Prayer is one of those aspects of Christianity that is at once basic and yet mind-boggling. To a degree I can sympathize with naturalists (i.e. non-supernaturalists) who find prayer incomprehensible. I remember seeing a Readers Digest headline proclaiming the health benefits of prayer. How does one test the efficaciousness of prayer scientifically? You could find two people with the same type and stage of terminal cancer. One patient would be subjected to the prayers of ordinary and “holy” people. The control would be forbidden from receiving any prayer. If you wish, you could measure the length and intensity of individual prayers. Of course, you could never be totally sure that a great aunt somewhere wasn’t secretly praying for the control. Other problems arise. How do you quantify holiness or measure the intensity of prayer? Are certain techniques or formula for praying more effective than others? How does one determine if the prayer is simply acting as a placebo? There is also the question of God’s will. When a person’s prayer is not answered, the readiest explanation (or is it a rationalization) is that the object of the prayer was not God’s will. How could any prayer experiment account for the unfathomable will of God?
There are other problems. Would such an experiment be ethical? Proof of prayer’s efficacy would rest on the control dying and the recipient of prayer surviving. There is also the difficulty that scientists face in quantum physics. Observation changes results. Could observation by modern science affect the occurrence of miracles? Then again, should prayer be proved to cure cancer, some pharmaceutical company would be sure to patent a prayer formula and make millions from it.
This talk about prayer experiments suggest that we have a problem with the way we view prayer. Both those who believe in prayer and those who don’t tend to approach prayer in a mechanistic manner. In other words, “do x, get y”; simple causality. (Indeed many scientific experiments depend on the isolation of causes.) Certain traditions in Christianity believe that if your prayer fails to achieve its desired end, the fault is yours. Either you didn’t have enough faith or there is some secret sin that its hindering your prayer. Simply increase x and remove z and God will answer your prayer. I don’t doubt that sin and lack of faith can hinder prayer. Scripture makes this clear, but to reduce it to this is to perpetuate a half-truth.
Prayer does not operate in the sphere of mechanism, but relationship. When I use the word relationship, I do not mean to push prayer into the realm of mystery; if one defines mystery as that which is unknowable or a matter of blind acceptance (Mystery is another frequently misunderstood concept by believers and unbelievers alike. A definition of mystery, one which I am not fully satisfied with, is that a mystery is a matter of lived knowing rather than verbal articulation). Prayer involves relationship between a human and God and a human and other humans. A web of relationships is involved. Even when a person is praying about themselves to God, others are included (cf. Matt. 5:23-24, 6:15).
Take the marriage relationship as an example. We would not view a marriage relationship as healthy when one spouse simply does whatever his or her partner asks. The interchange in a healthy marriage is more complex than that. Requests arise from the intimacy and knowledge that exists in the relationship. Spouses take part in an ongoing harmonious exchange, where ideally the couple has moved beyond symmetrical reciprocity. (Symmetrical reciprocity gives each act a specific value and says that each person must give 50%.) Sometimes spouses fulfill each other’s requests before they are asked. Other times they delight to be asked first. When they do so they do it out of a knowledge of what their lover likes and dislikes. The more the partners know each other, the more their requests align with their shared life and will. It is less like a business transaction or chemical reaction and more like a dance.
In many ways this example is insufficient. I omitted other human beings from it. Each person adds complexity to a relationship. God is also the perfect lover, while we are the imperfect lover moving towards perfection. Still prayer, at its best, arises from one’s relationship with God.
There is also another difficulty when is comes to prayer. When we discuss prayer, we approach it from our own metaphysical perspective. For example, time for humans is a succession of moments and causality is linear. We try to understand prayer from this perspective because we know of no other. Certain people have reasonably suggested that this is not God’s perspective in regards to time and causality. My own inclination is to accept some form of Boethius’ proposal in Consolation of Philosophy. According to Boethius, all time is Present to God. This is the way he explains how God can foreknow the future without directly causing it and thereby destroying free-will. Merely watching does not cause something. Watching a quarterback throw a football does not mean that I caused him to throw it. Thus God see all time as present.
To give a simple example: God sees you praying at work for patience to deal with a coworker. One way he could “answer” your prayer is to give you a supernatural infusion of patience. This is the way we typically think of miracles working, a sudden intervention of God’s grace. But from another perspective, God has always seen you praying for patience. Through experiences years in advance, God has been building patience in you. Thus the moment comes and you don’t snap at your annoying coworker. The patience is not the result of a sudden intervention but a slow constant shaping. Of course, from our perspective, there may be no difference between the two. (Charles William’s fascinatingly plays with the idea of prayer operating in a nonlinear way in Descent into Hell.)
Similarly C.S. Lewis uses Boethius approach to time to explain how God can hear multiple prayers from people all over the world and yet be “present” to each individual. God is not limited by the need to deal with things one after another. Sequence is simultaneous and simultaneous can be sequence.
As with any relationship, it is far easier to talk about principles and ideals than it is to put them into practice. If prayer were mechanistic, it would be easy. You could read a book to learn the right formula or technique to make prayer “work.” Because pray is relationship it requires practice, living into patterns of behavior. It’s like the life of a vinyl record in reverse. Instead of a freshly pressed record becoming marred by scratches over time, we are to take the marred record of our life and wear grooves into it that will produce increasingly beautiful music. It takes time.