Saturday, January 26, 2013

Understanding Prayer: Being Effective

I've been asking myself this question for several months now. Not that I'm inherently skeptical of all things spiritual, but the assertion that faith is blind can easily dissuade even the open minded. I wanted to be sure that something as delicate and mysterious as prayer was equally powerful and effective. After all, we've all heard our share of unanswered prayer stories.

In order to properly evaluate the effectiveness of prayer, I think it is important to first understand the function of prayer. We need to know what it is, what it is not, how it works, and how it does not work.
How it probably doesn't work 
Sun Salute

In every religion, prayer can be recognized by taking some form of posture. Some religions place high importance on posture, even giving "scientific" reason. Posture can be beneficial for quieting our minds in meditation, showing reverence, even exercise, or in some cases, effectiveness. As for Christian prayer, Tim Challies says this:
"Nowhere does the Bible command us that we must set our bodies in one position or another during prayer. Yet it does describe a variety of positions that each have their own significance."
Posture is better understood as a reflection of the heart rather than a means for acquiring God's frequency channel.

The effectiveness of prayer is closely linked to the usefulness of religion in general, and while every religion uses personal betterment as their claim to exclusive truth, or ultimate truth, the amount of testimonies that come from Christians receiving answers to prayer are unprecedented. That said, I think the Scientific Method can help us understand what is happening when we pray, and whether or not it does anything outside of helping some people feel good.

What I'll be exploring in this series is whether the nature of reality permits divine action, and whether prayer has any influence in the matter. In order to do this, I think it is important to settle on some general considerations that will provide a structure, within which particular facts may evidentially count for something. When dealing with the proponents of any religion, we need to first tackle the source of the claim. And since most prayer-related claims come from Christianity, I will focus on the Biblical claims. There are about 512 mentions of the word prayer in the Bible. I found 130 verses on the topic in the New Testament alone.

For many people, the primary function of prayer is to get God to do something. We want to see God heal a sick friend, deliver justice, or simply alleviate suffering in the world. Certainly Christians do believe, and even expect that God will do these kinds of miracles, though any answers that would come from a supernatural agent are naturally unpredictable.
"God surely can and does heal miraculously, but it seems to me that He does not do so as a common occurrence. I hope that does not mean a lack of faith on my part, but I think there is a fine line between faith and presumption."
David Brickner, Jews for Jesus
There are some within Christendom who relate the frequency of answered prayer to a measure of faith in confidence, but this has more in common with 1st century rabbinical prosperity teaching than anything Jesus said regarding material possessions.

Hebrews 11:1 gives a definition of faith that seems to lay the groundwork for this thinking, but by the end of this chapter we see what is really being said: Faith is not built on receiving what is promised; the goal here is to have faith despite our circumstances. Faith shifts our primary focus away from ourselves toward the benefit of others, and as a result we become the provision of God through prayer.
“When I pray for another person, I am praying for God to open my eyes so that I can see that person as God does, and then enter into the stream of love that God already directs toward that person.”
- Philip Yancey
Over the past 8 months and as I've been writing this, I've been following several friends and various websites petitioning people to pray. I learned about a girl named Lydia's recovery from a coma and brain injury after being hit by a school bus. I took part in a campaign that raised sponsorships for more than 1000 children in Mposa, Malawi. I've prayed with many friends and family going through all kinds of pain over this past year. If there is anything that is evidently consistent to me is the transformed lives surrounding the praying individuals, despite all circumstances. As I begin to pray for others, not only does my faith increase, but there is external evidence of an internal work in them as well. This may not seem substantial from the outset, and may not be what we are looking for, but I'm interested in the natural effects of prayer as much as the supernatural, so I learn to look everywhere.
While not everyone will agree regarding the causes of healing experiences, everyone must agree that they often do not happen. Sickness and injustice remain in the world. In the Gospels, miracles did not replace the kingdom that Jesus announced. Nevertheless, they were signs of hope to promise and invite us to work for a better future.
- Craig S. Keener, Huffington Post: Are Miracles Real?
If the goal of prayer is to regenerate humanity to be active in the care-taking of this world, then ultimately, this is the litmus test for its effectiveness. The greater significance is that prayer is intimately tied to carrying out our purpose as human beings by being charged with the radiance of God's glory. Especially if God desires to communicate to and through us.
"I think if God-talk simply drops out of sophisticated discourse and is just replaced by a wide range of philosophical, spiritual, poetical metaphors that avoid the Abrahamisms of the past, what’s left behind is simply our consciousness of who we are. That is, if we shift into atheism in the name of being in the know, we’re actually shifting into an unknowing ignorance."
Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming