We probably need to stop saying ‘prayer works’

Of course, I do think prayer actually works. By which I mean, I do believe praying actually achieves real things in the world. I think James 4:2-3 means exactly what it says: ‘you do not have because you do not ask’. The implied point being, you would have if you did ask. I also take James at face value when he says, ‘The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect’ (5:16). If you have been made righteous in Christ, your prayers can and will have powerful effects. God works through his people’s prayers to actually change things in the world. I believe all of that, absolutely.

So, why do I think we need to stop saying ‘prayer works’? I mean, I do think it works, after all. The thing is, I think it works like it is supposed to work. I don’t think it works in the sense that whenever I ask for stuff I always get what I want. But it is that latter idea that many people seem to hear whenever ‘prayer works’ gets voiced.

How does this calculation work? Something like this:

Q: Why should I bother praying?
A: Because prayer works.
Q: So, if prayer doesn’t appear to work, I shouldn’t bother praying?
A: But prayer does work.
Q: Okay, but let’s assume that one day it doesn’t, I should stop praying then?
A: No.
Q: But didn’t you say I should pray because prayer works?
A: Yes.
Q: So how does that argument work?
A: My argument doesn’t work.

Can you see the problem? ‘Prayer works’ reduces the entire value of prayer to its efficacy as we judge it. I need healing from my illness, no problem, prayer works! But the minute prayer doesn’t seem to work, well, prayer becomes useless to me. It has stopped working and that was the entire point wasn’t it?

Interestingly, this sort of thinking owes more to Israel’s constantly being pulled away to worship Baal than it does to anything Christian. What was the continual draw to Baal all about? Essentially, Baal promised fertility, which meant produce, which meant plenty to eat and even more to sell. Baal looked like a good proposition when you need that sort of stuff. But the minute Baal stopped appearing to work for Israel, like when Elijah prayed for the rain to stop because God wanted to show Israel who actually controlled these things, Israel had no problem returning to the Lord. Not because they loved him most, particularly, but he now seemed like a better proposition for getting the real stuff they wanted. So, sure, we’re team Yahweh now because he seems to work better than Baal after all.

Now, doesn’t that sound remarkably close to ‘prayer works’? The stuff I want or need, if prayer is the means to get it and Yahweh is the one who delivers when I pray, I’m all in. If prayer works, I want some of this prayer stuff. But the moment prayer appears to stop working – my illness didn’t disappear, my bank balance seems to be depleting, the things I keep asking God for don’t seem to be happening – well, prayer has lost its appeal. Prayer doesn’t seem to be working anymore.

In exactly the same way as Israel were in it for the prosperity, ‘prayer works’ is a prosperity teaching all of its own. God will dole out the sweets when I ask for them. ‘Prayer works’ is prosperity gospel 101.

Again, that isn’t to say prayer doesn’t work. I think it does. But it work in the way it was intended to work. Prayer isn’t intended to simply give me everything I ask for. I thank God he keeps me from some of the more stupid things I ask him for. That doesn’t mean prayer isn’t working. It still works, it just means – if I think prayer working is God just giving me exactly what I ask for all the time – I have misunderstood the point of prayer.

Prayer works, but it works to achieve God’s will. The prayers God grants are those prayers that he prompts us to pray himself so that he can work through them. It’s not just our asking God for stuff, it’s his causing us to ask for the stuff he wants to give us and do. The prayers God doesn’t answer are working too. They may be designed to encourage us to lean on him more, rather than offering a perfunctory prayer because ‘prayer works’. They may be designed to develop patience in us as we have to wait for God to do anything. They might be designed to help us develop other Christian characteristics that the Lord wants to grow in us, as we learn to trust in him despite his not fulfilling our request. He might be helping us smash false gods in our hearts as the things we keep asking for are revealed as vying for the place only He should have. There are lots of ways these prayers might be working, and they are working, but they might not give us the outcome we had hoped for when we first prayed them.

And that is rarely what we mean by ‘prayer works’. We usually mean, God did what I asked. The prayer worked. But that rather suggests that prayer isn’t working when God doesn’t do what we asked. But of course, ‘prayer works’ focuses on our prayer when what we should be looking at is God working. And God is working whether we pray or not, whether he grants what we ask or not. God works and he chooses to work through the prayers of his people. Sometimes in doing what we ask, sometimes in making us wait, sometimes in not doing at all and sometimes by doing the very opposite of what we want. The prayer will still work as God intended it to work, he will still work through it, and in that sense ‘prayer works’. But He works through prayer whether he does what we want or not.

If that’s what you mean by ‘prayer works’ then you might well be right, but you’re going to have to spell that out because it’s not what most people hear. And it’s interesting that we only seem to say ‘prayer works’ when God happens to have done what we asked. It doesn’t seem to come up when he doesn’t. Which is why, in my view, we should probably just stop saying it at all.