If I were to ask you why prayer works, would you have an answer? If I were to ask you why it matters if we speak to God, what would you say? Back when I was at Bible College I grew interested in trying to discern how and why prayer works. I found some answers and was satisfied. If I’m honest, I haven’t thought about it much since then, and I’ve changed an awful lot in the intervening years. I have some thoughts I’d like to share with you, partly because it’s not something most of us encounter on a very regular basis, and partly because I haven’t spent much time thinking about since becoming considerably more “liberal” than I ever used to be.
What follows is a sort of “cliff notes” version of the theology behind prayer, as I understand it.
In the beginning, there was just God. One day he got an itch to do something creative. He popped his knuckles, loosened up, and set about painting a universe with light and color. He gave the light and color substance, started adding sensations and smells, and eventually critters of every variety… Including humans. Like an artist signing a painting, he stepped back, looked upon his work and said “It’s good.” He had what old school theologians call, “Dominion” over his creation. This means like an artist that painted a painting, he was totally free to do anything he wanted to with it.
God loved the humans he created so much that he chose to give them dominion over the Earth. We existed in harmony. We could communicate effortlessly and immediately. Essentially, God started the car, warmed up the engine, and then handed us the keys. We didn’t get to hold on to them for long, though. The Bible says that Satan showed up and convinced humanity to disobey God. (Whether you believe the Genesis account is literal or not is mostly irrelevant for our purposes here… The bottom line is that somehow, evil did enter the world. However, I’m going to continue using the Genesis metaphor as that’s what most of us are familiar with.) Why was this a big deal?
I’m not super sure. I’m not sure if it’s just the fact that we sinned, or if it has to do withhow we sinned, but the net result of this transaction was that we gave our God-given keys to Satan.
Evil had entered the world. For lack of a better term, evil had the “legal right” to be there. Because God and Evil can’t co-exist, man was kicked from the Garden and in every further reference to God throughout the rest of the Old Testament, God “looks down” at Earth from Heaven.
Let’s take a break here for a moment. In the above paragraph I stated that God and Evil can’t co-exist. The obvious question that comes to mind when someone reads that is… “Why?” As near as I can tell, when God created our universe, it seems he agreed to play by a certain set of rules that he never totally lets us in on despite the fact that we believe him to be all powerful.
Think of playing a board game. Just because you, as a player, can heave the game into the wall, doesn’t mean you do it. You agree to play by the rules of the game until the game is concluded. In the same way, I think even though it broke God’s heart to see control of the Earth get handed over to Satan, he allowed it to happen because those were the rules that had been initially set up.
So Satan was in control. Lots of bad things were happening all over the place. Because of the whole God/Evil not co-existing thing, communication with God became very difficult. It required work and effort. It required blood.
In the Old Testament, if we wanted to acknowledge our sins, if we wanted to show God that we recognized that we needed him, a sacrifice had to performed. The reason for this, is that God couldn’t exist in the lives of his followers if they had sinned… (The co-existing thing again.) In order to purify themselves, they had to participate in a sacrifice. Here’s a spooky line about Christianity you’ll probably want to avoid saying to your friends: Forgiveness requires blood.
To be totally honest, I’m not super sure exactly why that is. The participant would go through a ritual to “transfer” their sins to their unblemished animal, and that animal would then be sacrificed. In this way, God could continue to act and be present in your life.
And this is what life was like. Until Jesus showed up. Jesus, as you’re probably aware, was a big freaking deal. The reason for this is that we believe he was literally, a part of God sent down to Earth. He came down here, and he did the impossible: He lived for thirty-three years without sinning. He was perfect. God could move freely through his life. And then he was killed. Sacrificed. This was world changing on a theological level. Because Christ came down as one of us, and lived a perfect life, he chose to die on our behalf. In practicality, this means that animal sacrifices were no longer necessary.
Behind the scenes, when Jesus came back to life, he forcibly took dominion back from Satan. And this is where prayer comes in. As I understand it, when we pray, Jesus intercedes on our behalf. God and Evil still can’t co-exist… However, Jesus acts as a “middle-man” that allows us to be in direct communication with God.
The thing is, we still live in a broken, fallen world. Bad things happen. Natural disasters, human cruelty. The theology gets a little fuzzy here, but to the best of my knowledge, it’s on us toask Jesus for help. When we pray, we ask Jesus to take up our cause and present it to God who will choose to act in accordance with his agreed-upon rules.
This went a little long and I’m sorry. Hopefully though, some of the thoughts presented here will make you think a little more deeply about things. If you feel that I’m sorely off base on any point, or if you think there’s a way to clarify, please feel free to let me know. Otherwise, what questions are you struggling with regarding prayer? What have you always been wondering about but never found a forum to ask about?