Does Prayer Work?

We had another loss in our family last night. Complications due to surgery took a young man’s life too soon.  We all knew it would be a risky procedure but it had to be attempted.  And to cover all the bases, a support thread was set up among all of us via the smartphone to dispense updates and information, and to solicit prayer for specific needs along the way.  

Late evening, I got an urgent message asking for prayer. The situation was dire.

We all prayed for recovery. And the opposite happened.

The next message was not what any of us wanted to hear. Instead of good news, all of us on the family text chain got the dreaded word. He had passed.  As I sat in the pain of shock, I could not help but ask why? Why is this our answer?

I’ve dealt with my share of loss over the years, I knew if I was going to take faith seriously, I would have to grapple with these questions: Does prayer have any relevance? Does anyone out there even hear our pleas for help?

Does prayer work?

To which I would now answer, no, it doesn’t work.

I don’t believe it works, much like the old clock in my hallway doesn’t work.  I can wind it with the key, but I can’t expect it to start ticking.  Neither can I anticipate the predictable chime on the quarter, half and top of the hour.  The clock is broken. It doesn’t work.

In the same way, prayer doesn’t work. 

But I still believe in it.

I’ve lived in the same house for 31 years this month. When I took ownership in April 1992, there was a little cultivated plot sectioned off in the northeast corner of the backyard. I didn’t have to do much to plant a garden that first year. And every year since, I’ve tended that little area with an array of vegetables and flowers, to levels of varying success over those years.

Never once has any friend, visitor or guest asked me how my garden works. That’s because there is a general understanding that people have about plants. 

They grow. They don’t work

That’s why no one asks me how my garden works. Instead, they want to know how I do it? How do I keep the pests away? How do I keep the weeds back? How do I get such colorful produce? How do I know when to plant? Do I do the same thing every year? 

These are questions for a gardener, not a mechanic.

Organic life grows. Mechanical devices work.

Herein is the fundamental shift I had to make in order to understand the ancient practice of a prayer of faith. It doesn’t work. It can’t work because it is organic, not mechanical.

My understanding of my Maker is living and biological, not automated and mechanical. It is mysterious, not logical. There is no owners manual with step by step instructions and a separate parts list in case something breaks and I need to order a new one. Some would argue that the Scriptures are that guide, but from my vantage point, I would have to disagree. The 66 books of text tell a story that moves and breathes. It doesn’t follow orders.

If we want to have a dialogue about prayer, I won’t have much to say about how it works. But I can tell you how I’ve seen it grow.

A gardener doesn’t have to know botany or own a book on gardening to begin the activity. All that is required is to put seeds in the ground and stand back and pay attention. As movement begins to be evident, the gardener watches sprouts come up, leaves to expand and roots to sink deeper. As fruit appears, a hand reaches to pluck one and sample it.  Joy ensues. A garden has grown.

And in 31 years I’ve nurtured a garden, I’m a much better gardener now.  I still plant every spring despite last year’s hail storm and tomato blight.  I keep trying and keep improving the process.

Yes, I believe in prayer. I just don’t believe it works.

3 Replies to “Does Prayer Work?”

  1. I really needed to read this today as my mother faces an enormous health struggle. l am so sorry to hear of your loss. I send comfort and, yes, prayers. Kevin, you help so many when you share with your writing. It is such a blessing, as are you.

  2. Thank you so much for this writing! It reframes the whole context! This is also why prayer changes me… not necessarily things. Appreciate this deep down fertilizing of my soul!

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