Does God answer prayer? Can we change God’s mind with our prayers? And what about those people who pray but did not get the right answer? I’m troubled by a story a Salvation Army officer told me a few years ago. A father had prayed for his daughter’s recovery. The daughter was sick. The daughter had made a full recovery. The father had said God had answered his prayers.  To that I ask “if the father had not prayed, would the daughter have made a full recovery. Or, for that matter, any recovery? Did the father’s prayers really influence God?

There was a study done in San Francisco where about 393 hear patients were divided into 2 groups. One group was prayed for; the other not. The group that was prayed for needed less medical care and had  less relapses for certain health concerns. But the study is not without controversy. The actual numbers that needed less medical care in each group were very little. For example, the “prayed for” group, only 3 needed antibiotics; the group “not prayed for” 16. Do those numbers prove anything? Quoting from an article written by Brenda C. Coleman of Associated Press posted on the internet: “The study had questionable methods, tallied complications using its own scoring system which has not been proven medically valid” said Dr. Herbert Benson a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “Other studies have found no apparent benefits to being prayed for, and in one, prayed-for patients actually fared worse,” Benson said. Benson said “medical research has shown that people who believe in God or in prayer generally fare better than those who don’t. What remains unproven is whether prayer itself makes a difference”, he said. Because the numbers are quite low in both groups, my gut reaction is that the results would have been the same regardless if prayers were offered or not offered.

Doctors are now suggesting that part of the healing procedure should include prayer for the patient. If we take that kind of thinking, I ask if the doctors forget to pray for the patient and the patient dies or has a major relapse, should we hold the doctors accountable, bring criminal charges, etc? And I’m also troubled by those say God answered their prayers when there are just as many good people who prayed and did not get an answer. Are the latter group less important in the eyes of God?

What don’t I believe: I do not believe God answers selfish prayers where God is some sort of cosmos Santa and if we say the right words, he will grant us our hearts’ desires. God is being used and He will not allow Himself to be used. He will not grant us material things, a better job, more money, etc. if we are not willing to do the work. I do not believe God would answer prayers endorsing war, death, any form of human destruction of His creation. I do not believe in prayers where we hurt our enemies.

So what is prayer? It is basically talking to God in our own humble way. I don’t believe we have to use fancy words. God knows what’s in our hearts before we ask. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:8) Part of praying is making an allegiance to our God, saying we are willing to do His will.  But there is a second part to that – action. What good is a making a promise to God and not following through on those promises. For example, we say the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. We pray:

“Lord, make me a instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith, etc.”

But what good is such a prayer if we don’t put it into action? We are not being loyal to our God. A spouse makes a promise to be loyal to his/her partner. But then cheats. Is there any difference here and where we make a promise to God and not keep it? We should be praying for strength to carry out His service. Wisdom to make us wiser. He who gets wisdom loves his own soul; he who cherishes understanding prospers. (Proverbs 19:8) Patience to carry us through difficult times Courage to practise the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness (Gal 6:22) Empathy and compassion to understand those who are truly hurting And, finally, forgiveness to God and to those we have hurt in need by our stubborn neglect and ignorance.  Matt 25: 44, 45 reads:  ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’  ”He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

What should we be praying for?