If prayer works, I want some of this prayer stuff. But the moment prayer appears to stop working—my illness didn’t disappear, my bank balance seems to be depleting, the things I keep asking God for don’t seem to be happening—well, prayer has lost its appeal. Prayer doesn’t seem to be working anymore.
Of course, I do think prayer actually works. By which I mean, I do believe praying actually achieves real things in the world. I think James 4:2-3 means exactly what it says: ‘you do not have because you do not ask’. The implied point being, you would have if you did ask. I also take James at face value when he says, ‘The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect’ (5:16). If you have been made righteous in Christ, your prayers can and will have powerful effects. God works through his people’s prayers to actually change things in the world. I believe all of that, absolutely.
So, why do I think we need to stop saying ‘prayer works’? I mean, I do think it works, after all. The thing is, I think it works like it is supposed to work. I don’t think it works in the sense that whenever I ask for stuff I always get what I want. But it is that latter idea that many people seem to hear whenever ‘prayer works’ gets voiced.
How does this calculation work? Something like this:
Q: Why should I bother praying?
A: Because prayer works.
Q: So, if prayer doesn’t appear to work, I shouldn’t bother praying?
A: But prayer does work.
Q: Okay, but let’s assume that one day it doesn’t, I should stop praying then?
Q: But didn’t you say I should pray because prayer works?
Q: So how does that argument work?
A: My argument doesn’t work.
Can you see the problem? ‘Prayer works’ reduces the entire value of prayer to its efficacy as we judge it. I need healing from my illness, no problem, prayer works! But the minute prayer doesn’t seem to work, well, prayer becomes useless to me. It has stopped working and that was the entire point wasn’t it?
Interestingly, this sort of thinking owes more to Israel’s constantly being pulled away to worship Baal than it does to anything Christian. What was the continual draw to Baal all about? Essentially, Baal promised fertility, which meant produce, which meant plenty to eat and even more to sell. Baal looked like a good proposition when you need that sort of stuff. But the minute Baal stopped appearing to work for Israel, like when Elijah prayed for the rain to stop because God wanted to show Israel who actually controlled these things, Israel had no problem returning to the Lord. Not because they loved him most, particularly, but he now seemed like a better proposition for getting the real stuff they wanted. So, sure, we’re team Yahweh now because he seems to work better than Baal after all.