I was a guest at a church in North Wales and was touched by the sermon on prayer. It seemed very relevant to share as I know many people pray to God about their relationship status. The priest (Terence Carr) kindly emailed me his notes and I hope you’ll find his thoughts as useful as I did.
“A few years ago, an American university held an experiment to try to see how effective prayer is. To do this, they collected information about a number of volunteers who were in hospital seriously ill. The details of half the group were sent to religious groups around the world and these were asked to pray for the sick volunteers. The other half of the sick patients were not prayed for at all. None of the volunteers knew which group it was that they belonged to.
When the results of the experiment came through, it was found that those who had been prayed for did not survive or recover any better than those who had not been prayed for. So the conclusion was that prayer made no difference. If that is that case then why bother to pray for the sick patients in the hospital or indeed for anything or anyone? It’s not such a cynical question as you might think. Does prayer work? Does it make any real difference at all when we pray for someone and if so, how?
For the Israelites in today’s first reading (Ex 17: 8 – 13), there was no problem here. While Moses prayed with his arms outstretched, they were successful and prevailed over their enemies but when his arms grew tired and he stopped, everything began to go pear-shaped for them. The gospel this morning (Luke 18 1-8) gives us the impression that Jesus himself had the same simplistic view of prayer. If, like the widow in the story, you persist in prayer, he tells us, you can be sure that God will give you what you want. If, on the other hand, you give up on prayer, he won’t – simple as that.
Well, is it that simple? How on earth are we to make sense of all this? If God really loves us and knows what we need before we even ask him for it, then why does he want us to pray for it? Surely it can’t be that he wants us to inform him of our needs – he already knows them doesn’t he? Furthermore, it surely can’t be to persuade him to change his mind and give us something that he wasn’t going to give us until we got down on our knees and prayed for it, can it? After all, God is perfect and perfection doesn’t change so how can God change his mind? The truth is that God does not change and God does not change his mind, however much we might like to think that our prayers to persuade him to. What is more, you only have to look at the world around you to realise that any idea that says God only helps those who pray and doesn’t help those who don’t pray is absurd.
So why pray at all then? Well, St Luke gives us a clue when he says in our Gospel this morning, “…so that we might never lose heart.” We’ll never know this side of eternity, why God seems to answer some prayers in the way that we want and not others. After all, how did the university that did the experiment which I mentioned earlier, know that God had not answered the prayers for the sick volunteers in ways that they couldn’t see or measure, say, by helping the sick patients to carry the cross of their suffering and illness, in the knowledge that someone cared enough for them to pray for them?
However God, who is constant and does not change, chooses to answer our prayers, our prayers surely have the power to move and change us. When we pray for peace, surely we are much more likely to become peacemakers ourselves; when we pray for the sick, are we not much more likely to be more conscious of their needs and better disposed to help them in practical ways? The way in which God answers our prayers is not simply to give us exactly what we want as, when and how we want it – if that were the case, then my guess is that almost every one of us here today would win the lotto. Imagine then, what kind of world we would be living in – or, better still perhaps, try no to imagine it!
Rather, the way that God answers our prayers is to say; “I hear what you say and what you are asking for – now I’ll help you to do what is necessary to make it a reality – as far as is good for you and those you are praying for.”
The greatest of all prayers – the one that Jesus himself taught us, says: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That sentiment must be at the heart of all our prayers – if it isn’t, then our prayers risk being simply self-centred wishful thinking; but if, when we pray, we believe that God’s will for us alone is what will bring us ultimate happiness, then we’ll never lose heart, whatever the answer to our prayers is.
The best prayer that we can ever pray is the prayer that we model on Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane; “Father, if it be possible, take this cup away from me, yet not my will but your will be done.” Fervently as he prayed that night, Jesus’ prayer was not answered in the way that he wanted – it did not save him from the cross – but it did lead to the resurrection. God’s will was done and, in that, our prayers and those of all humankind for all time were answered.