Effective Prayers

While I was saying my morning prayers last Wednesday, God suddenly whispered, “Do you believe these are doing anything?”

Cause and effect. I’ve “believed in it” since I was scrawling my homework in elementary school. I vaguely remember a fifth-grade lesson on it. And, in one way, it seeped into my life: when there were immediate effects, I completely understood the consequences of causes. However, I’ve always had a hard time with delayed effects. I took them as mystical matters. And, at the heart of it, I didn’t believe in them.

In the depths of my consciousness, I never thought that exercise would slenderize. That aspirin would stop pain. That Vitamin C would prevent illness. I did these things anyway, and the cause often came. But, somehow, all my life, I’ve failed to learn my lesson. There was this dark chasm between cause and delayed effect. When we read Hume in college, everyone else asked “How could someone live like this? Think like this?” as I silently wondered, “How could someone not?”

To my astonishment, the chasm is finally beginning to grow light. After a quarter century of acting as though actions produced equal and opposite reactions, I’m starting to actually believe it. Suddenly, the chaos is growing ordered.

It started with therapy. Therapy – in my struggle to understand delayed effects – was really just my admission that I was in trouble. It didn’t occur to me that it would actually make me feel better. To my astonishment, my utter surprise, I actually began to improve after three or four sessions.

It dawned, then. The future wasn’t some chaotic, uncontrollable series of events. I had agency. I could be proactive. I could use these delayed effects to actually be who I wanted to be in the future. Obviously, there would always be things outside of my control. But, I started to believe there were things in the future inside my control.

While I was saying my morning prayers last Wednesday, God suddenly whispered, “Do you believe these are doing anything?” My Calvinist high school Bible teacher had said effective prayer reconciled us to the will of God, but requests weren’t answered beyond that. I had cognitively rejected the notion, but it remained in my heart. Just like I used to exercise or take pain medicine without really believing it would impact the future, I was still praying without believing it would impact the future.

In my mind, praying for others was a way of modeling to those around me that God and I loved them. I would pray for them so that I could tell them I was praying for them and they would know they were loved. But do those prayers mean anything besides helping me be a loving person and helping them know they were loved?

Yes. They do. Cognitively, I can’t understand how my prayers have any effect on God’s actions. The idea that it changes my heart but not God’s mind is completely within my understanding. But, these failings of my imagination don’t necessitate ineffective prayers for two reasons: (1) it is reasonable to suppose that there are things about an infinite God that are incomprehensible to the finite mind, and (2) the Bible suggests we should think of prayers as effective. That’s enough for me.

So, I put a post-it on the front of my Prayer Book: “Think cause and effect thoughts.” I put a post-it on my door: “Do you believe prayers are effective?”

When I got home yesterday, I was still smiling at an interaction I’d just had with a friend. I had sent her an encouraging message, and she replied that she had just been praying very hard for encouragement. She said I’d been an answer to prayer. As I closed the door, I saw the “effective” note and realized. It went both ways.