A few nights ago, we finished our prayer time and Kenna and Alexa ran off to their beds. Nathan, however, remained seated where our prayer circle had been. He had the look on his little face that means he’s lost in thought.
“What’s up, buddy?” I asked him.
“Mommy, God doesn’t always heal. Sometimes it’s medicine, right?”
One of the things we had just prayed about was that Nathan would get well quickly from his cough. Earlier in the day, I had given him some medicine. I was pretty surprised that at age 4 he was contemplating the relationship between God’s work and human work! I was even more surprised at how unprepared I was to respond to his question.
“Well, God is the one who created the doctors and gave scientists the knowledge to make the medicine.”
Hmmm…not a great answer. God did do those things, but if that’s all that’s necessary, why did we just bother to pray for healing? I tried again.
“But here’s the thing. Even though God gives us doctors and medicine, that’s not always enough for our bodies to heal. Sometimes they are too broken. We don’t always know when medicine will work, so we want to ask God to heal us too.”
Oh gosh. Even worse answer. Now I’ve made the effects of medicine seem completely ambiguous and reduced God to a medical insurance policy for when medicine falls through. I tried again.
“The Bible doesn’t tell us how exactly prayer works, but it does tell us to pray all the time and bring all our worries to God. So that’s what we do each night.”
Sigh. That’s true, but it feels like such an unsatisfactory answer.
Truth be told, Nathan’s question only scratches the surface of prayer questions I have. Consider the tragedy in Boston this week. When I have no idea how to pray in such circumstances, I ask for things like God’s peace and comfort for those who were hurt. If I didn’t pray, would God not give those people peace on His own? Is there some critical mass, where if 10,236 people pray for peace, God answers, but not before that? Does God add one more person to the “receive more peace” list each time He receives a new prayer? Does He comfort someone just a little if no one prays, but more and more when lots of people are praying?
I don’t mean to sound sarcastic. These are genuine questions that parade in the back of my mind when I really think about the nature of prayer. Perhaps you can relate.
I’ve spent most of my life pushing those questions to the back of my mind because I assumed I just wasn’t spiritually mature enough to have a better grasp of the possible answers. I thought I just didn’t get it. But I realized recently it’s not just me who doesn’t have those answers. None of us do. Because the Bible never tells us how prayer “works.”
Think, for a moment, of the prayer process as a machine with 3 parts: 1) Our prayers (the input), 2) God’s consideration of those prayers (the inner machine that uses the input) and 3) God’s answers (the output).
The Bible does tell us quite a bit about the input into the process – our prayers. It tells us how often to pray (constantly!) and gives us examples of how we should pray, what we should pray for and whom we should pray for. It also gives us examples of the output – answered and unanswered prayers.
But what does the Bible tell us about how God considers those prayers – taking into account the entirety of His perspective, His working together of millions of prayers, the role of an individual’s prayer vs. the collective prayers of others for that person, etc.? Nothing. We simply don’t know how God’s “prayer machine” works.
It’s funny that, despite the absolute lack of information we’re given about how prayer works, we are quite concerned with the prayer machine’s efficiency. In the world of real machines, efficiency refers to how much good output you get relative to the input. We often treat prayer as a machine by analyzing the potential efficiency of various prayer choices; we try to figure out what topics and words we can input that will produce the most desirable output from God.
We do this because we don’t want to feel like our words are simply inputs into a machine with no output. That would be too inefficient for us. We want to be productive people, never wasting time on something without an understandable or measurable return. We want to contribute meaningful input to get meaningful output.
The problem is, we have no actual ability to create “efficient” prayers. A machinist would tell you that you can’t control efficiency without understanding the machine’s process. Similarly, without the knowledge of God’s process, we have no ability to control the “output” with our “input.”
Perhaps that’s precisely why God kept his “prayer machine” a mystery. If we understood all the pieces, we would only need to rely on our correct inputs rather than God’s sovereignty.
The fact that the Bible tells us over and over to pray while giving us little knowledge of how God actually uses our prayers leaves me with the conclusion that prayer is overwhelmingly about humility. It’s a posture of total trust placed not in anything we do or say, but in the power of God’s sovereignty. It’s an understanding that God is God and we are not. It’s a gratitude that God has even chosen to hear us.
May we all march on as prayer warriors who understand that participation is our role, not battle management.