This week's question comes from Valerie in Australia who is apparently pushing a deadline for a school project. She wrote and asks a number of questions about prayer and we'll deal with each question briefly.
(1) "What do people think God is like when they pray?" Each person who enters into prayer views God a little differently from everyone else. Much of what we understand about God comes from the culture in which we're raised. For instance, those who were raised in homes that taught God is a god of judgement and punishment would think very differently about God than someone raised in a home where God was seen as loving, forgiving, and patient. In difficult times the first would probably pray for mercy, while the second might pray for comfort and strength. Of course there are those who somehow have the impression that God is like Santa Clause with a bag full of goodies just waiting to be handed out whenever someone asks. And still others doubt God ever hears their prayers, but hopes that maybe one day God will listen.
(2) "How do we know God talks to us when we pray?" Most people I know would flippantly say, "We don't. That's what faith is all about." And to a certain extent they'd be right. God is a mystery, perhaps because we're finite and God is infinite or simply because that's how God wants it. But if I only had my faith to count on for my prayers I'd probably have quit praying a long time ago. The reality is that people know God's on the other end of prayer because prayer works. Many are those who have seen the hand of God in their lives and in circumstances above and beyond comprehension. Sure, there are things we pray for that might have come through the normal course of events, but all too regularly, for those who regularly pray, things happen-God things-that just can't be explained. Indeed, a recent double-blind medical study about prayer showed there was a significant positive difference between people in poor health who were prayed for and those who were not prayed for-even though the people in poor health didn't know anyone was praying for them at all. So, something's happening when we pray.
(3) "How does God answer our prayers?" and (4) "What happens when we pray?" First, How does anyone answer any request? Sometimes with a yes, sometimes with a no, and sometimes with a maybe or wait. The Bible encourages us to pray about anything and everything, which means we can share our desires with God. I've had friends who have prayed for the oddest things and God's blessed them with their desires. But I've had even more who have prayed for things like winning the lottery, getting a great grade on a test they didn't study for, and so on, who have been sorely disappointed because "God didn't answer their prayer." The author C.S. Lewis (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, et al) suggested that prayer doesn't change God, it changes us. I've found this to be true much of the time. If I pray diligently that I might pass an upcoming exam I'm likely to find the motivation to open my textbooks and study. Is God behind the motivation? Perhaps. But it was, in this case, my own prayers that delivered me to success. On the other hand, I have prayed for miraculous healing of those who were ill and have seen them get well-but I've also attended my share of funerals as well. God will not be manipulated, but God does answer our prayers-one way or another.
(5) "What are some problems with prayer?" To be honest, there are no problems with prayer, there are only problems with the one who prays. Some who pray come to rely exclusively on their prayers for results. I could sit down and begin to pray for the next two years for the ability to play the piano. But if all I ever do is pray about it, no matter how hard, the reality is I'll probably never advance beyond Chopsticks. I know of people who have relied on prayer instead of medical attention who have watched their children die because of their conviction that God will answer their prayers. Perhaps God would have, if they had allowed the doctors to use their God-given gifts and graces.
In the end, prayer is a good thing, a very good thing, but prayer, like faith, without works is dead (James 2.20). A wise person once said, "Pray like there's no tomorrow, and work like there's no prayer." If we lived our lives with that motto, imagine the great things God could accomplish through each of us.