What is Prayer?

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What is Prayer?
You have the tendency to scoff at the suggestion that God might actually answer the prayers of His people. You write:

    What was God doing while Katrina laid waste to their city? Surely He heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Do you have the courage to admit the obvious? These poor people died talking to an imaginary friend.67
Richard Dawkins also takes delight in emphasizing the impotency of prayer. He states that Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, made the first attempt to scientifically analyze whether or not prayer had any real effect. “He noted that every Sunday, in churches throughout Britain, entire congregations prayed publicly for the health of the royal family. Shouldn’t they, therefore, be unusually fit, compared with the rest of us...” Galton discovered that, statistically, no difference existed between the health of the royal family and the health of the rest of Britain.

We should also note that Francis Galton coined the term eugenics, which featured prominently in the rhetoric of Nazi Germany. Galton wrote:
    We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognisance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had. The word eugenics would sufficiently express the idea.68
While Galton’s pioneering of the failed field of eugenics had no impact on the validity of his study of prayer, the reader may find the above sidebar interesting considering its huge impact on the events of World War II.

Richard Dawkins describes a study funded by the Templeton Foundation designed to experimentally test the effect of prayer on cardiac patients. They performed a double blind study using over 1800 patients, “all of whom received coronary bypass surgery.”
    The patients were divided into three groups. Group 1 received prayers and didn’t know it. Group 2 (the control group) received no prayers and didn’t know it. Group 3 received prayers and did know it. The comparison between Groups 1 and 2 tests for the efficacy of intercessory prayer. Group 3 tests for possible psychosomatic effects of knowing that one is being prayed for.69
Congregants in three different churches all located hundreds of miles away from the subjects of their prayers, each received the first name and last initial of each of the patients for whom they were to pray, and were told to include the phrase ‘for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.’ The study resulted in no significant difference between the groups who received prayer and the group that didn’t receive prayers.

What is Prayer – Effective Prayer
Could such an experiment have any real flaws? What constitute prerequisites of acceptable prayer from God’s perspective? The eminent Princeton theologian of the late nineteenth century, Charles Hodge, offered seven criteria.

  1. Sincerity – “God is a Spirit. He searches the heart. . . .He cannot be deceived and will not be mocked....Everyone must acknowledge...with regard to the multitudes who, in places of public worship, repeat the solemn forms of devotion or profess to unite with those who utter them, without any corresponding emotions, the service is little more than mockery.”

  2. Reverence – “Nothing is more characteristic of the prayers recorded in the Bible, than the spirit of reverence by which they are pervaded.”

  3. Humility – “This includes, first, a due sense of our...uncleanness in the sight of God as sinners.”

  4. Importunity – “God deals with us as a wise benefactor. He requires that we should appreciate the value of the blessings for which we ask, and that we should manifest a proper earnestness of desire. If a man begs for his own life or for the life of one dear to him, there is no repressing his importunity.”

  5. Submission – “Every man who duly appreciates his relation to God, will, no matter what his request, be disposed to say, ‘Lord, not my will but thine be done.’”

  6. Faith – “We must believe. (a.) That God is. (b.) That He is able to hear and answer our prayers. (c.) That He is disposed to answer them. (d.) That He certainly will answer them, if consistent with his own wise purposes and with our best good.”

  7. Asking in the name of Christ – “Our Lord said to His disciples ‘Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive.’70 To act in the name of anyone is often to act by his authority, and in the exercise of his power....When one asks a favour in the name of another, the simple meaning is, for his sake. Regard for the person in whose name the favour is requested, is relied on as the ground on which it is to be granted.”71
How much sincerity is involved in repeating the same line over and over for many people? How importune were the prayers of the congregants when they were unaware of even the surnames of those for whom they were praying? Prayer, by its nature, is a very personal experience. The attempt to statistically analyze the effectiveness of prayer is doomed from the outset. Too many factors lie beyond the control of scientific experimentation.

You seem to find it unconscionable that God “could concern Himself with something as trivial as gay marriage or the name by which He is addressed in prayer...”72 Yet, suppose you took a class in which a significant portion of the grade depended upon class participation. Let’s say fifty people take the class and the professor asks questions of specific individuals that lead into short class discussions. The professor has a system of asking ten questions per class of various people at random and grading their responses. Short discussions follow each question, and you avidly participate. However, you are unaware that the grades are based upon the initial answers. Worse yet, you do not realize that the professor has your name wrong in his grade book. Rather than Sam Harris, he has Saul Morris! Every time he directs a question to Saul Morris he gets no response. You assume this guy should have dropped the course weeks ago. Unfortunately, when the grades come out, you will hardly think it trivial that the professor got your name wrong.

Prayer is not meaningless babble to an “imaginary friend,” as you suppose. The active participation of God in the life of a Christian becomes more apparent throughout the life of that Christian. “God’s ultimate will is unchanging, but the way in which He chooses to realize this will is dependent on the prayers of his children”73 Prayers do actually seem to change the apparent course of events in the lives of believers. Does this mean that God constantly changes His mind? No. Rather, He is aware of the changes that take place, and their effects, before they happen. They only appear to us as changes because we do not have His omniscient perspective.

Keep Reading!

Read Page 1 of Letter To A Christian Nation: A Response.


Footnotes:
67 Sam Harris, p. 52.
68 Francis Galton, Inquiries into human faculty and its development (London: Macmillan, 1883): 17, fn1.
69 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 63.
70 John 16:24. See also John 15:16 and John 14:13.
71 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology: Volume III (Hendrickson, 2003), p. 701-704. 72 Sam Harris, p. 55.
73 Walter A. Elwell, Ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker Booka: Grand Rapids, 1984), p. 867. See also John 1:12 and 1 John 3:1.


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