How Does Prayer Work? Part I

Quick note: one thing I severely underestimated when starting a blog based on discussing difficult topics is that writing about hard things is hard. As obvious as that is, I often like to view myself as someone who is very focused, organized, and diligent, when the reality is that none of those things are actually very true. Hence, months between posts.

Writing posts to me sometimes feels like calling that friend or relative you haven’t talked to in months or years. You want to connect but you also know the conversation will last 3 hours and you don’t have that much time. Likewise, the idea of writing this post series stressed me out so I kept putting it off. Honestly, I feel like this topic deserves its own book, so the thought of compressing everything into a couple of blog posts kind of feels like trying to stuff an elephant into a Honda Civic.

That being said, I finally had enough of putting it off, so I decided to break it up into multiple posts to make sure I actually start. I won’t be able to fully address every question that will inevitably come up, but I’ll try to address the most common issues I’ve seen as best as I can with my current level of understanding. Please add your thoughts and input in the comment section below so we can hopefully all learn something.

In my last post, I mentioned that it’s common to view prayer like a lottery slot machine—maybe God will answer our prayers and maybe He won’t. Most people have very little understanding of what prayer actually does, and I am definitely still learning as well. For example, when a pastor says something like “Pray for the lost souls in our nation,” my first thought is typically “Why, what good will it do?” Now some people may look at that and tell me I “just need more faith,” but will me praying for millions of people to get saved actually do anything? If it will, why not pray that every single person in the world gets saved? These are questions I’ve had since I was a child and they are part of the reason I became a cynic. I constantly heard “prayer works” but I saw no tangible, satisfying proof that it really did.

So, how does prayer work?

That’s really a huge question and like I said, it probably deserves its own book but I’ll do my best to address it in this post series. Before it’s really possible to understand how prayer works, it’s important to first understand what prayer actually is. There are a lot of assumptions made about prayer and it’s rare to hear teachings about prayer beyond the slogan “just do it.” In this first post, I’ll go through some the confusing aspects of prayer and discuss some of the foundational principles behind how prayer works.

Prayer is a conversation…kind of

It is often said that prayer in its purest form is simply talking to God. There are many kinds of prayer, but each kind essentially boils down to this main idea. I’ll go into a bit more detail about the different kinds of prayer in later posts. God is a relational God, and He wants us to talk to him. Likewise, He often speaks to us, though we may not always be aware of it.

God’s primary desire for us is that we know Him. Jesus even says in John 17:3 “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (NIV) The whole goal of eternal life is knowing God. But there’s a bit of a hiccup in the idea that we are in a relationship with God, and it’s one that was never addressed to my satisfaction growing up in the church: God is invisible. I’m guessing no one talked about it because it’s so obvious, but it’s kind of an important detail.

We humans have many different kinds of relationships. We have romantic relationships, family, friends, acquaintances, the person at the cash register, and the list goes on.  While each of these relationships is different, they all have one thing in common: the other person is not invisible. We are used to relationships where we can talk to a person face to face and read body language, tones, and other communication signals. Say for example I’m talking to my dad. If I ask him a question and he doesn’t respond, I figure he can’t hear me or he isn’t paying attention. If that’s the case, I just say his name louder or move closer to get his attention, and then we begin a conversation.

Now say we are both sitting in our living room and my dad has a bag of chips he’s munching on. I ask him to hand me some chips and he turns and looks at me, but just reaches into the bag to eat another chip. “Dad, can I have some?” I ask again. Still a blank stare and no response. “Um, Dad?” Does that scenario seem weird? It does to me. I honestly don’t know how I would respond in that case but I would definitely be confused, and probably frustrated. That’s because the most important aspect of any relationship is communication and if one person decides not to communicate, there’s no relationship.

The Bible continuously refers to God as a loving father, but how many times have we cried out to God only to hear radio silence? We believe—at least to some degree—that He hears us and is paying attention, but why isn’t He responding? What is He doing? Is He just blankly staring at us, wondering how many times we’ll try to get Him to respond before we give up and leave him alone? Is He actually listening? How can he claim to love me if he won’t even talk to me?

These are all questions that I personally have had, and I know many others who feel the same way. Many more have never even stopped to think about it, saying “That’s just how it is.” Many of us say we love God and are in a loving relationship with him, yet we don’t understand how to handle a relationship where the other person doesn’t talk back to us. Others have experienced this and have given up on God all together. I think this is the main reason most people don’t pray. We don’t receive a response and therefore have no evidence that God is even paying attention. So we largely give up trying except for maybe a few times throughout the week (or month) or when we need something.

Is this just the way it is, or is there hope for something more? Well, the short answer is yes, there is something more. But I don’t have a 7-step quick fix for you to begin hearing God (although those are out there if that’s what you’re into). What I’m more focusing on is the question “What actually happens when we pray and should I even bother?”

Prayer involves another dimension

One of the most important things to understand about prayer is that it works in completely separate dimension.  Now, when most Christians hear the words “different dimension,” their first thoughts are usually something like “Oh no, another one of those esoteric weirdos.” But the truth is, the spiritual dimension is very real and is not just some fairy tale land where you go when you die. It’s all around us, all the time and is much more involved in our lives than we often realize. This is extremely important to understand if we are to pray at all. 2 Corinthians 4:18 says:

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (NIV).

The book Flatland does a good job explaining what it’s like trying to understand a different dimension, and I highly recommend reading it. The gist of the story is about a square who lives in a place called Flatland, a two-dimensional world with no concept of up or down. In the story, the square one day notices a circle appear in the middle of his house. At first the circle was very small, growing till it was quite large before shrinking again and finally disappearing. The circle, which turned out to be a sphere moving through Flatland, tried unsuccessfully to explain this 3-D world to the square, and ultimately pulled the square out of Flatland into Spaceland to show him. Once the square experienced the 3-D world firsthand, it immediately seemed obvious and intuitive. However, until the square was pulled out of Flatland, the idea of an additional dimension seemed as crazy to him as the 4th dimension seems to us.

Now, I’m not saying the spiritual dimension is literally the 4th dimension (I’m also not saying it isn’t because I don’t know), but thinking this way helps us understand that we are living in just a small sub-section of reality. Spiritual beings are very real and have a powerful influence on our 3-D reality. I’ll go into more detail on this in subsequent posts, but if we don’t understand this concept we will drift through life not understanding why our prayers don’t get answered and will begin to believe that we just can’t take the Bible at face value. This is what I did and it’s a major reason I became a cynic. I had all these scriptures in my head that didn’t seem true, so I doubted God’s character and actually stopped believing much of the Bible without even realizing it.

Spiritual vs Physical Communication

The main point here is that because the spiritual world is literally a different dimension, we have to think differently about how we interact with it. We are so used to only experiencing life through our five senses that anything outside of those doesn’t compute. In John 3:6, Jesus points to this truth:

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (ESV).

Here, Jesus is talking about the difference between natural birth and spiritual birth, but an important implication is that the two are separate. This means a likely reason you aren’t hearing God is because you are trying to listen with your ears or thoughts separate from your spirit. Most people spent at least 98% of their day only focused on the physical reality and therefore have no idea how to even relate to the spiritual world.

This is why Paul tells us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This doesn’t mean do nothing but pray all day, but rather we must always have our minds focused on God throughout the day. There’s no quick fix here. To hear God, we have to be in constant communication with Him and must continuously be developing our spiritual ears.

I understand that some of what I’ve said may be oversimplifying things a bit and I’ll go into more detail about the different aspects of prayer in later posts, but for now, I would love to hear your thoughts. My goal is to open up the discussion, not to be a one way street of information. Also please feel free to contact me directly at daniel.roberts@thechristiancynic.com. Thanks!