Prayer: Does It Make A Difference?

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“When a doctrinal student at Princeton asked, ‘What is there left in the world for original dissertation research?’ Albert Einstein replied, ‘Find out about prayer. Somebody must find out about prayer.’”

And so begins chapter one of Phillip Yancey’s newest book, “Prayer: Does It Make A Difference?” It’s a promising way to start a book and it stirred my hopes that maybe with Yancey’s help I might get some conclusive answers about the subject.

I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been in a dry spell for the better part of a year, the last several months unable to have much of anything that resembled a vibrant prayer life, sometimes not even able to pray at all. I felt much like Jayber Crow from Wendell Berry’s book of the same name who eventually found it pointless to pray if every prayer ends with “not my will, but thy will done.” What’s the use in bringing requests to God if in the end you tell Him to disregard them?

I know that more than being a wish list prayer is also communion and conversation. But increasingly what I got from prayer was a numbing sense of isolation and the fear I was talking to myself. I know that prayer is also meant to be an exercise in aligning my heart and mind with the eternal instead of the gnawing temporal – like Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis in the movie Shadowlands says: “I don’t pray to change God, but so that God can change me” (paraphrase from memory). And yet there’s the sticky matter of the scriptures continually encouraging us to pray for more than just perspective, that anything can be asked for in prayer and that we should pray expectantly. In fact, much of the Lord’s prayer is comprised of material requests: for food and relational dynamics, for God’s kingdom to be realized on earth as it is in heaven, for the eternal to interrupt the temporal course of things.

I found that I kept adjusting my expectations of prayer as a way of self-preservation – expecting less and less so I wouldn’t be disappointed. The heart learns to protect itself. But I couldn’t help feeling this was a cop-out and a refusal to engage the tensions between what the bible says about prayer and my own experience of it. So though I refused to fall back on a half-minded theological position of lowered expectations, I also found the tension between the biblical text and real life experience too enervating. So I opted for a different kind of copout, I guess: I just quit praying. I couldn’t find a motivation for it and just felt helpless when I would try – lost in a labyrinth of speculation, half-knowledge, and experience. I would ask others to pray for me and found great comfort in that, but as for myself I had become a deaf mute.

(I need to say here that my experience includes some incredible instances of answered prayer and God’s faithfulness – nearly irrefutable evidences of his involvement in our lives. Yet from the desert, those memories seem distant and somewhat torturous in that they won’t allow you the comfort of abandoning hope altogether, but lead you on in hopes that God is still listening though all evidence accuses Him otherwise. Yancey explores the difficulty of God’s seemingly selective involvement when he writes: “I keep wanting Jesus to be more systematic. I want him to solve world hunger, not just feed five thousand who happen to be listening to him one day. I want him to destroy the polio virus, not merely heal an occasional paralytic… we keep expecting God to move in immovable fixed patterns, but the bible shows a tendency for God to act in a way that seems almost arbitrary… quirky.” Yet having seen Jesus care for the one paralytic, we can’t help but hope that he cares for our ailments and we are left with the sometimes arduous work of hoping when all else would tempt us otherwise.)

When I saw that Yancey had released a new book on the subject of prayer, I couldn’t wait to dig into it in hopes of finding a better understanding of prayer to help me out of my own rut. The book chronicles his own frustrating attempts at reconciling the difference between what the bible seems to promise about prayer and the way it plays out in real life. Though I hoped for something more conclusive, it quickly became apparent that Yancey’s book was offering at least as many questions as it was answers. Any answers he did posit were often unsatisfying – which to his credit is much like prayer itself. And yet, by the end of the book, a peace descended and I found that I was praying regularly again.

Yancey is great at what he does. He’s not a Buechner or Nouwen but he’s a reflective and intelligent believer who is gifted at bringing big ideas to a mainstream audience and helping them wrestle with things they may not otherwise wrestle with. It was through Rich Mullins that I discovered Mark Heard – Mullins being much more accessible than Heard but plowing some of the same ground – and it’s through Yancey that a lot of people have discovered writers more exceptional than himself (like Buechner and Nouwen). I think of him as a bridge builder, building 3 way bridges between God, average people, and the kind of worthwhile rigorous faith that comes from thoughtful reflection. He serves his readership well in my opinion and gently helps people ask difficult questions, securely holding their hand through the process. His books are researched thoroughly and are filled with moving stories and quotes from a wide spectrum of sources. “Prayer” is no different. Smart, thoughtful, very moving.

He asked a lot of questions I had already afflicted myself with, so there was no real sense of new revelation. And yet revelation occurred in me slowly and subtly over the course of reading this book. Maybe revolution is a better word, a slow, almost imperceptible revolution, less in my understanding and more in my soul.

Thinking about it afterward, it seemed to me that reading this book was much like marriage counseling between God and myself. I realized that I’d been bottling up my frustrations and hurts and was locked in an ongoing conversation with myself. My inner dialogue sounded like the bitter complaints of a hurt lover: “What’s God’s deal anyway? Why is He ignoring me? Why the constant invalidation of my concerns? Why the cool disregard of my needs?” Also, like a disgruntled spouse, I would talk to others about my frustrations. Between going over my grievances with others and the ongoing conversation with myself, I realized I had ceased talking with God about it. We were estranged.

Reading Yancey’s book became like a therapy session between God and myself with Yancey as a mediator. Through his words I was able to express my own grievances as well as hear God’s side of the story in a fresh way. We were on speaking terms again and more than gaining perspective I was re-gaining access to a relationship. Halfway through there emerged a real sense that the act of reading the book itself was an intimate time of prayer. We were talking again.

As I mentioned, Yancey offers little in terms of satisfactory answers to the problems that prayer poses, but prayer has never been very well suited for finding answers – Just ask Job. Relationship has to be the ultimate goal of prayer. We need to fall in love and sense that we are loved, too. We need help in engaging the mystery of this love. And any attempt on Yancey’s part to diminish the tension and mystery inherent in prayer would render his book impotent and less than true.

In the end, Yancey helps us ask the hard questions about prayer, but also confronts us with the hardest kind of answers – messy, ambiguous, and the kind that dare us to hope and to engage our heart, mind, and even soul. Whether or not you are struggling with prayer, I highly recommend this as a thoughtful book full of heart and integrity. My prayer is that, like me, you will find peace, perspective, and an opportunity to engage the God of the universe in an intimate conversation about your own deepest hopes and fears.


19 Comments

  1. Tom Bubb

    Thank you for this recommendation Jason! Your willingness to share your own struggles and how this book changed your perspective blessed me a great deal.

  2. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Jason,

    Reality is complex and multi-layered – that’s why so often there are no exacting rational answers to many serious questions of life. If we could answer “Does prayer work?” through scientific investigation with “Yes,” there would be no room for faith. Reason cannot take us to certainty in the things of God; it can only get us to the nearest thing to a certainty. And then we leap into the dark, trusting God. Anymore, I question a theology which claims to put God and His eternal wisdom into a neat little systematic package and dots every ‘i’ and crosses every ‘t’. Ultimately there is an answer to everything; many of those answers are found in the Word. But again, there we are having to take something by faith rather than living, through the reason, in total certainty.

    For over the past decade I have prayed while either writing the prayer down (in my pre-computer days) or typing. It is inspiring and eye-opening to see how God answers prayer – not necessarily the ones where I prayed “I want this or that,” but in those prayers of recklessness where I prayed, “I’m sick of this besetting sin. If You don’t change my life radically, I don’t want Your forgiveness anymore” or “Work your will in my life no matter what the cost.” Those prayers, which are always according to God’s will, are always answered.

    Many times prayer is answered by giving us the opposite of what we prayed for. We pray for Heaven’s financial assistance – God sends us more lack. We pray for patience – God sticks us constantly in situations which prompt our impatience. We pray for healing – we stay sick.

    The thing God is aiming for in all of us is a complete faith – a radical reliance on God, His Word, His Son, His Spirit, His sovereign, loving ways. When we have even the beginnings of that kind of faith, life may not get easier – but we take it easier, because we know the One who is the Lord of circumstance.

  3. Susan Isaacs

    I’m actually writing a memoir with the same idea: taking God to counseling. FaithWords is publishing it next year. But mine’s a comedy. 🙂 Now I’m going to have to read Yancey’s book. I bet he’s a better therapist. 🙂 Cheers, Susan

  4. Jim A

    A weekly mens study group I belong to recently completed over 20 weeks of in depth review of each chapter in this book. Ironically the book we studied just before this was one by Buechner. You hit on a good point Jason that Yancey is incredibly accessible in a way that sometimes Buechner and Nouwen aren’t.
    I would add that this book gets better with each chapter. I kept waiting for a letdown or the “wrap up” after some climactic conclusion but it never happens. And Jason you hit the nail on the head when you mention that he offers little in the way of “satisactory answers to the problems that prayer poses” and in fact the reader will likely come away with more questions about prayer than they had going in.
    Another interesting thing I found is the perspective he gives on those with unanswered prayers hearing about the “answered” prayers of others in the same boat – woman in a small group giving thanks to God for reviving her child after drowning in a swimming pool while another mother who lost her child in a bathtub accident was “denied” her paryer to revive her child listens on in heartache. Heart wrenching stuff that made me really give pause to considering something like that an answer to prayer. Something I’d not really pondered previously.
    The really great thing about this book is that despite having more questions, it will undoubtedly change your prayer life.

    And Ron (best banjo player Ever), very nice followup. I’d like to add to your suggestion that we pray for healing and yet stay sick. Yancey specifically addresses a version of this in a pretty big way by suggesting that no one has ever been miraculously healed from spina bifida or from several other sad and horrific diseases no matter the fervent mother or father prayer to relieve their child of it. However, it almost always changes the pray-er. Especially when we realize that some things in nature just can’t be changed (or God chooses not to supernaturally jump in). For example, there’s no sense in praying that gravity be suspended. It’s not the way God works. That sort of suggests that the more empirical data that we have about something being absolute (like gravity or the mountains) the less likely we are to pray that it be altered. So a question to you and Jason (and Yancey if he’s reading this 🙂 ), when we read that faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain, is the mountain metaphorical or has there just simply never been enough faith to cure a child who has downs syndrome. This is the kind of question I was left to grapple with when the last page is read and the book is placed on the shelf next to Buechner.

    Lastly Ron, thanks for offering that prayer of recklessness. That is a tough one and I think that by the time you are ready to offer that prayer, you’ve already become changed by God and he’s able to get to work on you.

    Jim

  5. Stephen @ Rebelling Against Indifference

    …and it’s through Yancey that a lot of people have discovered writers more exceptional than himself (like Buechner and Nouwen)

    Good observation, Jason. Reading Yancey’s “Soul Survivor: How 13 Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church” was what finally got me reading Buechner, who is now one of my favorite authors.

  6. Stephen @ Rebelling Against Indifference

    It was one of my 3 favorite books of 2006. I’ve told friends that, along with Buechner’s memoirs and Lauren Winner’s “Girl Meets God”, it is one of the main reasons I’m where I’m at now, the reason I didn’t walk away from church and Christianity when I didn’t really see any reason not to.

  7. Jeremy Byrd

    hey, i’m in the midst of this book and mirror your reflections…it’s so easy to become complacent about prayer. not because i don’t believe, but more because i’m a typical american (man too) and don’t easily see the “end result.” i have noticed the same urgings in me towards a closer prayer life. actually, something else helped too. michael card on his radio series/podcast recently had larry crabb talk about his book “the papa prayer.” i haven’t read the book, but his thoughts on prayer were really great and seemed a lot like yancey’s. take care.
    jb

  8. Eric Purcell

    “I found that I kept adjusting my expectations of prayer as a way of self-preservation – expecting less and less so I wouldn’t be disappointed.”

    The desert is a place where we do all sorts of things to cope and find some semblance of hope. Why is it that the dark night often leads us to lower our expectations of God when in reality they ought to open us up to expect even greater things from God? I think that we have this fear that everthing we’ve come to believe about God is going to end up being a fraud, so we don’t want to have to really test it. “Can God really be who He says He is in the midst of this hardship?” we ask. The fact that its even happening plunges us deeper into this doubt.

    What I am discovering is that God welcomes our doubt and fears and emotions–usually anger. And until I start giving them to him I kind of boil in my own stew and become really bitter.

    Another thing I’m learning about prayer is that silence is good…on my part especially, but even sometimes on God’s side. His silence makes me find a (usually uncomfortable) place of silence so that I can really listen. And I don’t usally go there until I’ve really wrestled for a while with my disapointed expectations.

  9. Peter B

    Thanks, Jason. This is almost exactly where I’ve found myself for a while; I guess I need to pick up that book.

    Ron: I’ve always thought that praying for patience will, without fail, get us put into more trying situations… because that’s where we’ll find it! Perhaps this is why I’m so afraid to ask for more.

  10. Jeff Lane

    Thanks for those words Jason and sharing your heart. I too am one that is somewhat puzzle about prayer having seen God perform healings over time that was unexplainable by the medical proffession as well as seeing this person healed of a life threatening disease and the other one not…What does this mean ..that my prayers were not as important and the others….I do not believe that is the case. Myself having been through this scenario a few years back, I still find myself pondering this same thing. Having lost my wife to lukemia, a fight that lasted 3 years while many many people held us up in prayer and fought the spiritual as well as the physical battles with us. One of those persons themselves having been healed completely of this same disease often praying with us , staying with us and encouraging. still as parents of a 2 year old son asking all those questions and praying so fervently feeling that my prayers as Jason mentioned simply hit the ceiling and fell back again so to speak.
    God chose to take her home with him….leaving my 2 year old son and myself to take life on as we knew it then without her. I had so many questions and felt a little betrayed because I had devoted my life, my talents and all I had to his service and yet I felt I had been given the short end of the stick. But, I had a trust and faith in God that did not seem to go away , yet all the while still knowing he is in control although I couldn’t see it at the time. Since, God has given me back more, just as he did Job, (By no means am I comparing my life with Jobs) at the same time he has blessed me I believe because of my Faith and trust that he will never leave me nor forsake me even through the toughest times when I am feeling all alone he is there……I often time take a passage of scripture from the old testament when Moses so wanted to see God and God told moses you cannot see my face..so he hid him in the cleft of the Rock and covered his face as he passed by ,he only allowed Moses to see his Hinder parts…My analogy is this..That Moses was closest to God when he could not see him……often times in my life such as now, feeling I am in a deserted land alone most of the time, I trust God has covered me to protect me, I just don’t realize it, yet all the while my prayers are being heard as well as being answered even the ones that cry from the depths of my soul when I don’t know what to say, the Holy spirit knows, therefore stands the gap to help me, to comfort me, when I allow him to.. I have a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter God has blessed me with, My son is grown and on his way to start a life of his own. The outcome …Lessons of Life, spirituality, patience, understanding, compassion….shall I go on ? Prayers do get answered….sometimes we just cannot see it yet…because….lets face it, life gets in the way !

    Do I still get a little puzzled??? yes. But I try my hardest not to let it get in my way.

  11. Jacob T

    I’ve been sitting on this poem by John Newton this week. Good stuff.

    Prayer Answered by Crosses

    1 I ask’d the Lord, that I might grow
    In faith, and love, and ev’ry grace,
    Might more of his salvation know,
    And seek more earnestly his face.

    2 ‘Twas he who taught me thus to pray,
    And he, I trust has answer’d pray’r;
    But it has been in such a way,
    As almost drove me to despair.

    3 I hop’d that in some favour’d hour,
    At once he’d answer my request:
    And by his love’s constraining pow’r,
    Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

    4 Instead of this. he made me feel
    The hidden evils of my heart;
    And let the angry pow’rs of hell
    Assault my soul in ev’ry part.

    5 Yea more, with his own hand he seem’d
    Intent to aggravate my woe;
    Cross’d all the fair designs I schem’d,
    Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

    6 Lord, why is this, I trembling cry’d,
    Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
    “‘Tis in this way,” the Lord reply’d,
    “I answer pray’r for grace and faith.

    7 “These inward trials I employ,
    “From self and pride to set thee free;
    “And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
    “That thou mayst seek thy all in me.”

  12. Kevin Hames

    Wow – thanks for the poem, Jacob. That really sums things up eloquently.

    I think I’ll go get this book and see if it can help me explain prayer better to some non-believing friends. They’ve pointed out the apparent contradiction of the results of prayer and an omnipotent benevolent God (e.g. if two Christians pray for healing and only one is healed, does that mean either the second Christian is somehow lacking or that God is sadistically arbitrary?). I haven’t really been effective in communicating my belief regarding prayer to them, probably because I too have questions and doubts. My hope from this book is that it will at least help me understand the questions better.

  13. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Jacob,

    Beautiful John Newton poem. God’s design is to get us to completely despair of our human strength and abilities, because only then do we ask the right question. Rather than “I can do it,” we die inside to believing, “I can do all things through me who gives me strength, and God, who helps me when it gets really tough.”

    Instead we move to, “Oh wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” That’s the right question. Who is the Deliverer, who is the Sustainer, who is the Keeper, who is Patience, Love, Joy, Peace, Gentleness, etc? Once we ask that right question, abdicating self-rule, self-deliverance, self-sustenance, etc, we begin to grab hold of who Christ really is within us – the All in all. We move from the agony of human ability trying to be “like Christ” in Romans 7 into the life of Holy Spirit reliance in Romans 8, and eventually come into Romans 9, “My life for others”, where God’s Spirit has taken such a hold on us that we would willingly throw everything away – time, talents, money, whatever – so that others could come to know Christ.

    But the opposite, the negative, is God’s means of getting us to that point. That’s why it’s important to pray Tozer’s prayer, “Lord, work Your will in my life, no matter what the cost.” It seems a dangerous prayer to us here, in this time-space universe. But when we stand before the penetrating eyes of Jesus Christ, it will have been the safest prayer we could have uttered. “Even the very wise cannot see all ends,” said Gandalf. There is only One who can – and by praying His will, we are saying, “We trust You. We trust Your love, Your purposes, Your seeing, Your power.” In the end, no matter what happens here, that prayer will have opened a gold mine of eternal riches, truth, beauty, because it opens the heart of God.

    Doubtless God can use anyone. He doesn’t need me specifically. But he offers each of us an amazing place in His purposes, and if we take it in faith, we’re taking up His battle-standard. Nearly every time I pray, “Work Your will in my life no matter what the cost” I get nailed by some circumstance that causes something hidden in my psyche to rise up in effort (unbelief) to overcome it. That childhood programming comes up, and God wants to get rid of it and reprogram us, to renew our minds and so transform our thoughts, attitudes, actions. So I kick and scream, and then say, “What gives? Where am I not trusting You?” And He shows me so I can forsake it and trust Him. I’ve got an upcoming article on RR that deals with that process – that inner Perfection, which is Christ Himself, working Himself out through our soul-body into manifestation – by one sacrifice He has perfected forever (a done deal) those who are being made holy (a process of working out that inner Perfection).

  14. Sandy aka almamatters

    Hi Jason,

    Having not read the book, I can not comment on that but I met you and I saw you pour out your heart in song. Love and passion for JESUS seems to drip off of you. I am glad to read you are praying again. I don’t have a great prayer life but I know that I know that I know that GOD answers prayer and I pray you never doubt that,
    Even if you only see one set of prints in the sand.

    Praying God blesses you, taya and children and believing he has, he is and he will always.

    Sandy

  15. Mike

    I’ve read most of Yancey’s book but my prayer life is as messed up as ever. I’ wrote this prayer down today. It will be what I prayer until I learn how.

    “Father, I know that what you have for me is better that anything I can ask. I know that what You’re doing by your Spirit will accomplish more that I ever will in the flesh. I know that knowing You, trusting You, and being with You is Life. Lord teach me to live.”

    Now understand that this prayer was out of frustration. The things that I’ve been given lately have hurt deeply, so the prayer is as much surrender as anything.

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