In a previous posting, Does God Care?, I shared my perspective on whether God chooses winners and losers in human affairs based on our prayers. Examples included praying for a particular political candidate or sports team to win. In response to that entry, I received a few comments that essentially led to one question: does God answer prayer?
Of course, the question itself could lead to complex explorations of who or what is “god” and what exactly constitutes prayer. Instead of attempting to analyze the dimensions of the question, I want to provide three perspectives that form something of an answer to what appears to be a simple question. Yet, I do suggest that the question is very complex.
First, I am confident in saying that one perspective of God’s answer to prayer can be found in the changes that occur for the person who prays. Prayer that draws us to inner quiet leads to changes in brain chemicals and in the neural pathways that carry messages through the brain. Prayer can change how we think about things, providing us with different perspectives. Our beliefs have something to do with this as well. There is research that suggests that a person’s beliefs about God are related to the kinds of changes that occur in the person’s life. Those who believe in a loving, kind deity experience positive improvements in health and mental health because of prayer; those who believe in a punitive, harsh, judgmental deity tend to have an increase in mental health concerns like anxiety and depression and negative impacts on health. Taken together, I contend that prayer and meditation have the ability to bring changes to our lives and can enable us to recover more easily from challenges to our health and mental health. To answer the original question, yes: God answers prayer.
Second, people who regularly participate in a religious or spiritual community have better outcomes when faced with physical or mental illness. Research in this area doesn’t point to one aspect of participation in a religious or spiritual community as to what helps. But the improved resiliency isn’t found among people who are active in other kinds of groups. In other words, there’s something more at work here than social support. Beliefs, hope, and a sense of purpose are likely to be related to the positive benefits of regular participation in a spiritual community. In a spiritual community, beliefs, hopes, and a sense of purpose are generally integrated with communal prayer. In this way, I am suggesting that prayer with others probably has a positive impact on our lives. Getting back to the original question, yes: there seems to be evidence here to suggest that God answers prayer.
Third, there has been limited research on the effects of prayers on another person. That research falls into two general groups: people praying for a person who knows that she or he is prayed for and people praying for a person who doesn’t know that she or he is prayed for. The results of the studies are not conclusive. The research on people who know they are prayed for does seem to suggest that they fare a bit better on health and mental health outcomes. In this area, there just isn’t consistent evidence of the impact of prayer.
That said, evidence is the basis for knowing that something is true. Faith and belief are not built on evidence but on hope and inner conviction. There is research to indicate that hope plays an important role in overcoming life’s problems.
I worked for several years as a hospital chaplain. In addition, I also worked for many years with those living with chronic and terminal illnesses and those with serious and pervasive mental illnesses. I’ve witnessed people living longer or recovering when the conventional wisdom said that they should not have experienced any sort of recovery. What role did prayer play in those situations? I don’t know for sure.
In the 1980’s, I facilitated a meditation group for gay men with AIDS. This was in the era before there were effective treatments. Each week, we met for 20 minutes of silent meditation followed by half an hour of personal sharing. Each of the participants had been previously hospitalized; they were generally not well; they had all applied for long term disability; they were waiting to die. After four or five months, something unexpected happened. The group was having trouble meeting. The members just weren’t as available as they had been. It wasn’t because they got sicker. Instead, one decided to go back to school; another went back to work; another began to travel. One by one, they each began to live again. As they talked about the changes they experienced, they attributed their change – the desire to make the most out of life – to the meditation group. In time, each one of those men died. But I contend that they lived longer and lived fuller lives because of the changes they experienced in prayer and meditation.
Perhaps the real challenge for us is to accept that the ultimate course of life leads us to death. We’d rather it wouldn’t, but each of us will ultimately face death. I suspect that one of the hopes we have about prayer is that it will somehow enable us to avoid death.
There’s a story in the Christian gospels about one of Jesus’ good friends who died: Lazarus. As the story goes, Jesus knew his friend was dying. But Jesus didn’t arrive at the town where the family of Lazarus lived until three days after his death. Jesus went to the tomb and called for Lazarus who came back to life and walked out of the tomb on his own. Of course, everyone was amazed. But the gospels don’t tell us anything about Lazarus after this event. What happened to him? It would seem that the day came when he died once again.
To use simple language, I do believe that God answers prayer. But the most significant aspects of prayer have to do with the impact of prayer on the person who prays. I also believe that there are seasons to our lives just as there are seasons to the year. While prayer may help us to live better, fuller lives, it doesn’t change the ultimate course of life. Yet, I heartily believe that why we are here is to make the most of the life we’ve been given. To that end, prayer is an important factor because spiritual practice positively shapes our lives.
My answer to the questions about prayer are probably not what some inquirers expected. But I hope that my words here germinate more thoughts and comments on a topic that touches the heart of our beliefs.
© 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.