Each year St Andrew’s Cathedral congregations take time to pray for our Defence and Police personnel currently serving overseas. Our nation asks these people to put their lives at risk for us. It’s only right that we support them and call upon God to protect them in the dangerous situations in which we have placed them.
But does prayer make a difference? It’s a very natural response to troubling and worrying situations but does it change anything? Some people, who wouldn’t normally consider themselves religious, turn to God in prayer when confronted with life threatening situations such as the dangers of war zones. Many worried families turn to God and find peace in prayer. But does prayer change anything?
Prayer certainly changes the person who prays. By praying regularly we develop our dependence upon God in a way that produces genuine humility. It calms our anxieties and gives us the opportunity to process our worries. It helps us see ourselves, and our situation in a larger, less threatening, perspective. It’s comforting to call upon somebody greater than ourselves when we are not able to control our situation. For example, many people who have problems with addiction, have found that the first part of recovery is to recognize this. We have a problem, we cannot manage and that we need a “higher power” to deal with it.
But does God deal with it? Does prayer only change the person who prays or through prayer does God also change our state of affairs? Does it alter the outcome of the situation? Or is prayer playing mind games – albeit with good results – pretending that there is somebody listening to our requests who is willing and able to respond to our petitions? Is God able to interfere with “Nature” and answer our prayerful requests?
God reveals himself in the Bible as powerfully and rationally creating all things by his word. This revelation was central to establishing the basic premise of the scientific community’s inquiry into the world, the regular uniformity of the created order. We know the world as a place where actions have regular, even predictable, outcomes. We are now so firmly convinced of this orderliness that we are even tempted to think that there are no exceptions possible to the pattern of cause and effect. Is there any place then for the intervention of God in response to a person’s prayer?
To know that there is order in the world is not to know everything about that order. A common confession of scientists is their wonder and awe as they uncover ever more amazing aspects of how this world functions. We do not know enough to determine what can or cannot be done. It was in 1902, the year before the Wright brothers’ first flight, that the great scientist Lord Kelvin told a journalist: “no aeroplane will ever be practically successful”!
Without excluding his ability to override his own creation’s orderliness God has enormous scope, beyond our present knowledge, to bring about his purposes within the created order. He doesn’t need to override creation to work miracles. There are few greater miracles in the Old Testament than the crossing of the Red Sea, but we are told that God used a wind to drive back the waters (Exodus 14:21). Advances in reproductive technology undermine the sceptic’s claim of the ‘impossibility’ of a virgin giving birth.
It is arrogant to limit, what can be done, to what we know. God is not limited to the extent of our present knowledge. This is a reversal of the God of the gaps. Previously God was used to explain whatever gaps people had in their knowledge. As knowledge grew so God got smaller. But now people are limiting God to only being able to work in ways that we understand. He is now limited not to our gaps in knowledge but to our knowledge. If we do not understand it God cannot do it!
But does God respond to our requests in such a way as to change our circumstances? The Bible clearly says he does. We read in James “You do not have, because you do not ask.” (4:2)and in the next chapter “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (5:16-18). God answering prayer is the experience recorded in the lives of Israelites in the Old Testament and Christians in the New.
But while it is revealed in the Bible that God changes things in response to prayer, and while Christians can testify to the amazing ‘co-incidences’ that they see when they pray, the effectiveness of prayer cannot be tested scientifically. For testing is the opposite of trusting and trusting is the essence of prayer. It’s like conducting a relationship by testing the other person – the very activity of testing undermines the ability to relate. It has been scientifically demonstrated in studies from Duke University that religious people have certain benefits in health and well being but it is not possible to prove that God has or has not intervened in response to prayer. Our knowledge of prayer’s effectiveness relies upon God’s promises and is confirmed by our experiences. It is knowledge similar to that of a happy marriage: based upon promises and confirmed by experiences.
But God will not listen to prayers of those who are opposed to him. For as the Psalmist wrote: “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart the Lord would not have listened” (66:18). And as James wrote “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions” (4:3).