What does prayer do?

This is a theological meditation on something that I have been pondering for a while now: How can we conceive of prayer working if we operate within a contemporary scientific understanding of physics? Can a physicist- or anyone else- really pray and mean it? Or is prayer simply a form of talking to ourselves at a deep level?

If we assume that there is a God, and that God works through the processes and constants which God designed to govern the world (the so-called "laws of nature"), instead of working against or around these "laws", then we must reconsider how prayer works. Because, if God works in harmony with nature through her "laws", then we cannot posit a God who is constantly tweaking and breaking these "laws" to effect change in the world in response to our prayers. This would in fact be a denial of the goodness of God's creation, and the competence of the Creator, if we have to posit a world where God has to break his own laws constantly to effect his will in the world.

It would also posit a morally ambiguous God who is acting "less beneficent" at certain times (i.e. when NOT doing anything in response to prayer) and "more beneficent" at others times (i.e. when acting to ANSWER prayer). It would seem that if God is the kind of "Ultimate Good" which Christian theology claims, God must at all times be at work in the world for good, drawing all beings into that Ultimate Goodness, while not coercing them or denying their freedom. Something about prayer must be the uncovering of, and participation in, the Good that God is already doing, not merely causing God to act in a good way that God would not have done without us asking.

Yet, if God is personal and cares for us, it is also highly problematic to say that prayer does nothing different in response to prayer. For, if God is a person and I communicate with this person, yet God does absolutely nothing in response to me, then God must surely be either apathetic or even antithetic to me. Thus, prayer seems to presuppose some genuine interaction, some deep sympathy or co-suffering with us, when we pray. This is especially true when one of the key theological claims of the Christian tradition is that, in Christ, God does indeed suffer with us and take our sufferings into the Divine Life.

In fact, in speaking of specifically Christian claims about the Divine Nature, the view of prayer I wish to propose is predicated on a view of God as a Triune relational community of Love, who is manifest in our lives and our theology in three distinct but inter-penetrating and overlapping ways:

(1) God as "Father", who is both the ultimate Source of all existence, and also the transcendent, unitive Goal of all beings.
(2) God as "Son", borne from the Father as the Pattern of rationality (the "Logos" or Word) which makes the universe rational and understandable, and who becomes embodied in Jesus to visibly bear our sufferings and overcome them in resurrection.
(3) God as "Spirit", the immanent energy that grounds all existence and makes it possible for us to seek harmony with the Father by coming into harmony and union with the Pattern of Love ("Logos") embodied in Jesus.

And yet, as deeply Christian as these affirmations are, I also want to propose a view of prayer that is also open to all people of good will, who are drawn to Divine goodness, truth, and beauty without necessarily having a metaphysical explanation for Divinity (such as the Trinity) or even who may deny the Divine while affirming the virtues that emanate from a life lived in harmony with the Divine. I want to echo Saint Paul, who as a follower of Jesus affirmed a Pagan poet by quoting that "within God we live and move and exist" (Acts 17). Any Christian theory of how prayer works must not only work for Christian believers, but also for all people who participate in prayer, even if they do not realize it is prayer they are doing.

So, as a believer in God as Triune, loving, and personal- and as one who accepts the goodness of God's creation and the validity of the scientific knowledge we have gained of this world's processes- I want to develop a view of prayer that presents God as both one who is responsive to our prayers, but also who works within the "laws" God himself made for Creation; Who is transcendent, immanent and personal as the Trinity, but who also welcomes all who seek God no matter what title they use for Divinity. Here is my tentative answer to this conundrum:

Prayer comes in many forms. It consists primarily of ANY human activity that is consciously directed toward God and/or that seeks to manifest the virtues that are expressions of Divine Life (such as Love, justice, compassion, hope, goodness, truth, beauty, etc.). Prayer is "human activity directed Godward". This includes actions such as verbal prayer, or oration, in which we speak to God, whether in known word or unknown "tongues". It includes meditation, in which we mentally wrestle with concepts and ideas with God. It includes the wordless inaction of silence, in which we simply contemplate God's presence. Yet it also includes actions we do in the world in conscious service of God and/or dedication to personal and social virtues. Finally, prayer can be dispute and argument with God, as we struggle with the vast disparity that exists between our painful and chaotic world and the world of perfect hope and healing that God draws us to.

So, that is what prayer IS. The question is: What does prayer DO?

Prayer, in all its many forms, primarily effects HARMONY of the self with the Triune God. It tunes us into the frequency of God's Love so we may broadcast the Spirit's music in all we think, say, and do. It allows us to resonate with the Pattern God has always been broadcasting across the fabric of space-time. It syncs our lives to the rhythm of the Triune God so hearts may beat in time with God's. The harmonizing effect of prayer is manifest in five primary dimensions of communion, guidance, healing, empowerment, and compassion. These dimensions are systemically interlinked and flow logically from and through one another.

COMMUNION: Prayer tunes us in to God, allowing the frequency of divine Love to vibrate through us, as our self is drawn into harmony with Godself, bringing a personal emotional connection with God, felt in peace, serenity, trust, commitment, hope, joy, and passion to pursue God more deeply.

This communion grounds and centers the self in Transcendent Reality and Ultimate Value, allowing the self to have a stable Source or Nexus to tether to in the midst of the ever fluctuating chaos of the world we live in. Or perhaps a more apt analogy is that the centering effect of prayer is a bit like the board a surfer rides on in chaotic waves. It does not keep the surfer (or pray-er) in one place, but allows a stable and flexible perspective from which the pray-er can act creatively in a fast paced and ever-changing world.

GUIDANCE: By so attuning us, prayer guides us into God's will, by allowing us to see the Pattern of God's goodness, truth, and beauty at work in the world, as we become open to new potentials for creativity and freedom, through perceiving new ways to view and use the infinite potentiality which has always been present all around us.

By being in sync with divine Love, on the same wavelength as the Spirit, we have a perspective on Reality that cannot be gained from any other location or trajectory, and thus this perspective allows us to see God's will "revealed" in a radically new way, even though the potentiality has been there all along. Prayer makes us aware of what God has always been at work doing, discovering God's presence even though God has always been here.

This is where the spoken prayer of oration, and the practice of meditation, are particularly important. Both allow us sustained practice repeating certain words, concepts and ideas, which then become imprinted in our consciousness, and then become part of the Pattern by which we interpret the world and look for divine guidance. Thus, the words we use in prayer and the concepts we meditate on form a sort of lens through which we view the world. This is one reason why the words and concepts of our prayer matter. Some words and concepts help us practice and rehearse the virtues that express God's will. Other words and concepts tend to hide and obscure those virtues. Thus, prayer is not just silence or action. It is carefully chosen words and concepts that draw us into the divine life.

HEALING: By so vibrating through us, prayer allows us to align ourselves and those we pray for with God's healing power, so that the healing Light of Christ begins to restore the functionality of body, spirit, and soul, as the energy of Love re-aligns our components- particles, cells, emotions, thoughts- with God's life.

At first hearing, this may sound fantastic. Perhaps as fantastic as it may have sounded to people 3000 years ago if we told them that a life threatening infection could be cured by simply ingesting a few capsules of medicine. But healing technology is fundamentally about energizing, empowering and guiding the matter which makes up the body to heal itself. If that is so, the healing power of divine Love must be an integral part of both the motivation and action that makes healing possible.

As matter is the reification of energy, and energy is the quantification of the vibrating wave patterns of the multi-dimensional "strings" that make up space-time, so prayer allows us to synchronize these vibrations to affect matter-energy in space-time, so that within the field of logical probability, quantum events are influenced by prayer in the direction of increased life, increased love, and increased potentiality.

Thus we know that mental energies and patterns effect action in our physical bodies, including psycho-somatic healing mechanisms. And we also know that these mental patterns are transferred into the world around us by our bodies through tangible activities as diverse as hard labor and programming electronics, and by less tangible means such as memes and music. And chaos theory tells us that small events can effect large changes within interconnected ecological systems (the proverbial butterfly that leads to a hurricane). If this is so, it is not hard to conceive how minds that resonate with the healing love of Christ can effect patterns of healing within the organic, social and ecological systems they are embedded in.

This is not an alternative to the healing technology of internal medicine (to heal people) or environmental ecology (to heal the world). Rather, any technology that is used rightly for the healing and health of others is ALSO an act of prayer. The doctor with the scalpel and the priest with anointing oil compliment each other, with one working to bring the body in line with the healing desire of the soul, and the other working to bring the soul into harmony with the God who wills healing for creation. So healing prayer is not only enacted through words of blessing, but also through acts of medicine.

EMPOWERMENT: The guidance and healing which is released by prayer bringing us in tune with God makes us an agent of change in the world, embodying the Christ life, exemplifying the harmony of divine Love, inviting others to see new perspectives through the use of our creativity, and encouraging others to live into that harmony.

To tap into the "harmony" metaphor once more, I think this functions a bit like how music works on the human psyche. We know that, at one level, music is just sound vibrations. You can play music of various types to cats and caterpillars and other animals, without any visible effect. Yet, for sentient beings, such as humans, the patterns vibrations of music carry a powerful effect. It can trigger emotion. It can make us cry. It can lead us to dance. Music is able to bring about behaviors and boldness that almost seems impossible without music.

When we pray, our self is brought into harmony with the divine melody of Love, the divine rhythm of justice. This energizes and empowers us to act boldly in the world: To say things we would not normally say, to do tasks we once thought impossible, to remain steadfast despite overwhelming odds. In short, prayer empowers us to boldly stand for God's truth and goodness and beauty even when the world is falling apart around us.

COMPASSION: Our attunement with the healing love of God makes us deeply aware of the situations where there is disharmony and sickness in ourselves, in others, and in our world, and thus we experience a divine compassion- a "suffering-with" others- that can be profoundly disorienting, painful, sad, angry, and even depressing, but which leads us to deeper prayer and action to bring healing and harmony.

So true prayer does not merely bring contentment and pleasure and positive feelings into a person's life. True prayer also is a spur, a goad, which pricks the conscience into missional action to give of oneself to heal the world. Until all the universe and all sentient creatures are fully healed, fully whole, fully in harmony with each other and their Source, prayer must bring with it not only joy, but pain, not only prosperity, but persecution, not only self-actualization, but self-sacrifice. Thus prayer is a paradoxical gift which can only fully be realized at the completion and fulfillment of all things, despite what some "prosperity gospel" preachers and gurus claim. Prayer spurs us to protest situations of injustice, apathy, and hatred in the world, and work with God's love to heal those situations, even at great cost to ourselves. For that too is a profound act of prayer which brings us into harmony with God.

I guess I could sum up the way prayer works by saying that it primarily works by changing the human self and aligning the self with God. But the change in a self never stays merely contained in that self. It has effects on the world that the self inhabits, rippling out in concentric circles of healing and change. A simple example of this is that the energy of love produces a thought in my brain, my brain triggers an action by my body, and my body acts on the world to do good. It flows from the personal encounter to the embodied action.

This is different than saying that the prayer affects God and causes God to act directly on the world without acting first in and through the person who prayed. Prayer is not "calling in an air strike" from God outside of my self, but rather plugging into a power source that flows through me into my world. The principle of Incarnation stands: God works primarily through embodied persons first and foremost, and through them, the world.

To put it another way: In prayer, God changes me, and that change in turn changes the world around me.

I am not saying that this is the only way God can or does act. But it seems to me to be normative of both what I have learned and experienced in prayer. And it is in this way that I make sense of Scriptures such as James 5:16.

In Greek the verse reads like this:

Πολὺ (Adverb - great, exceeding)
ἰσχύει (Verb - it is strong, powerful)
δέησις (Noun - prayer, supplication)
δικαίου (Noun - of/from the righteous person, one who is in right relation to God, in harmony with God)
ἐνεργουμένη (Adjective modifying prayer - meaning energized or effective).

I think this translates nicely as: "The energized prayer of a person who is in harmony with God is very powerful."

The person who is energized by the divine power of love that comes from harmony with God is powerful indeed. Powerful in a way that seems like weakness to a world that values success and profitability and coercive force. But in the end it is only the weak force of Love bringing humans in harmony with God that can bring about the healing and beauty that we were made for.

And so, with all of that said, I guess the only thing left to do is pray:

LORD, prayer shapes our beliefs; Beliefs control what we do:
Tune the music of our prayers to harmonize our lives with you.
God, grant that our prayer brings the harmony of communion
That we may be guided into healing, power and compassion.
So we know you more clearly, and love you more dearly,
And every day in every way, follow you more nearly. Amen.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.