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Is There Any Power in a Prayer?

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.

These 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?

Putting 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 than these?

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

The 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 place!

And there is another possibility.

Perhaps 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.

Let's 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

Having 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.

The 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.

Should 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!

Again 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 a miracle.

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, they died.

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 be done."

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.

More about prayer ...

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.