A few weeks ago, I got an email from a friend, asking for advice. I am godmother to his 8-year-old daughter, and he was looking for my thoughts on how to answer one of those sticky theological questions that kids come up with. My goddaughter was having regular nightmares. One night, she told her dad that she prayed every night that God would protect her from the nightmares, but they came anyway. Did God not hear her, she wondered? Why would God not want to help her?
Leave it to an 8-year-old to get right to the heart of our hardest questions about God. Does God hear our prayers? And if God does hear our prayers, why do they go unanswered so often? Why do people who pray for healing still sicken and die? Why do people who pray for a job languish on the unemployment rolls? Why do couples pray for a baby yet remain childless? Why does my goddaughter pray for a quiet night's sleep and get haunted by nightmares?
This was my response, in part, to my goddaughter's conundrum:
Maybe this is an opportunity to talk about what we believe happens when we pray. She's a bright girl and if she thinks about it, she'll realize that prayer is not about convincing God to wave a magic wand and make things all better. If that's what prayer is, then we must all be awful pray-ers because I don't see a lot of magic wand waving! Maybe talk about how the purpose of prayer is to open us up more to God, so God can work through us and change us and make the world better because God is making us better. Bad dreams usually stem from fears we have. Praying might not make the bad dreams go away immediately, but praying can open us more to God's spirit, which drives out fear. So maybe her praying about the bad dreams will "work" in time, as her prayers allow God to quiet her fears.
In essence, I was arguing, as many Christians do, that prayer is more about changing us than changing God. I believe that. Prayer reminds us to look for the holy in the mundane, to open our hearts to hope, renewal, and possibility. Prayer also binds us to one another, and most of us are stronger, happier, and better able to cope when we are in relationship with other people. I think of the healing prayers that I participate in once a month or so in the back of the church on Sunday mornings. It takes great courage for people to come back and speak aloud their deep fears and pain. When we lay our hands on someone's shoulder or arm and pray, in Jesus's name, for God's power and grace to be poured out, we connect with them at a far deeper level than we do over coffee hour chit chat. Such connections are, in themselves, powerful antidotes to pain.
But while I can partly explain prayer's power in these practical ways—prayer changes us, prayer connects us to each other—I also cling to the belief that something else happens in prayer, something that goes beyond what we can observe and explain, something that invites God's power and love to break into our daily lives and change things in ways we cannot explain or imagine. One of my favorite scriptures is from Romans 8: 26–28:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
I love this idea that the Spirit prays in us when we feel unable to pray or aren't sure how to pray. Other Bible passages, such as in Luke 11 (which includes the well-known passage, "Ask, and you shall receive," etc.) tell us that our persistence is important, that our willingness to pray is part of what makes prayer powerful. But the Romans 8 scripture reminds us that prayer goes far beyond what we do and say. We are connected with God through prayer even when our hearts aren't in it or we're so overwhelmed and confused we don't know what to pray. The rote prayers we use every Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer can seem empty and dry compared with the emotional, spontaneous prayers of other traditions. But I find these rote prayers to be absolutely vital. By giving me words to pray, those prayers are one way the Spirit helps me in my weakness, when I don't know how to pray. These words connect us with other Christians all over the world. When my husband Daniel visited an Anglican congregation in Tanzania about 15 years ago, he sat through Sunday services, unable to understand the Swahili words but understanding perfectly what was being said, because the church was using a Swahili version of the Book of Common Prayer.
I don't know why some prayers are answered and others aren't, just as I don't understand why some people experience obvious miracles but many of us don't. But I do believe, as the Romans 8 scripture passage tells us, that "God works for the good of those who love him." As a wise theologian once reminded me, this passage does not mean that all things are good. This passage does not mean that we should see unhealed sickness or continuing nightmares or other unanswered prayers as God's will that we must accept—or even rejoice in. Not all things are good, and authentic prayer includes lament for all that is so clearly not good (just look at the Psalms to see examples of lament as an acceptable form of prayer). But God is always working for good, drawing us toward what is good, equipping us to enable more good things to happen, showing us how to be good to one another. I don't understand how prayer works. Prayers don't immediately vanquish either a little girl's nightmares or the all-too-real nightmares of sickness, hunger, and pain that haunt some people's waking hours. I wish they did. But I believe in a God who is good, who is love. I keep praying because I believe that prayer, somehow, makes that goodness and love more real and accessible in the midst of whatever nightmares mark our days.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.