The Efficacy of Prayer

In the Lord’s prayer, we ask for our daily bread; that he provide for our “hunger” and fill the void of our hunger pains. At least for me, food is easily attainable; I am hungry, therefore I eat. The hunger is usually fulfilled before a dizzy, angry, and ill-tempered stage. I rarely reach a point where my hunger hurts as far as actual food is concerned. And though our stomachs are usually full at the end of the day, there are still things we pray for that are left unfulfilled. Requests seem unheard; pains that need nursing are ignored, people continue to die, family members still suffer from cancer, we remain prideful, greedy, and unemployed. At the end of the day, there are pains of hunger and emptiness that prove to be grumblings not just of the stomach, but of the heart.

What we pray for, what we ask of God is a strange act. Sometimes it seems to work, sometimes it does not, other times what we do not ask of God is brought to us swiftly and is exactly what we do not want. Sometimes what we ask of him is never met in the way we desperately desire. Consider the unemployed man who at first offers passionate prayers that turn into reciting empty words when the prayer isn’t answered. Or, the couple who can’t have children; their hopeful prayer turning to a realization that children may not be a possibility. Consider the words from poet Ivy Grimes:

In prayer, sometimes I lie

and ask for bread, when what I want

is to know how the story ends.

Our human desire is to feel fulfilled. We want closure, an assurance that what we labor for or long for will not be in vain. We may be specific with our prayers but at the heart of what we pray for (and how we live) have strong connections to what we deem important and fulfilling in this life. We want to know how the story ends, how the pain subsides, if the disease is cured and we become the people we desperately hope to be. Just as the world groans for its fulfillment so our hurt and longings bleed through into our prayers. The good news is that we know the end of the story; we know that on the third day, the tomb was vacant and the rock was rolled away, yet we lose sight of that in our words to God.

And still, we are to pray. I have yet to believe that what is lacking in prayer is an antidotal process that solve my problems. In fact, I pray that there is no such thing because then our dependence would not be in God. In his short essay, The Efficacy of Prayer, C.S Lewis writes that prayer must be more than words – “simply to say a prayer is not to pray; otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men…” he goes on…“ you cannot pray for the recovery of the sick unless the end you have in view is their recovery…” For Lewis, our prayers and requests to God are better understood in reflecting on how we petition one another:

“we ask for a raise in pay, we ask a friend to feed the cat while we are on our holidays, we ask a woman to marry us…your neighbour may be a humane person who would not have let your cat starve even if you had forgotten to make any arrangement. Your employer is never so likely to grant your request for a raise as when he is aware that you could get better money from a rival firm and quite possibly intending to secure you by a raise in any case. As for the lady who consents to marry you- are you sure she had not decided to do so already? Your proposal, you know, might have been the result, not the cause, of her decision…whatever we get we might have been going to get anyway. But only, as I say, in some measure. Our assurance is quite different in kind from scientific knowledge. It is born out of our personal relation to the other parties; not from knowing things about them but from knowing them.”

Our assurance is not knowing things about God, but knowing him. What springs from a personal relationship implores us that to pray for our daily bread is also to pray “Thy will be done.” The notion is quite alarming because the prayer implies that we may not get what we want; that our unemployment might continue, the cancer will not remiss, and the thorns in our sides will remain. In it, there seems to be no comfort. Especially considering if Christ is our example. Lewis says “Does God then forsake just those who serve him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near his tortured death, “why hast thou forsaken me?” When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need…” And yet, we find a strange comfort in the Garden of Gethsemane where the request of the holiest and most deserving human being went unanswered. Jesus Christ, whose greatest petition was not met so that our greatest need could. Our comfort is that the cry for help is met in the form of a corpse on the cross, and an empty tomb. Wherever we walk and whenever we are pummelled, God walks with us – not magically making things better the way we want, but making it tolerable with his presence. Our comfort, to put it lightly, is that we have been helped; we have been raised from our graves with Christ. Lord, we know how the story ends. Give us today our daily bread.

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