our neighbor, but we generally know and ask for good things. And, of course, there are other aspects to prayer, such as praise, thanksgiving, and confession. But this article is obviously talking about petitionary prayer. It’s the prayers that we have all heard thousands of times from the pulpit on Sunday morning and evening. It’s the prayers of well informed pastors, elders, and deacons on a weekly basis. It’s the prayers that are prayed in the council room routinely. It’s the prayers that our children pray nightly at the foot of their bed. And we continue to pray those prayers over and over again with the same likelihood of a positive answer as we get with the flip of a coin, or the same likelihood of a positive answer as from the person who never even thought to pray. Sick people get sicker and die without any respect for the prayers that have been prayed. Like the flip of a coin some get better and some don’t. So you ask, does prayer work? Only if you have little or no expectations from your prayers. But let’s continue to rationalize so that those of us who know that prayer doesn’t work can continue to pray as though it does. Thanks again, Jen, for helping us to think through a difficult subject.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    O Jen,
    So right. So explanatory. So humbling. So relationship based.
    Communing with a LORD God who is way up ahead of us, and deep inside of us, working for God’s good will to be done in and for and through us, to a broken world. Thank you.

  • Heather Stroobosscher says:

    An insightful reflection on prayer.
    Well stated and lovingly presented.
    I especially appreciate your observation about the question itself.
    Thank you.

  • So Valentines Day can be understood as Prayer Day. Thank you for proposing this. Sweet food for thought, seriously.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Jen,
    I appreciate this article. I sometimes share two different approaches to prayer. We can think of it as a light switch, turning on or off immediately, as if answers are yes or no, or we can think of it as gardening, an ongoing work of care and nurturing with much work along the way that eventually yields fruit. I also ask what is prayer for? If we simply pray to change things, I think we will often, most often be disappointed. If we pray to change us, then maybe over the time of “gardening through prayer” we may be transformed to the change things ourselves.
    Which brings me to my last thought. If God answered everyone of your prayers in the affirmative, would things mostly get better for you or would they mostly get better for those around you and for the world at large? It seems that answer will reveal how much you are truly seeking to find God’s transformation in your life.
    Good luck gardening, for us non-green thumbs in prayer, the work is difficult and arduous.

  • Trisha says:

    This article addressed a problem I’ve always had and the answer was so simple I had missed it. Simple and coherent and wise. The penny dropped. Thank you, Jen.

  • Mark Vermaire says:

    Beautifully understood and written, Jen. Thank you!

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