What’s the Point of Prayer?

Don: God’s original plan, it seems, was to be in constant, continual contact with humankind. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve walked and talked with Him. Even after the Fall from the garden, God maintained constant conversation with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Elijah, Elisha, and the other prophets. Throughout the theocracy—the period when the Israelites were ruled directly by God—there seems to have been such direct communication. This was made manifest in the the Urim and the Thummim, two stones embedded in the breastplate of the High Priest through which God revealed His will and answered questions.

When the Israelites replaced the theocracy—direct rule by God—with worldly rule by a human king, direct interaction with God gradually decreased. There were still occasional warnings and calls for repentance, but in general prayers to God seemed much less sure of being answered. Nevertheless, humankind continued and continues to this day to pray. Believers in particular insist that prayer is beneficial.

Jamie Ducharme asked in Time magazine of February 15, 2018: “Do Religious People Live Longer?”:

You Asked: Do Religious People Live Longer?
By Jamie Ducharme
February 15, 2018

If a long life is what you’re after, going to church may be the answer to your prayers.

A number of studies have shown associations between attending religious services and living a long time. One of the most comprehensive, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2016, found that women who went to any kind of religious service more than once a week had a 33% lower chance than their secular peers of dying during the 16-year study-follow-up period. Another study, published last year in PLOS One, found that regular service attendance was linked to reductions in the body’s stress responses and even in mortality–so much so that worshippers were 55% less likely to die during the up to 18-year follow-up period than people who didn’t frequent the temple, church or mosque.

You don’t have to become a nun to get these health benefits, however. The simple act of congregating with a like-minded community might deserve much of the credit. Tyler VanderWeele, one of the authors of the JAMA study and a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says factors related to churchgoing–like having a network of social support, an optimistic attitude, better self-control and a sense of purpose in life–may account for the long-life benefits seen in his study and others.

Indeed, it’s also the values drawn from religious tradition–such as “respect, compassion, gratitude, charity, humility, harmony, meditation and preservation of health”–that seem to predict longevity, not the dogma preached at the altar, says Howard Friedman, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and co-author of the book The Longevity Project.

Fostering these qualities may even affect rates of chronic disease, says Marino Bruce, a co-author of the PLOS One study and a research associate professor of medicine, health and society at Vanderbilt University. “Having that sense that you’re not in the world alone, that you are part of a power larger than oneself, can give one confidence to deal with the issues of life,” Bruce says. “Biologically, if that reduces stress, then that means you’re less likely to have high blood pressure or diabetes or things that can increase mortality.”

But what if organized religion isn’t your style? Can solo prayer–or even a more abstract sense of faith or spirituality–provide the same payoff?

It’s difficult to say with certainty, because going to church is easier to measure than the intimate, individual way a person might practice religion. And the research on praying has been mixed. Some studies have found that prayer can improve disease outcomes and prolong survival, while others have been less conclusive. One 2006 study published in the American Heart Journal even found that people who knew they were being prayed for before undergoing heart surgery were more likely to experience complications than people who didn’t know whether they were in others’ prayers.

But prayer has been shown to be powerful, in at least one way. It triggers the relaxation response, a state of mind-body rest that has been shown to decrease stress, heart rate and blood pressure; alleviate chronic disease symptoms; and even change gene expression. This state is typically linked to activities like meditation and yoga, and research suggests it can also be found through praying.

Given that uncertainty and the accumulating evidence supporting communal religious participation, VanderWeele says solitary practitioners might want to consider congregating every once in a while.

“Might you be missing out on something–the power of religion and spirituality–by not participating communally?” VanderWeele says. “That’s not saying, ‘You should have religious beliefs to live longer.’ That’s saying, ‘You already hold these beliefs. Maybe it would be worthwhile to consider communal participation.’”

Jesus said:

[A]ll things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive. (Matthew 21:21-22)

What did He mean? Surely, every one of us has prayed for something and not received it. The key word seems to be the conditional “believing”—in Greek, πιστεύω ((pisteúō, pist-yoo’-o; to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing), i.e. credit; by implication, to entrust (especially one’s spiritual well-being to Christ):—believe(-r), commit (to trust), put in trust with..Strong’s.))

This same word was used when Jesus healed the servant of a centurion:

And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very moment. (Matthew 8:13)

…and when Jesus healed three blind men:

When He entered the house, the blind men came up to Him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.” Then He touched their eyes, saying, “It shall be done to you according to your faith.” And their eyes were opened. (Matthew 9:28-30)

…and in warning us against becoming stumbling blocks to children:

…but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

…and…

Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

…and…

Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. (Mark 11:23)

…and…

He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. (Mark 16:16)

Besides the problem of believing, we have another:

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; (Romans 8:26)

What is it we need to know about prayer? What is the role of belief? Two aspects of prayer seem to be important: (1) The content and (2) the wanted outcome of prayer. In the Lord’s Prayer, the first wanted outcome is that the will of God be done on earth as it is in Heaven. And if we let the spirit—the inner light, the eternity set in our hearts—pray on our behalf, then we are aligned with the will of God:

…and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:27)

When that happens:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28)

“According to His purpose” is another way of saying that we are aligned with God’s will. It seems that our will is naturally contrary to God’s, but the good news is that we don’t necessarily have to align it ourselves—the spirit will do it for us, if we let it. I think this belief in the power of the spirit is what is meant by “belief” as used in all these passage.
Prayer which is always answered, and for the good, is: “Please God, align me with your will.”

Paul gave us an example of a prayer that is NOT answered:

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Instinctively, we seem to believe that when we are aligned with the will of God we will be freed of fear and need, but this is not so. We will still have deprivations but it is through them that our power is perfected. A delicate balance exists between the mighty prayers that show God’s power and the power that is perfected in weakness. We often praise God about the wonder of answered prayer, but we seldom hear talk from the pulpit about unanswered prayer. Nobody wants to serve a powerless and ineffective God. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told Peter, who pulled his sword to fend of the soldiers come to arrest Him, that He did not doubt His Father could send thousands of angels to his defense if He, Jesus, asked. But Jesus wanted His Father’s will to prevail, not His own.

We all want ten thousand angels we can call on to help us when in need. This is the power we seek through prayer. But what we should seek is that God’s will be done.

David: The appeals cited in the Time magazine article included yoga and meditation, as well as prayer. Yoga and meditation are designed to cause introspection, and Jesus Himself seemed to suggest, in saying that we should pray in private, that when we pray it should be personal and introspective rather than communal.

Don: The studies mentioned in the Time article seem to show that communal worship is associated with longevity and may even have some epigenetic influence.

Donald: We seem almost to use routine communal prayer just as a way to divide time. In between sessions, we may lapse into conflict, and communal prayer at least serves to let us give voice to common purpose. But it seems also to serve more as public bulletin board than as engaging God in conversation. And speaking of conversation: We have no difficulty talking to God, but we have great difficulty listening or even hearing Him!

Aishwarya: On the few occasions I have been inside a church, I did not understand the services but even without praying I did feel a sense, as I do in a Hindu temple, of serenity, which then led to introspection.

Leena: I too have been to church a few times, and always had so many thoughts crowding my head. In church or temple, we might start with thoughts about what we want or need or don’t like but through that serene introspection we start to realize that we don’t really need what we think we need, or we find the strength to accept that we must face up to our problems. This seems to be the process of aligning our thoughts with the will of God and thereby finding comfort and peace.

David: When Jesus said “Ask for anything and you shall receive” I believe He meant “Ask for any spiritual thing you need.” Since asking for a win in the lottery or for one’s child’s cancer to be cured are not spiritual, they will not be answered. As Leena so well described, we can go through a process of alignment that leads us to acceptance of bad things and the comfort that comes from knowing that what is happening is God’s will. If all that we ask for is spiritual, then it is assured of an answer. But I wonder, what are examples of spiritual requests? Is there really only one—“Please let your will be done”?

Michael: Freedom from fear and difficulties may be the main motivations for prayer, but I don’t see that as being part of God’s plan for us. But prayer can bring psychological and emotional relief in moments of distress.

Robin: To pray for a sick child or friends may seem selfish rather than spiritual, but since such prayer is prayed out of love, than it is spiritual, since love is a fruit of the spirit.

Jay: God does ask us to live “the hard life” vs. “the easy life”. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blessed those who are persecuted and poor in spirit. He told us to love our enemy and to give up all to help others. These are hard things for humans to do. Prayer should not only be about us and our needs and desires and troubles; it should have a communal aspect. It is “Our Father,” not “My Father” in the Lord’s Prayer. Setting aside time for prayer in a purposeful, meaningful way can help us to align our will with God’s (a better way to put it might be “to accept God’s will”). I think God answers prayer for others (vs. prayer for ourselves) and prayer for our alignment with His will.

Donald: Prayer to accept God’s will brings peace. Does public prayer lead to community peace? What is the need for public prayer?

David: Jesus said to pray in private. Yet there is a sense of holiness in grand cathedrals, mosques, and temples conducive to personal prayer as described by Aishwarya and Leena. One can pray privately in one’s head while the rest of the congregation intones a set public liturgy. They invoke a spiritual mood.

Michael: Public prayer is an affirmation of the creed of the particular church. In a Catholic church, one is required to stand up and recite the Nicene Creed.

David: Aishwarya described being in churches where she did not know what was taking place (it might as well have been a recital of the Nicene Creed) and could therefore let her mind dwell on personal, private, introspective thoughts instead. I believe such to be more meaningful and valid than the recitation of any creed or public prayer the reciters of which tend not even to hear any more what they are reciting from memory rather than from the heart. For many, it has become just background noise, while their thoughts are on the golf game after Mass.

Don: I went into several mosques during my recent visit to the Middle East. I was struck by the feelings of solemnity and reverence and solitude they induced in me. We tend to feel the same in all great edifices built for God.

Donald. We seem to agree that a quiet environment is conducive to prayer and to our spiritual journey, yet community churches—which are growing in America—are anything but quiet! We struggle somewhat with what is an appropriate amount of noise and activity, even in our Adventist churches.

Aishwarya: A community prayer is also personal at some level; but we feel that our prayer is strengthened when we pray it together with other people and will work for someone.

Robin: Scripture has many examples where Jesus, Moses, Samuel, the disciples, and others prayed for others. Jesus prayed for the disciples before his crucifixion. Paul said:

For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,… (Colossians 1:9)

But we can’t have community prayer in truth if we have not made ourselves right through prayer.

David: Though I have not attended one, I find the idea of Quaker meetings, held in almost total silence in plain, unadorned rooms, an attractive idea. They seem both communal and personal. Yet I doubt they induce the same spiritual awe as the grand cathedral, temple, or mosque. Megachurches (I gather from seeing video) are also sparsely decorated relative to a grand cathedral. They are essentially stadia, and depend (I suspect—I have not been to one in person) for any sense of spirituality solely on the skill of the preacher in introducing his or her version of God to the audience. The skill of the preacher is in making each one of the thousands of people in the audience feel that he is addressing them and their needs and wants personally. It’s hard to criticize that, if a person in the audience is suffering and finds some relief through the preacher’s words and/or through the sense of community, but it still does not seem to me to be the best way to encounter God.

Donald: Sometimes we pray for a miracle. Are we asking for divine intervention? Do we expect prayer to be answered without it?

Don: We seem to want to harness God’s power. We want the ten thousand angels. We don’t want a God who doesn’t respond in that way.

Aishwarya: We want to know that when we are helpless, we can rely on God’s help.

Robin: Maybe we need to re-evaluate whether we should be asking for something or should it be more praise? Should we praise Him or petition Him?

Joyce: When I pray for someone undergoing a crisis—an illness, for example—to be relieved of their burden, sometimes praying together with a group of wonderful people, the answers don’t come the way we want them. The answer often is “No.” So then we pray that the person in crisis will at least be comforted. If they are, is it because God answered in person, or because somebody said “I’m praying for you”? And since God knows what is going to happen, and is not going to change His mind, and hundreds of people may pray for different results for the same thing, does it matter what we ask Him for? But we can’t help praying when we read a news story of three children dying in a fire—we automatically pray in our minds for some comfort for the distraught parent. They don’t know they are being prayed for. We just hope our prayers help, somehow, sometime. Or maybe we are praying to comfort our own distress at hearing such awful news.

Robin: Maintaining even unanswered prayer helps us to develop faith in God, and we may not know why He does not answer until we meet Him.

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