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Does Prayer Work?

Does prayer work? I mean really work? 

You bet it does! 

But saying that does not mean that prayers are the spiritual equivalent of coins which we place in a Divine vending machine and that if we put the right ones in, in the proper sequence, we will automatically be granted whatever it is we ask for, especially in tough times. That would be magic or manipulation, not prayer.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in a personal God – one who listens to my prayers, especially when those I love are suffering, when I am at a loss, or when things seem so dark in the world that there is no other response that makes any sense. 

I pray to that God and hope that I do get what I want, but we all know that’s not exactly how it works. I wish it were that easy.

The one or ones to whom any of us pray, and for the purposes of my question it makes no difference who that one or ones is or what name they are called, is not a vending machine which is manipulated by the user in order to obtain goodies – even very serious and totally appropriate ones. And if one can only appreciate the efficacy of prayer in those terms, then I take back my initial assertion about prayer working.

For example, and contrary to what some people believe, there is no reliable evidence to support the notion that prayers offered on behalf of sick people make them any healthier than those for whom nobody has prayed.

In fact, the studies which purported to prove that kind of efficacy for prayer, have all been debunked. But that does NOT mean that prayer doesn’t work. We need not assume that prayer is working only when it gets us the end result we seek.

But if I, or any other believer, know that our prayers won’t get us what we want, at least not in any direct way, why bother? Because, and I mean this quite seriously, as the Rollings Stones sang, "you can’t always get what you want, but if you try real hard, you just may find, you get what you need."

Well, maybe not in the ultimate sense -- that’s up to God, the individual, or some combination of the two, depending on your belief system, to confirm or deny. But we can find more than we often imagine of that which we need to get through the tough stuff, and prayer is a wonderful way of doing so. For that there IS evidence.

Prayer works amazingly well at providing some of the most important things we need especially at life’s most difficult moments – it takes us beyond ourselves, it connects us, battles loneliness, focuses attention on that for which we hope, and so much more. 

I think that’s why the impulse to pray transcends pretty much any religious and theological categories that exist and over which people battle.

People can argue about the existence of God, which religion(s) are true and which are false, etc. but the desire to prayer is bigger and deeper than all of that. 

It's why, I think, according to the Bible, spontaneous prayer is with us from the very beginning of the human story, though formal liturgies take millennia to emerge.

Having been sick myself and having shared sickness and so many other difficult moments with countless others, having prayed for others and having asked others to pray for me and those I love, I know two things: first, that there is no way to prove that prayer directly effects or creates the outcomes we may seek and second, that prayer is a profound source of strength and clarity which enable us to achieve those outcomes or to deal with the fact that we may fail to achieve them.

In my experience, prayer works not as a manipulation of God, but as an opportunity to connect more deeply with ourselves and to experience the reality that we are not alone, no matter how much we may feel that we are at any given moment. And there is plenty of evidence for the material benefit of overcoming loneliness and alienation, restoring a sense of hope, and reminding ourselves that there are sources of strength upon which can always draw – whether they are located within us, within those who care about us, or within the God in whom we believe . So yes, prayer works.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.