I received a text a while back with some terrible news: an acquaintance of mine had died in his sleep at the age of 26. It’s the kind of unthinkable tragedy that leaves you speechless and, well, actionless.
What do you do? What can you do?
I did the only thing I could do: I prayed.
I went to his funeral, and told his brother Joe that I was sorry for his loss and that I had been praying for John and the family and that I’d continue to do that. Then Joe said something I didn’t expect him to say: “We felt the prayers,” he said. “Yours and everybody’s — we definitely felt them. And it’s what’s been getting us through this difficult time.”
I wasn’t surprised that Joe was grateful for my prayers — that seemed fairly predictable. But I was surprised that the prayers seemed to have already had an effect. My prayers actually worked, and I wasn’t expecting that.
But that’s the point of prayer, right? We pray to make things better, easier somehow in the face of tragedy or hard times.
I admit that sometimes I treat my prayers as an obligatory thing to do so that I can go to heaven when I die. A get-out-of-hell-free card, if you will. My prayers for John and his family — and their result — have made me realize that I may have been underestimating the power of prayer.
What is prayer, anyway?
Ever since I was a kid, I remember saying my prayers. My dad would tuck me into bed at night and ask me who I wanted to pray for, and I would name all the people I could think of. I could pray for anybody, except God and the devil. Although I tried that, too, once or twice.
So, from day one, I knew it was important to pray for others. Later, I learned I should also pray for things I want, like that girl in the sixth grade to notice my nerdy sixth-grade self (she did!) or pray to avoid what I don’t want to happen (like a car accident). I’d pray for miracles (like growing to be as tall as Michael Jordan, when my dad is as tall as Earl Boykins), or normal-enough things that might require divine intervention (like acing a test I didn’t study for).
Finally, around the time I was confirmed, I learned that I should pray for spiritual things, like the gifts of the Holy Spirit. At Confirmation, I prayed for the gift of piety, which I understood to be the ability to enjoy praying and going to Mass, which was a struggle for me at the time. And, believe it or not, I was blessed with that gift, which in some ways prevails to this day, thanks be to God.
The truth is prayer ought to encompass all of those things. Although at our worst, we tend to focus on the more selfish prayers, or the lazy prayers, or perhaps worst of all, we pray expecting no response.
Do prayers have any power?
The great Garth Brooks has a song about unanswered prayers, which provides great imagery into the insight that whenever we think God is only responding to our prayers with silence, sometimes it’s just a big loud — yet loving — no. And that’s for our own good.
But there are others who consider all prayers unanswered. They see prayer as a waste of time and that praying about something is just taking away time from more important things — like finding a real solution to whatever problem you’re praying about.
When a tragedy happens, like when a hurricane wipes out most of Puerto Rico, or when a 26-year-old man loses his life, people like me offer “thoughts and prayers” to those suffering and mourning. It can seem trite, and there are people who are tempted to question — and even mock — the merits of prayer.
But Christians know better. No, we may not know how God intends to answer an individual prayer. In fact, we may never know this side of heaven. But even if God chooses not to directly intervene to help restore electricity to an island in the Caribbean, or raise a dead man back to life, that doesn’t mean He isn’t acting, and it certainly doesn’t mean my prayers were for naught.
But that also doesn’t mean that prayer is enough.
What should my prayer look like?
First and foremost, prayer is about your personal relationship with God. It’s meant to bring you closer to Him and make you grow in knowledge and love of Him.
It was my dad who taught me that we should pray for others. Pray when they need something, because God is a loving Father who is happy to provide for His children. Pray when they are suffering or mourning a loss, because the Holy Spirit is the great Comforter who is pleased to bring hope to those who need it most. Pray when they need conversion, because Jesus died for them, and He wants to offer His forgiveness and redemption to all.
But prayer doesn’t end at speaking with God. Prayer should lead us first to ask God to do something, and then to ask God how we can help make that thing happen. If we know a friend needs a new job, pray that he finds one, and then ask God to reveal how you can help. That might lead you to pass his résumé on to well-connected people. It might even lead you to consider hiring him yourself. It might just mean that you’re moved to call him up and ask him how the job search is going.
My prayer for John led me to decide to go to his funeral, which allowed me to pass on my condolences to Joe, which allowed me to hear how prayer has been so essential to his family’s mourning — and healing — process.
Faith to move mountains — or just to move a muscle
So often, however, we can form this false dichotomy when it comes to prayer: either we pray for miracles or we take matters into our own hands — but for whatever reason we don’t consider that prayer can, and should, include both.
With a more well-rounded understanding of prayer, consider the following the next time you sit down to pray:
- “Ask and you shall receive.” God wants us to ask for what we need (Matt 7:7), and he wants us to be bold in our ask (Mark 11:23).
- “Lord, save us!” When it comes to praying for others, we can and should pray for God to intervene, even miraculously (Luke 18:41, Matthew 8:23).
- “Give them some food yourselves.” We should be prepared to do what we can do to help those prayers be answered (Luke 9:13).
- “Faith without works is dead.” In fact, we have an obligation to help those in need, even as we hope (and pray) that God can do more (James 2:16).
By keeping these things in mind, your prayer will draw you closer to God and to others.