One of the tough questions that the congregation asked was: Does prayer really make a difference. This sermon will explore that important question. What is prayer, and why should we pray?
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The next question that you asked back in September is: Does prayer really make a difference?
Yes, it does.
Let’s close in prayer.
This is a great question. My guess is that the heart of this question comes from a painful observation about life. We come together every week and pray for the sick and the hurting in our community and in the world. You probably pray fervently for your loved ones who are sick.
Then, we observe that some people get well, but other people don’t. Some people are delivered from their suffering and others are not.
So, we ask. What’s the point of prayer? Are we not praying properly? Do we not have enough faith? Is there sin in our lives? Does God play favorites? Is it all just a big game of chance?
When we have a question like this, we should see what the Bible has to say.
Our two scriptures for today paint a certain picture regarding prayer. James tells the church to pray for the sick. A faithful person has power. Then he uses Elijah as an example. He prayed and stopped the rain for three years.
Then Jesus encourages his disciples to pray for justice in their country by telling the parable of the nagging widow. There is a corrupt judge who doesn’t care about justice, but, because the widow is so persistent in her begging, the judge grants her justice. How much more, then, Jesus argues, will God, who does care about justice, grant it to you if you ask.
These two texts make it seem like it is up to us to get God to do things in the world.
But then we look at other texts and see a different picture. The apostle Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians about the thorn in his flesh. He had some sort of physical affliction and he begged God to remove it, but God did not.
Then we see Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, just before his arrest. He begs God to remove this cup from him. He doesn’t want to die. But, in the end, he says, “not my will, but yours be done.”
We pray each week to God, “your kingdom come, your will be done.”
These texts make it seem like circumstances are ultimately according to God’s will. Period. It is God, after all.
So, which is it?
I have seen this to be true in my own experience.
When I was graduating from high school I really needed a summer job. I was willing to dig ditches and do whatever was available, but I really wanted it to be art related. I prayed for this, and the next day a guy comes into the art room at school and offers me a connection with a caricature business. The next thing you know I move to Chicago and spend the next ten years of my life working as an artist.
Then, on the other side, when we felt God told us to move to Minnesota we prayed that our house would sell, and eventually we lost the house in a short sale and were completely wiped out financially.
Do we just shrug this off and say, “oh well, you win some, you lose some.”
Does prayer change things, or not?
Hopefully you know me well enough by now to know that, whenever I face a question which seems to have two equally valid, yet opposing perspectives, I like to think through them in a continuum and play out the ramifications of each extreme being correct.
On the one hand, we have a theology in which God acts based upon our prayer and our faith. This would place 100% of the control on us, and none of the control on God. Do you see how these arrows show that. All here, nothing here.
Then, on the other side, we have a theology where 100% of the control is either God’s, or is left open to random chance.
Let’s explore both extremes.
This picture may seems strange to you, but there are many people who hold a theology that, if you have enough faith, and have no sin in your life, then God has to answer your prayers.
If prayer were based upon my faith, then what does that do to God? It basically reduces God to a kindly old grandfather who hopes the kiddos make good choices.
Or a cosmic Vending Machine that pumps out blessings for the right price or behavior.
It looks like this.
Faith-alone prayer, in my opinion, is simply a Christianized version of Magic or Science. These two things, by the way, are two sides of the same coin.
Both magic and science believe the universe is a collection of non-personal forces, or energy.
The goal is to gain enough knowledge to understand these forces and then be able to control those forces and create our own destinies. If you get just the right formula, then you can become the master of the universe, or a really cool Jedi master. Use the force, Luke.
God doesn’t factor into this at all.
Then, on the other side, if God has all the control, and it is all about God’s will, then what does that do to God and to us?
First, it reduces us to worms. We are insignificant nothings that must grovel and suffer at the whim of God’s will.
Second, it actually reduces God. I believe this theology is more about the ancient theology of the Greek and Roman gods. The ancients believed that things happened because of the whim of the gods, who didn’t care about them, or an abstract, perfect divine will, or, simply the fancy of the Fates.
In our world we think of it as simply a big cosmic crap shoot. You’re randomly dealt a hand, for no reason, and you deal with it.
So, what do we do?
Whenever I see two equally valid and opposing options, I think two things.
First, the truth is usually in the dynamic movement between the polar extreme where there is truth to both and there is not a single, solid answer.
Secondly, I always wonder, “maybe we’re asking the wrong question.”
What if prayer isn’t about GETTING RESULTS.
Perhaps it is more about…
Do you remember my sermon from two weeks ago when we asked why God allows suffering? In that sermon I drew from Terence Fretheim’s proposal that God has limited Godself..
For a universe in which relationships can happen.
You see, I think prayer is less about asking for things to happen—for getting results—and is far more about cultivating relationships.
Prayer cultivates three types of relationships.
First, it cultivates a healthy relationship with self.
There is a growing interest in practices like centering prayer and yoga meditation. The discipline of slowing down, breathing, and imagining yourself in light of the universe helps you to gain a healthy perspective on your problems. It promotes health and wellness.
It is a good practice and we should take time to pray in this way.
But, here’s where I differ from my buddhist friends. I think it goes beyond that.
The discipline of prayer also cultivates relationships with each other.
As I pray for the sick and the hurting, and as I take time out of my day to pray for my wife, my children, my family, my friends—even my enemies—something mystical happens. I become connected to them.
If everyone took time to pray for each other, things would change.
I’ll tell you right now, it is hard to stay angry at someone for whom you are authentically praying.
Finally, prayer cultivates a relationship with God.
God is not a non-personal force of the universe. God is personal. Yet, God is not a person like you and I are a person. We need to be careful not to reduce God to my co-pilot, or by buddy, yet, God does invite us into relationship with God, through Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This happens through worship, through scripture, through meditation, through action.
When we engage in all the spiritual practices, we learn more about who God is and the kind of world that God imagines for us.
So, does prayer change things? Absolutely.
It changes us.