Tonight, as the media was broadcasting the terrible news of today's terror attacks in Paris, one of my students emailed me this question:
"As I come back home from a long day... [I am] watching the news about the shootings and bombings in Paris. NPR, the TV, and all my social media are swarming with the news. Everywhere I am seeing #PrayforParis, and it makes me wonder, does it really matter if we pray for these things? Prayer alone will not mobilize action, and although it is a nice gesture, what is the purpose? Is this because it is more convenient or commonplace for us to pray about something than to go and send money, or take reactive measures? Surely many more people will know about this news than the amount of people that will do something to actually help the situation."
And so I replied, summarizing some points I made in some previous essays on prayer here and here:
This is a great question. In fact, I hear two questions from you:
1. Does prayer do anything?
2. Does time spent in prayer waste time we could use for concrete action?
In regard to 1: First, let's start with a worst case scenario for prayer. Let's say there is no God who answers prayer (I think there is, but for the purpose of argument, let's start assuming there is not). If there is no God who answers prayer, what does prayer do, if anything? Prayer would then become a form of meditation or guided visualization to envision the positive outcomes we want to see in the world. By invoking concepts such as healing, justice, peace, love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy and joy, we begin to visualize them as realities that can occur in the world.
And in order to enact these values in the world, the first step is to visualize and believe they can happen. If we don't really believe in peace or can't see how peace could become a reality, we cannot work in the world to bring about concrete action to make it a reality. So, at a minimum, even if there is no God who answers prayer, prayer functions by changing US, by helping US visualize how WE can be the answer to our own prayers. I think this is very important, and would make prayer necessary even if God does not answer prayer in a traditional sense.
Now, let's go a step further. What if God answers prayer, but only within the person who prays. Let's envision God as a kind of energy: An energy of healing, of love, of justice, etc. If this is the kind of God there is, then prayer not only changes us as a kind of "guided visualization", but prayer actually tunes into the frequency of God and taps into the energy that is God. Prayer would then not only change our minds, but prayer would empower our abilities. We would become something like a conduit through which God works. Prayer would help us manifest the goodness of God in the world.
Now let's go a final step further. Let's say that God is not just a Divine energy that works within, but also the Divine Mind that gives order and structure to the Universe. The rational, mathematic laws of the universe are something like the self-expression of God, as God actively upholds the existence of every particular thing. If this is what God is, then God has the ability to influence the probability and outcome of events in the Universe (since the Universe itself is an expression of the Divine Mind). Thus, in a relational and interactive way, our prayers may be part of the process by which God influences the probability of certain events occurring. And if enough people are in harmony with a certain vision, seeking the energy and wisdom of God to accomplish that vision, then it could change the outcome of events.
As a concrete example: Think of the times in sports where one team had a common vision and sense of destiny that they would win, while the other team's vision eroded and they disintegrated. Sometimes all it takes for a less talented team to win over a more talented team is a stronger vision.
Now imagine that two groups of people are seeking God. One group is filled with hate and bitterness and fear, and they seek God to smite their enemies. Their ideology will eventually turn in on themselves because their hate and unforgiveness will eventually turn them against each other. The other group believes and envisions God as a Source of universal compassion and justice and joy and empathy and healing. If they keep recommitting themselves to this vision, over and over and over, and exemplify the values they believe, I think their prayers are eventually answered. Their hope will conquer despair. Their prayers will become answered. We saw it last century with the drive to civil rights, the drive to women's rights, and be drive to freedom in India.
This all speaks to prayer on a "macro" level. On a "micro" level, I think prayer can change things too (or rather, alter the probabilities of events occurring, so the new and life giving opportunities open up). I have prayed for the healing of many people. I have prayed alone. I have prayed with others. I have seen many people apparently un-affected by prayer, but I have seen some experience healing in ways I cannot fully explain. I have seen many more be changed in positive ways by being surrounded in prayer as they go through tough times. I cannot guarantee or predict outcomes. But I can say that someone who is prayed for, and who prays for themselves, almost always comes through in a better emotional state than they would have without prayer. And often it seems that prayer has a positive effect on their physical state as well.
All of this leads to 2: Should we spend time praying when we could spend time doing something more concrete?
First, there are times when our actions would do more harm than good, because we are not focused on the good we could do, nor have we envisioned the good we should do. So there are many times-- perhaps even daily-- when we loose the necessary vision to do the good we could do. Therefore I think it is necessary to pray on a daily basis if for no other reason than to envision and mentally rehearse the good we want to do in the world.
Now, if God is also the "energy" we tap into, and not just the good we visualize, then it would be prudent for us to pray regularly to tune in and tap into that energy to love, to give, to heal others. Without praying to tap into that divine energy, we are cheating ourselves out of the psychological and spiritual power to do the good we want to see in the world.
So, to maximize the amount of good we do in the world, it seems to me that some amount of regular prayer is in order. But there is such a thing as spending too much time dreaming/praying and not enough time doing. And to those people I would say: Get off your butt and put your prayers into action!
Second, there are times when we simply exhaust our resources and we can only respond with prayer. Such as when a loved one is horribly ill or injured and there is nothing else to do. Or when a tragedy happens (like Paris tonight) and we have no ability to directly influence events no matter what we physically do.
In these cases, it is not irrational to hope that by seeking God, we somehow help create conditions in the Divine Mind that can influence the probability of events in the world. If enough people truly focused on compassion and peace-- millions, hundreds of millions, billions-- then perhaps it would edge the possibility of that becoming a reality. Or perhaps our prayers for a sick person can somehow help release the energy of God's Love in their life, or help them tune into the life of God such that it shifts the probability of their immune system beating the infection. Like I said, I cannot guarantee that this will "work". But in situations where there is nothing you can physically do to help, and the choice is between doing literally nothing, or praying, I think prayer is the most rational option.
Finally, all of this was fairly philosophical. Let me end by speaking of personal experience. My personal experience is that I have profoundly experienced the emotionally and physically healing power of God in Jesus. And I have seen others have profound experiences too, sometimes in conjunction with my prayers for them. Through these experiences I have come to believe that God loves absolutely everyone and wants to share Godself with them. And that sharing only comes about through prayer or meditation. I can teach a lot of facts and philosophy, and I can preach and teach. But at the end of the day it is up to each of us to seek that Infinite Love and tune in for ourselves.
And that is ultimately why I pray. This is why I pray for myself and my loved ones every day. This is why I pray for my enemies. This is why I pray for the students and staff I minister with at school. This is why I pray for the sick and the homeless and the needy. This is why I pray for our world, our elected officials, our police and our military. This is why I pray for an end to violence and a just economic system. And that is why this night, I pray for Paris.
Because I think that God wants to change this world, and he wants to use us to do it. And I think that prayer is just the tip of the iceberg of opening ourselves to God's life flowing through us, as we tune our hearts and minds into God's Love and Life and Justice and Compassion and Peace. And I think that if enough of us open ourselves to this Divine energy, we can really make a difference. Prayer can make a difference. God can make a difference.