I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “Prayer works.” Now, this is not meant to be a put-down, so I hope that no one takes it this way. I suppose in a non-technical way, it can actually be thought of this way. But in actual fact, prayer doesn’t work. By definition, prayer is simply a mode of communication. It can’t really do anything. That would be like saying, “Talking works.” Prayer, like talking, is a tool that human beings can use as a means of communication, but it has no means of doing anything in and of itself. Now, the person doing the communicating can, of course, use it as a tool to accomplish particular goals, but the tool itself is inanimate and cannot do anything on its own.
What is Prayer?
But before we go any further, let’s be a little more specific in our definition of prayer. In a nutshell, prayer is simply participation in a conversation. That being said, this particular kind of conversation is not ordinary – it is, specifically, conversation with God. When we converse with another human being we call it talking. But when conversing with God we have a special term that we use – prayer. But the principle is the same no matter who we are talking to. Talking or prayer is simply the conveying of information back and forth between two persons.
How Do We Use Prayer to Communicate with God?
So how does prayer work, anyway? When we communicate with another human being there is someone we can communicate in the material world. There is a physical body, or at least sound waves that we can perceive and interpret. We don’t typically have that with God.
Well, that is true. However, physical presences does not express the fulness of reality. The actual existence of God is not diminished by the fact that he does not interact with us physically. In fact, the most real part of reality is the spiritual. The physical actually emerged out of that. The spiritual realm, where God exists, was present long before God ever created the material world. Beyond that, even we, as material beings, are in our essence spiritual beings. And the communication that we do between one another even in the physical universe has spirit as its root. A Naturalist would assert that our thoughts are purely an expression of our physical self (though they can’t back it up with any empirical evidence).
But Christians recognize that there is something about our personhood that extends beyond the physical. We are not physical beings who have a spirit. We are spiritual beings housed in a physical body. As such, the origin of our communication (our thoughts) comes from the spiritual part of our personhood. This spiritual part of us transcends our physical bodies.
Since our essential self is spiritual, as is God’s, it is possible for us to communicate with him. We are the same kind of being he is – only he doesn’t operate from a physical platform. So, the communication we have with God is more direct – spirit to Spirit. It doesn’t have to go through the physical platform of our bodies in order to be operative as is the case when we interact with other human beings.
What Does Prayer Really Do?
So, let’s get down to the bottom line. If prayer “doesn’t work,” what does prayer really do? In a nutshell, prayer initiates a work of God in our lives and also puts us in a position to work for God.
Prayer is a channel of communication. As we pray, we open our lives to communication with God. As such, we are able to share with him the hopes, desires and needs of our hearts. Without that, it is not that God has nothing to do with us, it is just that it is not personal. Personal interaction requires self-conscious communication. So, when God receives that personal communication from us, he operates in our lives in a personal way.
This does not mean that we get everything we want or ask God for. The bottom line concerning everything related to God is his will, not ours. God has a plan that he is trying to work out in the world – to bring the entire world into relationship with himself. And he wants us to be a part of that. But for that to happen, we have to be in line with his will. It is the process of communication back and forth with him that allows us to know him so well that we can find our place in his will. It is certainly not that he never gives us what we want. In fact, he wants to give us the desires of our heart. But those desires must be aligned with his will, and the way we get that to happen is in the process of intimately communicating with him.
God Is the One That Works
So, we can see that prayer doesn’t work. Prayer is not a machine that does stuff. Prayer is a communication channel. It is God that works. And in the process of communicating with him, as we conform out lives to his will and ways, God works in our lives to accomplish his will in us. And to the degree that we know and conform to his will, God will work mightily in us.