Saturday, July 25, 2009

Gauging the effectiveness of prayer

I am a fan of Twitter. I make no apology for that. Personally, I think it is an important tool in our kit of raising awareness of and interest in the serving persecuted Christians worldwide.  It also puts me in touch with a wider world of information and questioning than any other media that I know of right now.  Yesterday was a case in point.

Yesterday morning as I was getting my weekly blood transfusion, I sent out the “tweet”: “Some people think that prayer isn't really "doing" something for the persecuted. Wrong. It's the 1st thing they ask for.”

It wasn’t long before I got a reply from someone (@Deadn) asking if someone can really gauge the effectiveness of prayer for the persecuted church? Three minutes later, he sent another message asking “Is there any real answer to my previous question? Or do we just walk it by faith?”

I was a bit stumped for an answer and the question as to how we can gauge the effectiveness of prayer lingered in the back of my mind for the rest of the day. In the evening, as I was unwinding in my study at home for a few minutes before dinner, my eyes wandered over to one of my bookshelves and I saw a book that I had read a few years ago entitled The Way of the Pilgrim. The book is an English translation of a 19th century Russian Orthodox classic on prayer, written in a similar style to Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progess. It tells the story of an anonymous pilgrim who seeks to learn how to follow the apostle Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.”

As I absentmindedly paged through the book, I was surprised to run across a fascinating passage fairly early in the book where the pilgrim meets up with an elderly leader of a monastery who cautions him about getting measuring the effectiveness of prayer according to worldly standards. He tells the pilgrim:

The truth is that, though there is neither a shortage of sermons nor of treatises of various writers about prayer, for the most part these discourses are based on mental analysis and on natural considerations rather than on active experience. For this reason they teach more about the external character of prayer than the essence of prayer. One speaks beautifully about the necessity of prayer, another about its power and its benefits, and still another of the means and conditions for its accomplishment: that is, zeal, attention, warmth of heart, purity of thought, reconciliation with the enemies, humility, contrition, and so on.

And what is prayer? And how does one learn to pray? To these primary and most fundamental questions one seldom finds an accurate explanation in the homilies of our time. These basic questions are more difficult to understand than the above-mentioned discourses and they require mystical perception in addition to academic learning. What is most unfortunate is that worldly wisdom compels these spiritual teachers to measure God's ways by human standards. Many approach prayer with a misunderstanding and think that the preparatory means and acts produce prayer. They do not see that prayer is the source of all good actions and virtue. They look upon the fruits and results of prayer as means and methods and in this way depreciate the power of prayer.

This is contrary to Holy Scripture, because St. Paul clearly states that prayer should precede all actions: 'First of all, there should be prayers offered' (1 Tim. 2: 1). The Apostle's directive indicates that the act of prayer comes first; it comes before everything else. The Christian is expected to perform many good works, but the act of prayer is fundamental because without prayer it is not possible to do good. Without frequent prayer it is not possible to find one's way to God, to understand truth, and to crucify the lusts of the flesh. Only fidelity to prayer will lead a person to enlightenment and union with Christ. (emphasis added)

Put simply, the fact that anything truly good takes place in or through the lives of God’s people is evidence of the effectiveness of our prayers. Prayer comes before anything that is truly good and glorifying to God is accomplished by His people. We cannot gauge the success of prayer using benchmarks that we are accustomed to using. We cannot, for example, have a checklist of prayer requests and then check them off as “Yes” “No” or “Wait” and produce charts or reports of statistic averages and use these to determine whether our prayers were effective.

But the fact that anything happens that truly glorifies God in my life, your life, the lives of our brothers and sisters around, is evidence that God has been at work because of the prayers of His people. We may not even know, this side of eternity, how much of our work and labour was mere straw and hay. But anything that is truly good was initiated and upheld through prayer as we acknowledged our dependency upon the Lord of mercy and grace.


todd said...

Great article, I needed to hear this;

Lorraine said...

Agree, this is great! I have often been uncomfortable with the checklist approach to prayer. I believe I should just pray, because I have been commanded to, and leave the results to God. I think I might be shallow enough, that if I knew always, whether my prayers had "done what I wanted them to" that I might be puffed up. As it is, I often don't know the exact results, but this too, is part of walking by faith, and not by sight. Thanks for this good reminder.