Can My Prayers Help Someone Else?
Marilylle Soveran, email@example.com
Published by "Esprit", the journal of the Evangelical Lutheran Women , Canada
Can my prayers actually reach out and touch another person? "Iíll pray for you," I promise so easily. But what if I forget? Does that mean the help never goes to them at all? Does God, who loves that person so much more deeply than I ever could--does God hold back, waiting for me? Surely Godís great creative love is not tied to the reliability of a human friend. Surely someone God loves is cared for, with or without my involvement. They are and can be loved through my prayers, it is true. But without them...?
Prayers I did not make are, like the road not taken, a mystery I canít help wondering about sometimes. And if the prayer was one I know God asked of me, my faithlessness is a sin to be confessed and forgiven. Then, I had best set the questions aside. For today I am praying; I am going to God on behalf of my daughter, my friend, and that starving Liberian child I saw on the news last night. Today, my prayer is my love reaching out to help. Does it help?
As George MacDonald, the great Scottish Christian teacher, reminds us in all his writings, God is love. Love is at the heart of and is the best thing in all creation.
"Why should my love be powerless to help another? Surely the system of things would not be complete in relation to the best in it--love itself, if love had no help in prayer... Would God give us love, the root of power in us, and leave that love whereby he himself creates, altogether helpless in us?" (1)
Perhaps the greatest treasure for us in prayer is that it releases the helplessness of our love, joins it with Love Almighty, and pours it our where it is needed.
But the needs of those we love are so great and our prayers seem small help to offer to human problems where answers do not come easily. Helping is never easy, certainly not for God.
"To his bosom God himself cannot bring his children at once, and not at all except through his sufferings and theirs. But will not any good parent find a way of granting the prayer of the child who comes to him saying, "Father , it is my brotherís birthday; I have nothing to give him and I do love him so! Could you give me something to give him, or give him something for me?" (2)
Surely God will find a way to pass on our gift of love. A way will be made for our small lunch of fish and barley cakes to be blessed and used. What a thrill it must have been for the boy whose lunch-box was emptied and used by Christ! What a privilege to be part of a miracle!
Maybe that is where our little prayers come in; they are our chance to be part of the miracle. Questions like, "What if I donít pray?" or "What difference will it make?" fall into the background. Like the toddler running into the kitchen where his mom is making cookies, we ask," Can I help? Can I help?"
There will be times when doubts and questions come. We wonder if our praying really made a difference to those we love. Usually praying is hard work, and we begin to lose heart.
"But how if the eternal, limitless Love, the unspeakable, self-forgetting God-devotion, which, demanding all, gives all, should say, "Pray on, my child; I am hearing you; it goes through me in help to him. We are of one mind about it; I help and you help. I shall have you all safe home with me by and by! There is no fear, only we must work and not lose heart..." Oh that lovely picture by Michelangelo, with the young ones and the little ones come to help God make Adam! (3)
Often we will not know what part we played in Godís creative work in someone elseís life. We know only that we are a part of Godís caring, Godís reaching out in grace. It is a work we are doing together.
Sometimes, though, when we happen to be on the receiving end of such prayers, when our own world is crumbling about us, when pain and sorrow leave us helpless, then we know. We receive the prayers given for us; we feel them bearing us up in hands of love. We do ...oh, we do. And the mystery of prayer fills us with wonder.
Notes--quotes 1, 2. and 3 from Creation in Christ, by George MacDonald, edited by Rolland Hein, copyright 1976 by Harold Shaw Publishers.
Do Prayers Change God's Mind?
Do my prayers change God's mind? Is it like a child coaxing, "Aw--come on--please let me go--plee-ee-ease!"? And finally the parent gives in. Is it like writing to your MP [Senator]? (Does God count up prayers like your government representative might tally letters on a given issue?) Or is it like magic? In the fairy tale you get the results only if you remember the correct spelling and say it precisely in the right way.
When we give it thought, we realise that none of these images resemble our great and good God. We also must admit that many of our prayers do in fact attempt to focus power for our benefit. "If we could just pray about this the way we should, there would be results," we tell one another.
Magic at its worst is a way of manipulating powers of evil so that they either leave you unharmed or lend you their power to use in some way. If the ritual or spell is right, the power "has to" act. Is prayer a kind of magic? Does God "have to" answer our prayers? Am I trying to use God or God's power in some way? Am I demanding that God act? Who am I to do so?
It is good to ask ourselves these questions now and then. It can affect the attitudes with which we do our praying. Yet it is better to come to God the wrong way than not to come at all. When we listen in on prayers recorded in the Old Testament, we hear lots of coaxing, demanding, or even scolding. God listened and acted in grace, for them as for us.
Yet when I pray, am I presuming to change God's mind on an issue? Why would I even want to do this? If God's will, God's motivation, God's overriding concern in every situation is love--love expressed in truth and rightness--would I even want it to change? I know what God wants, in that sense. I can wholeheartedly join my prayers to those of Christ; I can even help that flow of grace.
My area of difficulty is those requests I make to have the course of events altered. I ask God to intervene in everyday happenings--"get me a parking stall"--"don't let it rain"--"please don't let this plane crash." Is there any sense in which these prayers can be asked in Jesus' name, i.e. on his behalf, in the spirit in which he relates to his Father?
Sometimes I think there is. Sometimes I am not so sure. But I continue to make such requests. Don't you? Maybe it is like a toddler running along behind his folks, calling out, "Please can I have an ice cream cone, please?"
But the deeper question is, can I make something happen by my prayer? Do my prayers cause God to do something? In his Letters to Malcolm C. S. Lewis warns us against thinking of prayer too much in terms of results. Prayer is not merely a means to an end. Lewis wonders if perhaps one of the reasons that God instituted prayer might be to make clear that the course of events is not run like a state, with the ruler(s) making all the plans and seeing that they are carried out. Rather, he says, it may be more like a work of art, a great symphony or a painting. The greater the artist, the fewer the accidents or "unavoidable collateral damage." Every note, every pause, every brush stroke, every colour is used for a reason and makes a part of the whole. The Creator has chosen to use some of my colours (i.e. my prayers) in the work of art. I am free to offer what I have. The Artist is free to use them in any way possible.
As Lewis points out, if God in the salvation story took account of our sins and acted to free us from them and make us whole, surely that same God can take our prayers into account and react in certain ways because of them.
Freedom is the key. We leave God free to be God and to act freely without coercion or attempts at control on our part. In the same way, it seems that Gods lets me be me, free to ask, deciding for myself what part I will play in his great plans.
We are free to pray. God, too, is free, not a power we try to control or tap into, but a Person, a Friend, to whom we give full permission to be and to be free to act.
How Should I Pray?
Is it best to pray alone?
If prayer is the very life-breath of the Christian, if we are to "pray without ceasing", then ongoing conversational prayer is a natural. Even Jesus needed to pray alone and told his followers to close their doors and pray in secret to their Father in heaven. In those quiet times we can be open and honest with God, inviting God's scrutiny and healing forgiveness into the darkest and deepest parts of our being. Such prayer is essential and good.
BUT--I can easily slip into a cozy "Jesus and me" outlook, forgetting that I am part of the whole body of Christ; that I call on God not only as an individual, but also in solidarity with my brothers and sisters.
In my attitude toward praying, I can also slip toward an almost superstitious routine: "Oh dear, I'd better pray or something might go wrong today." I may keep up my chosen prayer ritual thinking that is how to keep in favour with God.
Why pray with other people?
Praying with other people brings a strength and closeness that private devotions miss. Didn't Jesus talk to people about "agreeing together" in their requests to God? Didn't he promise to be part of that group when it happened? Many of us have found that to join in a circle, adding our own sentences to a group prayer, is a beautiful and affirming way to talk to God.
For centuries Christians have worshipped and prayed in groups, joining together to pray in the same words, usually led by a pastor or other leader. And we confess our sins as a group, standing shoulder to shoulder with others who, like us, always need God's mercy and grace. It is good, very good.
BUT--there are pitfalls to avoid in the practice of group prayers as well. The informal prayer group, a great source of blessing and strength, can become an "inner circle", an exclusive spiritual club where members find themselves sighing and shaking their heads about the others "out there" who don't join them, others who, it is assumed, are less committed to God and less caring of their discipleship.
Another problem in group praying grows out of the fact that in all group prayer someone has to be the spokesperson of the moment, while others pray with that person. If the leader is choosing her own words, perhaps I cannot always pray fully with the speaker, depending on what is said. Or, the leader can easily forget that in prayer it is God being spoken to, and begin using the prayer as a way to say things to enlighten the other pray-ers. It ceases to be a prayer at all. Or, even when the words are rightly addressed to God and express what we all want to say, we can so easily forget to join with the prayer. Our minds wander; we let the speaker do the praying and cop out ourselves.
Should we always make up our own prayers,
or are written prayers just as good?
Spontaneous prayers are a natural and often essential choice for much or our private praying. It can also be a good idea to write these down. Writing our prayer letters to God can be an aid in concentration and, when kept, a prayer journal recording our walk with God.
When praying with a group, some are able to freely choose their own words, speaking to God with and for the others. Many, however, find themselves all too aware of the other "listeners-in" and find they cannot truly pray before a group. Thus they become very uncomfortable, afraid someone might ask them to "lead in prayer." Such people may even avoid being present at any gathering where this may happen.
Although extemporaneous praying has its place, there are advantages to praying prayers originally composed by others. Sometimes I don't have the words I'd like to say to God. Great written prayers remind me of what I could, and maybe should be praying. A good written prayer can be the best choice for those who are shy about leading the group in prayer. Even in private prayer, written prayers such as those found in our "Service Book and Hymnal" or "Lutheran Book of Worship" are a rich channel for our praying. When we use ancient Christian prayers, we are able to join together with the hundreds of saints who also used the words. We are using a well-worn path to God.
Written prayers are almost essential when large numbers of people talk to God as a group. It is good to say our personal "Good-morning" to God, but there are also times when formal speech is in order--a liturgical prayer all are able to use. In this way our focus moves away from the individual and toward God and what we are saying to God.
Shall I Pray My Way or Your Way?
There are many ways to pray. Most of them are good and right for some people in some situations. If I have always prayed in one set way it may be well that I find a new way to speak to God. However, I may be so thrilled with the new way of praying that I pressure others to use it as well. It may not work for them. It may not be right. It may not be the time. Here is where Christian love and concern is so important. My way of praying must not be pushed on another Christian. I must respect another's way of talking to God and try to understand.
But what if all are gathered in one group? Here caution is essential. It is all too easy to manipulate others in a group situation ... " now we will all raise our hands" ..."we will take turns praying aloud" ... almost like an aerobics class trying a new routine. If I am the prayer leader, I must be aware that some people will not be able to pray in such ways at my command. I must be sure to give them full permission and freedom to opt out without embarrassment or censure. Prayer is important and much too special to be spoiled by group pressure to "perform" in a certain way.
May God not only teach us to pray, but also teach us how to pray. It is so easy to neglect this gift.
Questions About Praying--Part One
Usually when I pray I am asking God to make something better or different from what would have happened if I hadnít prayed. Is that reasonable?
I often hear people saying this or that was an answer to prayer: they were protected from an accident; a cheque arrived in time; their job application was accepted. Yet if I am honest I must admit that there may be just as many examples of unanswered prayer. Sometimes the car does run into me; sometimes the diagnosis is terminal cancer; sometimes, pray as I might, I canít get the job I need so badly. But of course this is usually explained by saying that God had to say, "No." For some reason that request could not be filled--maybe it would have been bad for me. Maybe requests were mutually exclusive--I prayed for a sunny day for our family reunion; my neighbor on the farm prayed for rain for his barley crop. (By the way, should we ever pray about weather? isnít it sort of set?--too many factors for God to make a last-minute change? Or could our prayers be taken into account at a much deeper level than we had thought?)
The usual explanations for what seemed to be unanswered prayer probably have much truth in them. But sometimes they sound embarrassingly like excuses for God. We are concerned about Godís reputation, perhaps. In fact, I have even heard of prayer groups that keep a record book of requests made and answers received. It certainly shows that such groups are serious about prayer. And thatís good. But might it not also be a subtle way to put a little pressure on the Giver? Like saying, "After all, God, what will people think of you if the items unanswered outnumber the ones ticked off as received in full?"
Maybe we shouldnít be asking God to "engineer" events for us. Rather we should be making more prayers of penitence, of thanksgiving, of praise. Surely that would be more "spiritual."
BUT ... we are told to pray. In Scripture we hear Godís people praying very specific, down-to-earth prayers, including those of the "please give me" or "please protect" varieties. Jesus told us we should always pray and not give up. One of the last things our Lord did before his death was to kneel in a garden and pray a very heart-felt and anguished prayer, a prayer request that was in fact denied. So I pray too. It is wonderful when I have asked God for something to fill my need or that of a friend and it all works out. I am elated and grateful that "God heard my prayer." Yet how can I know that it might not have worked out that way, prayer or not? And what about those times when I prayed and nothing seemed to change at all? Do I give up praying because I canít prove it "works"? If there can be no clear proofs, why pray at all?
Some tell me that praying is good for me, will make me feel better, even make clear to me ways in which I can get busy and start answering my own prayer. But I donít find much comfort in that theory. If God is not really there, listening, caring, eager to give me what I most need, then I am merely talking to myself--playing little psychological games that may or may not be good therapy.
BUT ... what if prayer is natural and helpful to us precisely because we were made for praying? What if we are created to be a part of Godís work in our own small way? What if praying is like meshing our small gear with Godís, using it where it belongs, rather than letting it grind away on its own or rust in the bottom of the tool box? No wonder it does us good to pray, if we are made for it.
The fact is, despite our many questions about praying, we are told to pray, invited to pray, and even strongly urged to pray and not to give up praying--even when it doesnít seem to be making any difference. Does God know something about prayer that we donít? something so deep and grand that our best guesses barely touch the surface?
What if God Says No?
We are invited to come--to ask. Christ encouraged his followers to keep praying and not to give up. Does that mean we keep pounding on the door until God gets tired of hearing us and gives in, like the woman who pestered the unjust judge? But Jesus, in telling the story, said that God is not like that. Instead, God goes to work "right speedily". Jesus knew that when we pray and nothing seems to be happening it might look to us as if we were appealing to a self-centred and busy official who "can't be bothered," In the very structure of the parable Jesus seems to take delay for granted, and says that notwithstanding, "He will vindicate then speedily!"
The reconciling conclusion is that God loses no time, though the answer may not be immediate. He may delay because it would not be safe to give us at once what we ask; we are not ready for it. To give ere we could fully receive would be to destroy the very heart and hope of prayer, to cease to be our Father. The delay itself may work to bring us nearer to our help, to increase the desire, perfect the prayer, and ripen the receptive condition.
Again, not from any straitening in God, but either from our own condition and capacity, or those of a friend for whom we pray, time may be necessary to the working out of the answer. God is limited by regard for our best ....and perhaps, indeed, the better the gift we pray for, the more time is necessary to its arrival (1)
Does that mean then that if it is not the best time to give us what we ask, God just does nothing, puts our prayers in the wait file and goes on to doing other things? George MacDonald thinks not. The answering may well be speedy even though the process is unknown and unseen by us.
To give us the spiritual gift we desire, God may have to begin far back in our spirit, in the regions unknown to us, and do much work that we can be aware of only in the results...In the gulf of our unknown being God works behind consciousness. With his holy influence, with his own presence, the one thing for which we most earnestly cry, he may be approaching our consciousness from behind, coming forward through regions of our darkness into our light, long before we begin to be aware that he is answering our request--he had answered it and is visiting his child. (2)
I find this most comforting. If what I prayed for was really worth having--for me or for a friend--the answer is on the way,
Yet I am sure that there are other prayers I make where I do not know what it is I am asking for. We read about James' and Johns' mom who went to Jesus with a request for her sons. Jesus had to tell her that she had not understood what it was she asked for--or what it would mean to her sons if the request was indeed granted.
Sometimes we see something we like and reach for it, like a child looking out at the shining moon. "Please, Mommy, can I have it?" It looks to the child like something he could reach out and grasp. Would the mother then close the curtains and slip away to cut a fake moon of silver paper for the child to hang on the wall, saying "Here, my dear, is the moon." More likely she would enjoy the real moon with her child, giving a big hug as assurance of her love, and say, " No, the moon is not the sort of thing I can give you. Some day you will understand." Nor would a good mother chide her child or despise the request. Wouldn't she love all the more, delighted that her child had come to her with the desire? There are things we ask God for that are not what they seem to us.
So, we have prayed and nothing seems to have happened. We decide that either the answer is "wait" or "no" but for the very best of reasons. This we believe not because of our faith in prayer itself, but because of our trust in the Giver. The sceptic without as well as within all of us can rightly point out that "answered prayer" cannot be proven. If it works out, of course we say it is answered. If nothing happens, we say God said no. There is no way we can prove by logic that anything would or would not have happened regardless of our prayer. We make the connection because we believe and have seen God to be good. Christ has shown us that his Father and ours delights in us and loves us dearly, giving us every good gift.
It is this faith in the Giver and our growing trust that God is good that helps us in the dark times.
Jesus' advice to us was that we not give up on prayer. He knows how hard it is for us to pray when God seems silent, when no answers come. Jesus too knows the voice of the sceptic within suggesting, "It's all for nothing, why bother?" Is he not also the one who showed the apostle Paul another wonderful secret about prayer? (Romans 8:26-27): we do not pray alone. Of course we often pray for the wrong things. We do not know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit of God, who does know the situation and what the real need is, prays with us. The prayers of this Companion join with ours.
Together we pray better than we ever could on our own. Elisabeth Goudge, in her novel, The Scent of Water, has given us a beautiful story about the renewing work of the Spirit of God. One of the characters struggles with the pain and blackness of recurring mental illness. How can she keep in touch with God? How can one pray in all the turmoil and confusion? She meets an old retired pastor considered by others to be weak in the mind and of little account. But this weak and wandering man, drawing from his own life's pain, gives her a priceless gift. "There are only three prayers you need: "Lord have mercy. Into thy hands. Thee I adore."
In dark times, when I find it hard to pray, when I don't know how best to pray, when I see no answers, those three short prayers have helped to hold me steady.
LORD HAVE MERCY. Lord, help me--help her--help them. You will know what best to do. We are needy. Help us now. Lord have mercy.
INTO THY HANDS. Here it is, Lord. I don't know how to fix it. I don't know what to ask, but I bring it again to you. Into thy hands.
THEE I ADORE. God, you are our God. You are always fair. You really care. I like the way you are. I love you. I am glad that your love, your light and your caring are at work. You're the kind of God I need, I want, I trust. Thee I adore.
1) and 2) -- from George MacDonald , op cit.
What Should I Pray About?
I have been invited to pray. God wants me to come to the throne of grace that way, but what do I say? Do I come with a long "shopping listí? --Here, God, Iíve carefully thought over my needs and here is my list in order of priority. Iíll keep re-submitting the order until all items are received, including back-orders.
I have read the invitation to "come boldly" to make my requests known to God--but isnít God omniscient? Surely there is nothing I can tell God that he doesnít already know. Why give a detailed account of my life and concerns when my heavenly Father knows me better than I know myself?
And even if itís all right to come with anything that concerns me, shouldnít I consider the greatness of God and the many important issues that deserve to be given precedent? Isnít it rather frivolous to pray about some everyday detail I could look after by myself? Or what if I pray for the wrong thing, something that would be bad for me if I got it?
Jesus told us that when we pray we should say, "Our Father in heaven..." When we pray we are not applying to a divine distribution office, we are coming to our Father, the one who gives us our being, loves us, listens eagerly for our voice, rejoices when we turn our face heavenward. Itís a face-to-face relational thing. That casts quite a different light on some of the questions we have asked--a merry, warm, sunny light, in fact.
Our needs and wants are known already. Supposing God wants to hear them from us? Supposing the Father turns in excitement, saying: "Listen, everyone! my child is beginning to talk!" Maybe it doesnít matter so much what we are talking about as the very fact that we are opening communications; we are unveiling ourselves; we are coming to our Father at last. George MacDonald asks, "What if the main object in Godís idea of prayer be the supplying of our great, our endless need--the need of Himself? What if all the good of all our smaller and lower needs lies in this, that they help to drive us to God? Hunger may drive the runaway child home, and he may or may not be fed at once, but he needs is mother more than his dinner." (1)
Praying is something we need more than any results it may or may not bring. We need communication with God. We are building a relationship.
Even in human relationships we know that communication is essential. How many times have you gone over in detail something your spouse already knows because you need to share once again the feelings you had, the questions it raised? It is not to give information that you tell about it; it is to draw your partner in with you, to share your world more deeply, to open the gates of your personal garden and walk together there. How much more do we need to communicate with our maker and Father! And we are welcomed, loved and invited to do so.
But are there things that I really shouldnít be praying about? Are there things I might ask for that I do not need, things that would not be good for me anyway? Lewis asks, "If God had granted me all the silly prayers Iíve made in my life, where would I be now?" (2)
Iím sure my prayers are no better than those of Lewis. Should I then be carefully editing them to make them suitable? For my part, I think itís best to pour out the whole lot and let God do the editing.
Helmut Thielicke (3) points out that praying is somewhat like going to a doctor. We know something is wrong, but we do not know exactly what it is. We leave the diagnosis to the doctor, who knows our body better than we do. I wonder if God smiles when we come with our careful diagnosis, followed by our detailed prescription for treatment. Itís a habit we have.
But God does hear our cry, though we may be crying about the wrong thing altogether and begging for an "answer" that is irrelevant. Rather than holding back these cries, we should run straight to God with them. "Anything large enough for a wish to light upon is large enough to hang a prayer upon," says George MacDonald. "The thought of Him to whom the prayer goes will purify and correct the desire. To say, íFather, I should like this or that,í would be enough at once, if the wish were bad, to make us know it and turn from it." Certainly so, if I am close enough to God to sense this. But in the meantime, my turning to God lays open what is in me. To pretend to ask for A when my whole heart is crying out for B just will not do. We come as we really are and God deals with us as we are. That is the open and honest way.
What do I pray for? What do I speak to God about? My answer will depend on how I understand what is happening when I pray. I am not making out an order form from a catalogue of possibilities. I am not coming to demand that the God of all the universe arrange the whole of reality so that all details of my life can be miraculously tailored to my requests. I am not searching for the right button on a vending machine so the desired product drops down. Rather, I am walking along, looking up onto the face of my Father, whose big, strong hand grips my own small one. Or I have run, breathless, into Momís kitchen, talking a mile a minute. Or, sometimes, I am sobbing my heart out, cradled on the knee of a parent who cries with me. Thatís prayer.
1-- Reprinted from Creation in Christ by George Macdonald, edited by Rolland Hein, copyright 1976 by Harold Shaw Publishers.
2--Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer by C. S. Lewis, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964
3--Our Heavenly Father, Sermons on the Lordís Prayer, Helmut Thielicke, John Doberstein, trans., New York: Harper and Bros. 1960