The front-page headline from the New York Daily News following a mass shooting in December screamed “God Isn’t Fixing This,” and various other outlets ran articles deriding people for offering “thoughts and prayers” to those involved.
It was an attack on Christianity and prayer, but it did raise several questions that deserve an answer: Why do we pray? Does prayer change anything? Are there any real benefits to prayer?
Of course, prayer has volumes of books written about it, so to stay within the confines of a single article I’ll have to summarize fairly succinctly. The big picture and bottom line for believers is twofold:
1. We are commanded to pray, and it is a daily reaffirmation that we are acknowledging that God is God, and we are not.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
2. We are to follow Jesus’ example.
He came for two reasons: To save us from our sins and to show us how we are to live our lives. Jesus prayed consistently in order to stay in the Father’s will. How can we think that we are in better spiritual shape than Him?
“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
So, are prayers always answered? The answer is cliche, but true nonetheless: Yes, your prayers are always heard and answered, but sometimes God says “no.” This is really a simple thing to understand when you consider our relationship to God as His children.
God is omniscient and knows what is best for us. He wants us to live according to His will, so when we pray according to His will, the answer is always “yes.” Put another way, prayer is the “vehicle” through which God has chosen to work His will. So does prayer change things? Yes!
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15).
However, that doesn’t mean that the answer means right now, and this is where the Father-child relationship helps explain things. If your 5-year-old asks for a car, you would say “no.” Not because he or she shouldn’t ever have a car, but because the timing isn’t right. At 17 you might say “yes.” Same request, different circumstances. In the first case the answer is not yet, although the child may perceive it as a “no.”
Similarly, if your teenager asks to go on a trip to Mexico, by foot, on a path through Juarez, you’d say no. Not because you don’t want them to travel, but because that particular trip would quite dangerous. But they may not know or understand that. That particular “no” is for their own good, and not to deny them a vacation.
There actually have been studies that show prayer has a positive physical and psychological impact on people. One such study was highlighted in an article by NBC news, where doctors reported about the changes in brain chemistry during prayer by patients. Many other studies have also shown the medical benefits of prayer, and I would recommend studying the topic.
As far as whether God is “fixing this” or not, and whether the “thoughts and prayers” of others have any impact, the answer is this: God has a plan, and it will happen the way He wants. If our prayers line up with His plan, we’ll see the impact at the right time. So while our “thoughts” really do nothing more than make us feel good or express our sympathies, our prayers most definitely have an impact. Even if that impact isn’t immediately manifested.
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