W.What is prayer?  An interesting question that.  People usually ask, "Does prayer work?"  Maybe the reason that question comes up so often is that we haven't first asked ourselves, "What is prayer?"

W.Jesus was asked by his disciples about prayer.  Their question was, "Teach us to pray."  No hint there of either a concern about whether prayer works or what it is.  His response was as simple as the request:  

Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.
W.Praise, Intercession (for the world), Petition (for physical sustenance), Confession and Forgiveness, Petition (for Salvation and Guidance) and Praise is the pattern we see here.  It is a simple prayer that works on many levels.  For most Christians it is an indispensable prayer that is regularly used in worship and as a model for prayer in general.

W.Prayer can take the following forms or address the following subjects:  

Praise -- acknowledging the glory and power of God.
Thanksgiving -- acknowledging that all things come from God and thanking God.
Confession -- acknowledging our short comings and failures
Forgiveness -- asking forgiveness those short comings and failures.
Intercession -- asking for something for someone else.
Petition -- asking for something for ourselves.
W.Any individual prayer can address one or a combination of these subjects.

W.In my church worship is structured around this list.   Every worship service includes all these forms of prayer.  So worship is seen as a model for prayer just as much as it is a model for life.  First Thessalonians 5:17 advises us to pray without ceasing -- literally to making our lives a prayer.  The equation  

prayer = worship = life

makes a certain theological sense.

W.I think that it is also possible to categorize what we think about prayer by what we take to be its object. The object of prayer might be any of the following:  

To change God.
To change others or events.
To change ourselves.
W.To some it must seem that If we believe God to be the omnipresent, omniscient being who created the universe and is alone free to act in our lives then when we pray we must be praying to change God.  Like General Patton in World War II commanding his chaplain to pray for good weather for the battle ahead we ask for God to give us what we want.  We might add the phrase, "May your will not ours be done", but if we really meant it would we ask such things in the first place?  This is manipulative prayer -- bordering on the superstitious.

W.It is also possible to believe that our prayer effects change without effecting God.  This seems to be the sense of some new-age prayer.  What we effect with prayer is not the creator of the universe but a spiritual melieu to which we all belong.  In this sense of prayer the power of our good wishes travels to those to whom we direct them supporting them in whatever physical or emotional trial they face.  This is self-sufficient prayer without God.

W.The third view of prayer comes to me from the 1994 movie Shadowlands based on the life of C. S. Lewis.  In this story Lewis' faith is challenged when the woman who is the object of his love and joy, who has belatedly come into his life comes down with and dies of cancer.  At one point as she lay dying Lewis is asked by a friend why when the outcome is certain he nevertheless continues to pray.  His answer is that, "I pray not to change Him but to change me."  Its the one thing that we often fail to notice when we are on the outside of and looking in on such dire situations -- that finding a way out is less important than finding a way through.

W.Finding a way through is what we all eventually need.  Some things in our lives we can change.  Some things we cannot.  Some things God will make consistent with our best expectations.  Some things God will not.  Whatever happens we really all need a way through tough times.  The General Patton model prayer resists and does not provide help in dealing with what will be.  The new-age model prayer is self sufficient when the problem is really the limits of self sufficiency.  When life is unendurable prayer allows us to share the burden with a power that is greater than any other.  That is what alone will carry us through the tough times.  And all prayer is prelude to this.

W.There is one purely modern question about prayer that needs addressed:  Can science prove that prayer works?  (Of course the question itself presupposes what prayer is -- namely that intercessory prayer that accompanies a crisis -- the kind that seeks to change events.)  As it turns out this is not a hypothetical question.  Studies have been undertaken and there is claim of some positive evidence.  And as there always is (and should be) in science there is also criticism of the results and the methods.  But I am going to ignore the details of experiment, result and critique.

W.To ask if science can prove that prayer works or to even accept that it has is to confuse the purpose and domain of both science and religion.  The purpose of science is to build a body of empirical knowledge about the physical world -- its proper domain.  The purpose of religion is to guide our thought and actions in relationship to the spiritual world -- its proper domain.

W.The scientific method assumes that any hypothesis is falsifiable.  "Prayer works" is a hypothesis in this case.  So to be true to the scientific method anyone who would put prayer to this test must begin with the assumption that prayer can be proven not to work -- hardly a proposition compatible with faith.  Scientific knowledge is also only that body of facts and theories which can be proven empirically.  Therefore it is always only tentative and subject to revision at a later date by better observations or experiments.  Prayer once proven to work should always according to science be subject to later being proven either to not work or to be something else.

W.No one of faith who believes that prayer works (whatever they take that to mean) would be willing to seek or accept a scientific proof that prayer works.  Scientific proof is simply irrelevant in this case.  If science does prove that prayer works it would add nothing to the faith of those who already pray.  If it does not too bad for science.

W.Prayer is a conversation with God.  Not to take anything away from Neale Walsch who wrote a popular series of books with this as their title but we all have this capacity and are given this opportunity to converse with God.  Maybe we are so put off by the formal trappings with which prayer is festooned in church that we lose sight of this basic function.  Maybe that's why Walsch's books are so popular -- they fill a need that we all have to speak to God and know what he has to say.

W.Prayer is just conversation with God.  Some of us are not great conversationalists.  We don't know what to say after we've covered the weather, sports and the current gossip.  So we need practice.  This is where the traditional categories presented above can be of help.  These simply remind us that after we run through our usual conversation starters we could include something about praise, thanksgiving, confession, forgiveness, intercession or petition.  Or not -- these are only guidelines and this is your conversation (and God's).

W There are a couple of other possible topics I would like to suggest for prayer:  anger and questions.

W Unexpressed and unresolved anger is a conversation killer.  It's also a relationship killer.  It goes counter to what we've been told but its okay to be angry and its okay to be angry at God.  Sometimes this world doesn't make sense to our very human sensibilities and we see no good in it at all.  In those cases it is right to be angry and if you believe in God you can't help but be angry at God.  The myth that we should never be angry does more damage to us and our relationships than anything else.  It can lead to expressing that anger in inappropriate ways including violence and abusive and destructive behavior.

W.The main contribution of Neale Walsch to the popular conception of conversing with God is the idea that it's okay to question God.  It's okay to ask, "Why?"  If faith is all about believing it may seem paradoxical that we should question.  But we should.  Jesus teaches us to come to faith like a child.  And a fundamental characteristic of children is that they always are asking, "Why?"  To be truly children of God we must ask, "Why"?

W.Finally there is silence.  Sometimes conversation falls silent.  Whether words fail us or it is just time to listen there is a place for silence.  Communication does not stop with words.  In silence we give our presence and receive the presence of the other -- a mutual being with that can communicate more deeply than words.  As someone observed we are human beings not human doings.  It is with those whom we have deep relationships that we feel most comfortable when the flow of words stop.  Our deepest relationship with God and our deepest prayer is silence.

Home.Return to Tom Jonard's Faith page.

Created July 29, 2002, 
© 2002, Thomas A. Jonard