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.