I still remember the question I posed to my parents when I was younger: “If God already knows what is going to happen, then why do we pray?” It was just before my father was going to pray for our family. He was asking for prayer requests, and essentially my reply was “why are we doing this anyway?” Indeed, as Yoda might phrase it: with much patience, my parents raised me.
‘What sort of evidence would prove the efficacy of prayer?’ The thing we pray for may happen, but how can you ever know it was not going to happen anyway?C.S. LewisIn his essay “On the Efficacy of Prayer” C.S. Lewis recounts a couple of personal examples where prayer seemed to work. One instance involved a woman diagnosed with cancer and an accompanying prognosis of a few months to live. Lewis writes: “A good man laid his hands on her and prayed. A year later the patient was walking (uphill, too, through rough woodland) and the man who took the last X-ray photos was saying ‘These bones are solid as rock. It’s miraculous’ ” (p. 4). As Lewis points out, however, there is no “proof” that prayer aided her recovery. There is no irrefutable claim that supernatural means were the cause. The fact that someone prayed for her could be a coincidence. This raises the “causality or correlation” question.
Lewis continues (p. 4): “The question then arises, ‘What sort of evidence would prove the efficacy of prayer?’ The thing we pray for may happen, but how can you ever know it was not going to happen anyway?” Indeed.
When someone asks “Does prayer work?” they are framing the question as if prayer is a machine and if the request is not granted, then the machine is broken. Prayer, Lewis rightly states: “is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person” (p. 8).
Believing that praying is effective is a fool’s errand for those who don’t believe in a personal God. Believing that prayer “works” can be akin to believing in fate or karma. There is no “proof” that prayer “works” just as there is no proof in fate or karma.
I don’t recall the precise explanation my parents gave me that night, but I remember being intrigued about the purpose of prayer, and wondering whether it was necessary. This intrigue ties into questions related to God’s response to prayer.
For those who can recount experiences like the one Lewis describes at the beginning of his essay, prayer is effective. It is, to use the medical and pharmacological term Lewis prefers “efficacious.” This is not the space to delve into the deep end of the numerous philosophical, space-time continuum issues related to the question of whether and how and when God acts in a certain way because someone has made a specific request. For now, I’ll pivot on the application of how these issues seem to play out.
Followers of Christ should pray because Jesus modeled prayer (Matthew 6.5-15) and we are commanded to (Philippians 4.6-7 & 1 Thessalonians 5.15-22). These are, what you might call, the logical bases for praying. But the emotional, psychological, practical basis is more direct: prayer is effective.
I don’t mean to imply or to describe a – 100% guaranteed “pray these words and your request will be granted” hocus pocus, “God is your genie and you have 3 wishes” – scene.
When I claim that prayer is effective, what I mean is that there seems to be more than correlation going on when God’s people pray.When I claim that prayer is effective, what I mean is that there seems to be more than correlation going on when God’s people pray. Consider your own experience. For a moment consider times when your prayers were answered. Consider when prayer seems like the best explanation than any other likely alternative. A relationship seems to be in a state of irretrievable disrepair. A patient is unlikely to recover. A situation is fractured. So you pray. And your request is granted. It’s not that prayer works, but rather God works in instances when God’s people pray, aligning themselves with divine purpose and focus.
Answered prayers do not have clear evidence. They do not have external, objective proof. But, experience is a source of our beliefs. Given time you are likely to have glimpses of effective prayers. They may not be dramatic healings or public displays of God’s mighty work, but they can help fortify your trust in God and in the effectiveness of prayer.
The results might not be immediate and you might not be around to see the answer, but regardless we should pray. In scripture James teaches Christ’s followers that prayers are powerful (James 5.13-20).
Finally, I’ll close with a caution. Too often prayer turns into something more like a parachute. We find ourselves in freefall and start yanking on the cord, hoping against hope that the parachute will open and bring us to a safe, softer landing. Instead, I commend a more thoughtful, consistent, daily approach. Don’t wait until you’re in a bind to pray. Pray in seasons, at all times. Or, as is modeled and commanded by Paul in 3 different letters: Pray without ceasing.
Header image provided through creative commons by .
Header image provided through creative commons. Adaptation from a photograph by Waiting For the Word
Dr. Neal earned a BA in Political Science from Texas Tech University. He then pursued theological and ministerial training and is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDivBL), and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (MTh; PhD). He is married to Jennifer, and they have four children.
Dr. Neal’s teaching and research focuses on the relationship between biblical interpretation and theology. His Ph.D. research focused on systematic theology, specifically questions raised in contemporary German theology. He is the author of Theology As Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of Jurgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope, and has published a variety of essays, articles, and chapters on theological topics. Dr. Neal has presented papers in several academic venues in England, Scotland, New Zealand, and the United States. Most recently he presented a paper on eschatology at the University of Notre Dame.