“Let my prayer rise before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” So begins the Psalmody in the Lutheran Service Book“Evening Prayer” service, a translation of Psalm 141. It came to mind the other day as I heard a little dust-up on prayer relayed over the radio.
Apparently, a major television network’s anchor recently disparaged the thought of praying for someone, suggesting that prayers don’t do anything. I think it was made out of frustration with people who say they’re praying for people in terrible loss instead of promoting some legislation to prevent further suffering and loss.
I would argue against the “futility of prayer” comment in two senses. Firstly, prayer places whatever is in my mind or on my heart before God Almighty and He can do with it whatever He knows is best for all concerned. He loves us and He raised His Son from the dead: there is nothing beyond His capability. And secondly, since I am intentionally placing things before God, it changes me and my perspective on the issues at hand. It causes me to rely on God in His mercy through Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Another thing that has been on my mind is the way prayer is often referenced on the television. As (1) the fires have been raging in California, (2) people have been shot in Thousand Oaks and (3) turmoil has been experienced in other places, I have heard any number of people say something like “Our thoughts and prayers go out to them.” I believe I know what they mean to say – that the people going through such trial and suffering are often in our minds and we sympathize with them and we wish the best for them.
But, I believe it’s better to observe the following rule of thumb: thoughts go outand prayers go up, (like incense, as in the Psalmody, above). Our thoughts and our hearts can go out to people, but when we say that prayers go out to them that is tantamount to wishful thinking, and prayers are much more than that.
Prayers go up to God on their behalf. And as we place their needs before our Glorious and Gracious King, we can keep in mind what C. S. Lewis said of the gift of prayer God gave us: Prayers are not always—in the crude, factual sense of the word—"granted." This is not because prayer is a weaker kind of causality, but because it is a stronger kind. When it "works" at all it works unlimited by space and time. That is why God has retained a discretionary power of granting or refusing it; except on that condition prayer would destroy us. It is not unreasonable for a headmaster to say, "Such and such things you may do according to the fixed rules of this school. But such and such other things are too dangerous to be left to general rules. If you want to do them you must come and make a request and talk over the whole matter with me in my study. And then—we'll see."(God in the Dock, essay 11 on Work and Prayer).