A hurricane was approaching the gulf coast, and thousands of Christians began to pray. “Lord, we need your protection,” they said. “Let the hurricane not come ashore where we live. Bless our homes and businesses and protect them from destruction.”

And indeed, the hurricane moved back out to sea.

Unfortunately, it went ashore further along the coast, where thousands of other Christians, who had also been praying, lost their homes and businesses.

This story is a generic one, built of many experiences I have witnessed or heard about, but I believe it demonstrates a problem many Christians have with the efficacy of prayer. I often have trouble getting involved in discussions about prayer, and whether prayer “works” because it seems that these discussions center on the wrong topics, and test prayer by the wrong standards.

I have discussed God at work and how this might relate to miracles in my previous two essays in this series. In this final essay, I want to discuss prayer in relation to the hand of God. In the previous essay, I classified most miracles as miracles of communication – situations in which God provides some information, understanding or wisdom. I have suggested that God is most at work when we tend to think he is doing nothing at all; that we classify as evidences of God’s activities things that are exceptions to his rules.

Perhaps there is a sense here in which the words of Jesus to Thomas apply: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We look for the things that are different or unusual in order to discern God’s hand moving. We need to look at the mass of things that work in the same way and thus are so consistent that we can base much of our lives on them.

And this leads to prayer. Can people really change the way God behaves? Can people somehow persuade God to change his plan? Can they persuade him to turn aside the course of natural events and respond to the needs, or even the conveniences of finite, mortal human beings?

All of those questions, I believe, start from the wrong point of view. If prayer exists for the purpose of changing God’s mind, if it is a way for us to get things or arrange things to our convenience then it’s an apparent aberration in God’s orderly universe. It also demonstrably does not work. Note that I said if it is those things, it doesn’t work.

There is a fairly common demand of skeptics that a Christian should pray that a certain mountain be moved, and if it does, in fact, move, then the skeptic will accept the Christian’s claims. And if prayer is described as it is commonly described, and if the claims made for it are the ones commonly made for it, then such a demand is quite valid. If I claim that prayer works, and that “working” consists in God providing me with certain things, or taking certain actions when I pray, then it is quite valid to say, “Show me!” After all, Jesus showed Thomas his side, which had been pierced, even though he pronounced a blessing on those who believe without seeing.

But I would suggest that the test is invalid, because the claim is simply wrong. It is not that prayer doesn’t work. I am quite certain -through faith- that it does work, and works wonderfully. “Do you get everything you pray for?” someone asks. No, absolutely not. But then I don’t believe that prayer is the means by which I get stuff. In general, God has provided me with a means to get stuff, and that is the law of sowing and reaping. If you don’t sow, you don’t reap, and that holds spiritually as well as physically.

So what is prayer?

Prayer is a means of communication with God. Prayer is the way I interact personally in a spiritual way with my creator. What God does with what I tell him and what I ask for is not really up to me. It is not that I don’t believe he ever does anything for me. After all, I’m alive, I continue to breathe, and I have this computer on which to type this essay. God has done many things for me. How many are miraculous? By my own standards, I have no idea. In fact, many things that I would talk about as miraculous are, in themselves, rather mundane. The reason I talk about them as miraculous is simply the way in which they happened.

I often tell classes on prayer that prayer is more than 90% about getting you onto God’s program, and less than 10% about petitions. You commune with God, and God puts you on the right track. The time when your faith will move mountains is the time when your faith has you so tuned with God that you want the mountain to move at the same time God does. I would affirm with scripture that God does perform miracles. (I keep the proviso that we might find that all miracles actually aren’t – that they are simply the operation of some of God’s natural laws that we didn’t know about.) I even affirm with scripture that God acts in answer to prayer. How this works, I don’t really know.

But getting these things to happen is not the purpose of prayer. In fact, prayer designed largely to get things my way is likely to be very unsuccessful. And in most cases, prayer answered is going to be hard to demonstrate. How do you know that your prayer had an impact on a particular situation? The fact is, outside of communion with God, looking through the eye of faith (and faith is itself a perspective) you cannot feel or know that some action is a “special” act of God. Faith sees what the sign is pointing to.

Now this may not seem too exciting. You mean I must pray and pray and pray, and what changes is really me? Isn’t there an easier way?

Not really. There is no easier way. Our interaction with God is a relationship. That explains why we are to ask, when God already knows. If prayer is about getting the stuff that we want, is there any purpose in asking God, who already knows? But relationships take time. They require communication. There’s nothing quite like asking my wife what she thinks, even though I might think I already know. Is there any reason to tell her I love her over and over? She already knows. (Anyone who doubts me on this is welcome to try the experiment of silence on their spouse. Just don’t complain to me about the results!)

Prayer is the means of communication in our relationship with God. If we have communicated, prayer worked. No, it’s not testable, but those of you who have communed with God understand the experience. If we present it as such, and not as a way to get God to bend to our desires, I think we will find our discussions much more fruitful.

[I also recommend C. S. Lewis’s essay, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” the first essay in the collection “The World’s Last Night and other Essays.” Though not identical, it provides some similar ideas and a more extensive discussion.]

This is the third and final essay in this series on prayer, miracles and God’s actions in the physical world in general. The others can be seen at:

The Hand of God
This is the first of this series, which lays the foundation for my later discussion of God’s actions. Does God have priority lists? Does one act of God prevent another?

The Hand of God – Miracles
In this essay I continue my discussion of God’s action in the world and how it relates to miracles, providence and prayer. Are God’s actions limited to priorities like ours are?

(Originally published May 28, 2003.)