Leave it to us to get it backwards. I was 10 and someone was dying. I was asked to pray. They died anyway. My heart sank, and all my little mind could think about was, “I must not have prayed hard enough.” I had this guilty, sunken feeling for weeks. It felt like his death was all my fault for saying a weak, half-hearted prayer (I had said something silently to myself for about 30 seconds, and I quickly went back to playing Super Mario Brothers, not really giving it another thought). Have you ever been there?
What happens in prayer is a bit of a mystery to us (as it should be), and depictions of prayer on tv and in the movies don’t help us understand it any better. I recently watched an episode of Glee where the main character prays to “Grilled Cheesus” after seeing an outline of Jesus appear in his grilled cheese, and when his friend gets hurt in the process of him getting what he wants, he feels like it’s all his fault for the way he prayed. We laugh, but in our own faith development, we all have room to grow when it comes to prayer. In fact, a misunderstanding of prayer has led millions of people away from the faith. It starts with a theology that sees God as some kind of adult Santa Claus who gives you want you want if you’re on the “nice list,” living a good life and praying hard enough. The truth is a little more complicated. It can seem like some prayers work and some don’t. And all it takes is a few bad things happening to good people for you to discover that sometimes prayer doesn’t seem to change God’s mind. When that happens, some people choose to give up on God. Others look for a new way to see things.
In the 1993 movie The Shadowlands which chronicles the life of Christian author C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), Jack says, “I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me.” Miracles happen, and outcomes sometimes take an unexpected turn. But there are some facts in life that don’t change no matter how hard you pray. Sometimes you don’t get the miracle you asked for. So does that mean that prayer is pointless? Hardly. When the facts don’t change, the only thing you can change is how you see them, your attitude, your resilience. You can bring all your anger and confusion to God, and you can seek understanding and peace when things don’t make sense.
Prayer changes you. That’s its purpose. You commune with God and bring to God all your cares and troubles and worries, and you walk away with the peace of God. Paul tells us, “in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, KJV). Notice that it doesn’t say that you will get your requests or even get an answer. It just says that “the peace of God...shall keep your hearts and minds.” Prayer takes us one step closer to God and God’s peace, and it helps us face the realities of this world with a sense that we’re not alone.
So pray. And pray hard. It can change everything. But it starts by changing you.