Does Prayer Work?

“While Peter was held in prison, the church offered earnest prayer to God for him. The night before Herod was going to bring Peter’s case forward, Peter was asleep between two soldiers and bound with two chains, with soldiers guarding the prison entrance.”

Acts 12:5, 6 (Common English Bible)


              Albert Einstein once said that to continue to do something in the same way and to expect different results is the definition of insanity. I suspect the difficulty so many people have with prayer is that it doesn’t seem to work – at least not to their expectations. To continue to practice prayer with apparent little effect leads to discouragement and disillusionment. Eventually, they draw the same conclusion as Einstein – continuing to do something the same way and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. An English author once wrote of his prayers to God at an early age. He prayed hard for something to happen. It didn’t. Concluding that prayer doesn’t work he offered one final prayer, “All right, Mr. God. I won’t bother you again.”


              That English author’s story is often our story. We pray for something to happen. It doesn’t. We stop trying. Perhaps we are not as blunt with God as the English author but that is what happens. Some of us may persist at prayer longer than another, praying always in the same manner, “God, please heal my friend,” or “God, help me with my finances,” or “God, give back to the Miami Dolphins a winning season,” and nothing happens. The friend doesn’t get better, finances remain a difficulty, and the Miami Dolphins repeat another losing season. The result is that we quietly stop praying. Why bother God any further? The problem is we have misunderstood Einstein. He doesn’t suggest we stop trying. Einstein is telling us to try another approach.


              A recent episode of Law & Order presents a family torn apart by a husband and father who abandoned his family. He simply doesn’t want the responsibility a family will demand. The son grows up to be a professional baseball player who is quite good with a handsome salary. The father reenters the son’s life with excuses for why he abandoned the family. They are, naturally, unconvincing. Yet, the son is grateful to have a father in his life. Grateful, that is, until the son learns that the father has a gambling problem and needs rather large sums of money to cover gambling debts. In a heart-wrenching series of events we learn that the father is too busy to accept an invitation to the son’s home for dinner and to meet his daughter-in-law and grandchild, too busy to attend one of his son’s ballgames, too busy to remember his son’s birthday. Yet, the father is never too busy to “drop-in” on his son for a handout to cover gambling debts.


              Often, that is our approach to God. Our lives are simply too busy to spend time with God in any meaningful manner. Nevertheless, we find the time to “drop-in” on God when we have a need. The disciple, Peter, shows us another approach. Peter has been arrested and placed in prison. Herod had James put to death and Peter knows that this is Herod’s intention again. Placed in chains and guarded by sixteen soldiers, Peter goes to sleep. How can anyone sleep when there is a death sentence on his or her head? Peter can. That is because he has lived so deeply into a relationship with Jesus that nothing frightens him anymore. Peter is changed by an approach to prayer that is more about growing intimate with God than receiving anything. Prayer’s ultimate goal is to lead us into the presence of God where we are changed. It is then we find peace, even when chained in a prison cell.



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