How Prayer Works, And How It Doesn’t

After posting on prayer in the wake of our experience with Sandy, I got a chance to see it work up close. Two days after writing that post, my wife was struck with symptoms which everyone (GP, EMT, and ER personnel) thought were classic signs of a heart attack for a woman: nausea, pressure/pain in the left side of the chest moving towards the center, fatigue/weakness, and shortness of breath that wasn’t mitigated by an asthma treatment. (And a special message to women out there: familiarize yourself with the symptoms. Often, women don’t get the full Fred Sanford. The signs are different.) She wound up in the ER for a long night of fear and prayer, followed by two days of tests. All along, we hoped it was just something to do with her asthma, but we also feared the worst.

The point I made about prayer is that God isn’t Santa responding to a request as though he’d never heard it before. Jesus makes that quite plain in Matthew 6:8, when he tells us that God knows what we want before we ask.

If that’s the case, then: what use is prayer? Why ask? Why bother? It’s not like he’s going to answer and say, “There-there, it’s going to be okay. Relax. I got this covered.”

Or does he?

See, here’s the thing: right after telling us that God knows what you need before you ask, Jesus teaches us how to pray, in which he instructs us to ask for all kinds of things like daily bread and not leading us into temptation. Clearly, he wants us to ask for things. In Luke 11, he says, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

So, in short: asking for good stuff = good. Right, let’s move on then.

As I followed the ambulance, I made the common prayer of the terrified husband/father/friend/relative: “Please let her be well.” I always add: let it be me instead, which is just plain old Irish superstition, as though death has come out to claim someone, and won’t return home without some soul in his icy grip. One day, He’s going to take me up on that one. I’m cool with that. (My wife isn’t.)

Short story long: it’s five days later, and she’s getting better. It wasn’t her heart: it was a problem arising from her asthma, which is severe. Prayer answered, or …

Would it have happened anyway? Did I move the will of God by prayers?

I’ll spare the cynical kiddies on the atheist channel the trouble: no, I did not. God is eternal, unchanging, immovable. To assume that one course of action was determined by the Divine Will and that this course of action was altered by my prayerful intervention is mere hubris. God doesn’t change His mind because you say “pretty please.”

But here’s the big …

However. God is always reaching out to us. He has gifts he wants to give us. He wants sincere and pure hearts to turn to him. He also wants insincere and impure hearts as well, so that He may heal them. There’s a little mustard seed He’s planted in our souls, and He wants it to grow into the greatest of shrubs and become a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. He has both a blessing and a curse to bestow: he sets before us both life and death. He wants us to choose life, that our descendants and we may live.

See that word there: choose. He wants us to choose life, not death.

But, but, but, the skeptics and cynics sputter, who chooses death!? Everyone wants to live! 

Once again, you’re thinking as men think, and not as God. Life is more than flesh. God does not mean a heart that beats or lungs that draw air. God isn’t asking you to choose between a pulse or a tomb. He’s asking you to choose Him. God is the blessing. God is life.

Our prayer must be the pivot point of that choosing. It must be an active choice: a movement of the individual human will towards the Divine Will.

In other words, we must meet God halfway. Maybe even just 1/10th or 1/100th of the way. God knows what you want. Perhaps he has determined that what you want is not what you will get. Perhaps, in the grand scheme of the Divine Will, your suffering or death–or the suffering or death of those you love–is more suited to His purpose.

I’m not going to rehash the justification for suffering. I’m also not going to diminish it. If the worst had happened to us either in Sandy or with my wife’s illness, I would not have greeted it philosophically, but emotionally, and that would have meant in anger and sorrow. Wounds hurt, even wounds which a surgeon must make to heal a body.

As T.S. Eliot observes in East Coker, God is the surgeon, and He operates upon the soul:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

God’s constant care is not to please, but to restore us to life: and life is God. It is, indeed, a “sharp compassion,” particularly for those who suffer. But it is, in the end, all ordered toward a purpose.

The point of prayer is to open yourself to that purpose. There in a small ER room with monitors and tubes attached to the woman who is the other half of my wounded soul, I begged God to spare her.

And He did.

Would the same have happened without the prayer? I don’t know, and neither do you. I can tell you something interesting, however.

I did not let many people know about the situation as it was happening, since being far away and having partial information about someone in an emergency room is never a good thing.  I did, however, post a request for prayer to the private group used for Patheos writers. They responded immediately and wonderfully, and Kathy, Elizabeth, Joanne and all the rest have my undying gratitude.

After we’d been in the room for a while, I told my wife I’d posted the request, and the conversation went something like this:

She: Oh, that explains it.

Me: Explains what?

She: It’s very strange. I don’t feel afraid at all. I’m calm. I feel completely at peace, as though I’m being lifted up on invisible hands.

Me: What’s in that IV bag?

She: Saline.

Me: Oh.

So, there’s that.

See, God has gifts to give us all the time, but he’s not going to drive over to our house, knock down the door, and pin us to the ground until we relent and tear off the wrapping paper. He wants us to reach out towards him. The gifts we desire and the gifts He has to give us may not always be the same thing, but he does have gifts to offer, and the most wonderful of all is the gift of Himself. Unfortunately for those left behind, we can only fully claim that particular gift in death.

But along the way we need to stay in touch with God: let Him know what we’re thinking,  how much we love Him, what we need. I know without any doubt whatsoever that God has answered some of my prayers with exactly what I wanted, and others with exactly what I needed, but did not want. In the past few years I have experienced grace upon grace, while also going through some pretty harrowing trials. All of it makes me who I am, and prepares me a little bit more for the Kingdom, which is the only goal of any real import.

Here’s the thing, though: it was in my trials that I prayed the most and was closest to God. How many gifts do I miss when my prayer life slackens and my relationship with God grows less central because I’m lazy and contented? Prayer is our connection to God. Through it, we make known our love and our desire, and He in turn draws us closer to Him, and sometimes even works a little miracle on our behalf.