Throughout the history of humankind, there has always been a kind of mystery around the concept of wishing that has often blurred over into a concept of prayer. In my own opinion, there are few things in the world which so encourage us to cross the line into uncritical, “wishful” thinking, and authority of teaching based upon name recognition and occasionally desired outcomes regarding specific requests. In other words, famous people teach about prayer, and occasionally those who have performed miraculous healings – although they become famous pretty quickly and stay famous so long as they keep their people getting what they are praying for.
Jesus and His disciples dealt with the same kind of followers. They loved Him as long as they were getting what they wanted and then deserted Him when He challenged them to follow Him into challenge. When the teacher sees the people becoming disgruntled, they often change up their prayer teaching from a concept of praying with faith and fervor for the desired outcome, to an idea of praying for God’s will to be done instead of our own. Jesus started at this point (as most faithful teachers do) and the crowds may simply have not listened very closely in the excitement of the miraculous healings they witnessed.
So what are we to make of the effectiveness of our prayers? Rather than go through a topical study of prayer in scripture, let’s first take a critical approach and ask the question, “What do we really have control over in life?” I think this is an important question, because the question about prayer comes down to an question of control at a foundational level. If I can make God do what I want by praying a certain way, then it is actually I, not God, who is in control. I’m just using God for my own ends. However, if it is God who is in control, than it may not matter how or perhaps even if I pray… God will do what He wishes. We can only change that which we have control over.
That list of things we have control over is probably soberingly short. On my best days I have control over myself. Beyond that I am surrounded by circumstances that I just have to deal with. I think most of our practical life experiences back this up every day. Science has done so as well. Robert Moll recounted a study on multi-faith prayer among hospital patients with some surprising results. In one Harvard study:
The results showed that those who received prayer actually did worse than those who did not, and the patients who knew they were being prayed for did the worst. The study found “complications occurred in 52% (315/ 604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/ 597) of those who did not.” Both groups were told that they might or might not receive prayer. However, patients who were told that someone would certainly be praying for them did the worst. Compared to just over half of the other groups, 59 percent of patients who knew they were being prayed for had complications. According to the study, “certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.”
However, that same study showed that people who received prayer paid around $4,000 less in hospital bills. What does that tell me? It’s out of my hands. I either trust that God will care for me or I don’t.
Does that mean we should stop praying? No. It simply means that we need to be willing to seek God’s will instead of our own. This is probably best exemplified by Jesus Himself in the garden of Gethsemane when He prayed:
We will continue to struggle with our desire to control our lives and the world around us. I don’t expect I can find a solution that thousands of years of science, religion, and philosophy could not. But we can know that God joined us in the midst of this struggle, gave up that power, to show us that He is worthy of our trust and worthy to be invited into our struggle. Ultimately, some desires will be fulfilled and others will not, but at the end of the day, we will be changed for our efforts to make the world a better place. Will you allow God to change you through this process today?