What can one expect
by way of an answer to a prayer?
I recently heard a television preacher
on prayer. The topic was familiar, the text was from James, Chapter 5: "The
prayer of the righteous has great power in its effects. Elijah prayed that it
might not rain, and for three years and six months, it did not rain."
Well, I'll tell you something, all winter I've been praying for snow, and it finally
came. The right answer on the wrong day; one on which I had scheduled a business
meeting I could not avoid, making escape to the cross country ski trails impossible.
Elijah to the contrary, do our prayers really have power over the weather, or
the state of the economy, or the health of a child? Is there really any power
in a prayer?
The preacher I was listening to had absolutely no doubt
about it. He was filled with enthusiasm about the power of prayer. He believed
that people should pray more and more often, that we shouldn't be afraid to pray
for immediate, material rewards. Since God is the provider of every good thing,
we shouldn't be afraid to ask for anything, no matter how small or large. For
example, if your child is about to take entrance exams to college, you should
pray that the child scores well on the SAT's, for the Lord will provide. If you
are gunning to become CEO of your company, pray, and the Lord will provide. And
if you're out in your car, driving around the streets of the city, and you can't
find a parking place, then pray, and the Lord will provide.
are powerful promises. Yet whenever I hear such claims for the power of prayer
I also hear a little voice somewhere in the back of my mind which seems to say,
"Wait just a minute, something strange is going on here." And the more
I wonder about it, the more troubling that sermon becomes. Should we pray for
immediate, material rewards -- good grades, a raise in salary, a promotion, or
a convenient parking place on our crowded city streets?
the parking meter prayer into perspective.
My first reaction
is negative. Of course you shouldn't pray for a parking place. God has more important
things in mind. There are people suffering; there is war and poverty and disease
and death. Should we trouble God with needs which are clearly less significant
My first reaction to the parking meter prayer was skeptical,
but maybe I'm being a little unfair. Even if there are far more serious problems,
we must carry on; we must provide the food and clothing and the shelter for our
families, and that shopping trip may be an important part of the day.
If God isn't concerned about the things we're wrapped up in everyday, then God
really isn't the Lord of all creation. Moreover, it is the clear witness of scripture,
there is nothing too trivial for God's concern. So there may even be a place for
the parking meter prayer.
But God is no fool.
Clearly it won't do any good to pray for something important just because you
think God wants to hear it. God knows what your real needs are; you've got to
be honest about it. If the parking meter is of serious concern, then go ahead
and pray. But also try to broaden the scope of your concern. The fact that you
are praying to God, a God of justice and love, that fact should affect the content
of your prayer.
Whatever prayer is, it's not like sending an angry
letter to the mayor of your city or town, a letter which might read something
like this: "Dear Mr. Mayor, we enjoyed your visit to our church last Sunday,
but there's something that's been troubling me. Can't you do something about the
parking situation along Main Street? The traffic is becoming impossible, Mr. Mayor,
can't you help." Some perplexing questions
mayor is properly concerned about parking. He should also be concerned about the
amount of air pollution caused by cars that are cruising around in search of a
place to park. God is similarly concerned. If God counts a single sparrow that
falls to the ground and dies, God is also aware of the traffic flow in an entire
city. But, as sovereign over all the world, it seem to me that there must be a
sense of priority even for God.
One thing is certain. Jesus never
prayed for a parking place.
The Almighty may hear our prayers
for a parking place, for a promotion, for better grades in school, but I suspect
that God responds more compassionately to the prayers of the hungry, the sick,
the tired and the poor. For these were the chief concerns which Jesus expressed;
and of all people he expressed the will of God most accurately. I can say without
fear of contradiction that Jesus Christ never counselled that we pray for a parking
And there is another possibility.
the crowded streets and the traffic congestion are God's warning that we have
been irresponsible in our stewardship of this planet. God has given us stewardship
over all the world. God has given us responsibility for running our own lives.
And when we rule unwisely, there are tragic results. The issue here is whether
God has given us our freedom or not. Actually that rather simple prayer for a
parking place raises some very serous theological problems.
picture the situation again.
Here is the fictional Mr. Goodspeed.
Apparently he is not very familiar with the limited parking at certain locations
along Main Street. He has ventured out to pick up a prescription at the local
druggist. Picture Mr. Goodspeed driving up and down the street, looking for a
place to park. Not only is there no one meter open, there's hardly even a place
to double park. Mr. Goodspeed is stalled in traffic; the time is rushing by; there
are guests coming for dinner and his wife's got to have that medicine to stop
a tremendous migraine.
So Mr. Goodspeed begins to pray, the parking
meter prayer. In all seeing wisdom, God knows that not one of those busy shoppers
is about to leave. Every parking lot is full and every meter is taken, and there
will not be an open space for at least another hour.
In this situation,
what is God to do? Does God say: "Here comes Mr. Goodspeed, he an elder in
the Presbyterian Church, he believes in me, he needs a parking place. But over
there sitting on a stool at the Main Street Bar is Mr. Doubtful. He has never
said a prayer in his life." Does God zap Mr. Doubtful with a sudden desire
to give up the bottle and leap to his feet, heading out the door to look for his
car just as Mr. Goodspeed is driving by?
The problem is that God
has given us freedom to rule this world in our own way. God has given us the power
to establish governments that plan the traffic flow, and if we, working through
the proper agencies of government, do not provide adequate parking for our people,
then we the citizens must suffer the consequences.
And God has given
Mr. Doubtful the freedom to govern his own life. If he refuses to pray, and never
the darkens the doors of a church, that is his choice, and he must live without
the benefits of prayer. In this situation God may have compassion for Mr Goodspeed,
but God cannot interfere with events being acted out on Main Street without taking
back human freedom.
And there are even more difficult questions
said all this, however, I'd like to cite another example. For my critique of the
parking meter prayer may have been aimed at a paper tiger. After all, I don't
think many of us pray very fervently for a parking place, and in any event, we
can live without a place to park. Let's look at an example where a person's life
is at stake.
This narrative is based on an actual event
Imagine a middle aged business woman sleeping quietly in her hotel bedroom. She's
had a rather restless evening, finding it difficult to shake the anxiety of a
pressured day. Still, she has just fallen into a fitful sleep when she is interrupted
in her dreams by the sounds of sirens and the smell of smoke.
lights are off. Her only source of illumination is the dim light coming from the
street lamp five stories below. Staring into the semi-darkness of her room, she
notices smoke coming through the crack at the bottom of the door. Rushing over
to the door, she feels heat radiating from the other side, yet she knows that
this doorway is her only means of escape. The only other exit is out the window
and down dive stories to her death in the sidewalk below.
she rush out into the hallway and hope she can escape through the smoke and flames.
She does not know what to do or where to turn. So she prays, "God help me!"
Almost as soon as that prayer crosses her lips, she is filled with
calm. A voice seems to be speaking to her. "Don't try to get out now, help
is at hand."
So she waits. She waits for what seems like an
eternity. Her door is so hot now that smoke seems to be coming from the wood itself.
Soon it will explode in flames. Her room will be an inferno!
she looks out the window. The timing could not have been more exact. Fire fighters
have hoisted one of their ladders to the fifth floor. They swing the tall ladder
out to her window, taking her through the air to safety. Seconds after her release,
the roof of the hotel collapses; one hundred and seventy five people sill trapped
inside are swallowed in flames.
The woman believes her rescue
Her story is repeated in a number of pulpits as an
example of answered prayer. "Have faith," conclude the ministers, "Only
believe and you will be saved, believe in the power of prayer."
That story is remarkable but it troubles me too. What about the one hundred and
seventy five who fell victim to that fire? If we credit God with the life of the
one who was saved, what about the one hundred seventy five who perished? I'll
wager that they were praying too, praying devoutly for their lives! I'll wager
that among the victims of that fire there were some deeply religious people, probably
as certain of God's love for them as the woman who was saved, but nevertheless,
We live in a world where miraculous rescues are rare.
Normally our lives are shaped by factors which are entirely natural. The fire
starts because someone wanted to save money by not replacing the faulty wiring
in the hotel. The fire was not put out in time because the voters shot down the
tax increase that would have financed, new, more effective fire-fighting equipment.
But one woman was saved despite all these circumstances because the fire fighters
risked their lives.
It seems to me that the miracle in this situation
lies not in the belief that God answered one persons prayer, but in the courage
and bravery of the fire fighters who risked their lives that one potential victim
was rescued from certain death.
For me the miracle was not that
God reached down from heaven to lift one from the flames, but that God has given
each and everyone of us the capacity to respond to human needs and come to the
aid of those who are enduring trial by fire at this very hour. We are endowed
by our creator with the capacity to promote, protect and defend human life wherever
it is threatened. That is the gift which is given even before we pray; it is amazing
that most of God's gifts are given even though we do not know how to pray.
You might be surprised
In the mystery
of grace, God has given us dominion over all the earth. We are free even to despoil
God's creation if we see fit. And yet even though we are well aware of our freedom,
we all behave like Mr. Goodspeed at one time or another. All of us find ourselves
in similar situations, caught is crowded traffic, tired and exasperated and in
a hurry, the time is rushing by, the car seems hopelessly snarled as the seconds
go speeding by and we are tempted to pray, "God, please let the traffic move
just a little faster!"
All of us in our weakness make such appeals
for help. And I won't be overly critical of the practice, since I engage in it
occasionally myself. We must begin from where we are. That's the approach recommended
by James in our first Scripture lesson. "If there is anyone in trouble among
you, then go ahead and pray. There is great power in a prayer."
Yet we can't leave it at that. We must also recognize it may be God's will that
our need go unanswered, or that we rise up and find our own solutions, or that
we simply face the realities of life knowing that when we suffer, God suffers
with us. In the final analysis, the letter of James is superseded by the words
of Jesus himself. He did not expect that God would intercede even to answer his
most desperate prayer. Remember his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, as the
forces of death gathered around him. His prayer had this double edged quality?
What Jesus had to say about prayer
He prayed for
God's help too, but he knew that God would not interfere with the realities that
prevailed in Jerusalem at that moment. So he said, expressing his own need: "Father,
if it be possible may this cup pass from me." But he also said, recognizing
the terrible realities of his own life: "Nevertheless, not my will but thine
The faith of Jesus was founded not on the belief
that God would intervene to save him, but rather that God would be known in and
through the realities of his own life. And so this must be our last word on the
question about the power of prayer.
In the end, I prefer the
faith of Jesus Christ to the advice of James. After all, there really isn't any
power in a prayer. For all the power and the glory flow from God. And it is by
the grace of God alone that our words take the shape of prayer. It is by the grace
and the power of God alone that our prayers are given life; it is by the grace
of God alone that our needs are satisfied. There really isn't any power in a prayer,
for all the power and the glory belong to God. Amen.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.