Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Do More Prayers Make a Difference—to God?

Jimmy Carter’s grandson spoke briefly at the Democratic National Convention on July 26. Among other things, he said that “thanks to the miracles of modern science and the power of prayer” his grandfather is now free of cancer.

As an admirer of Jimmy Carter, at least most of the time, I was saddened last year when I heard that he had cancer—and happy to hear fairly recently that he now claims to be cancer-free.

But was it the power of prayer that caused that happy change?

There were certainly a lot of people who prayed for President Carter after hearing about his cancer. In April of this year, a webpage of the American Baptist Home Mission Society was titled, “Calling for prayers of healing for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.”

That is just one example of numerous calls for prayer for Carter, who has been much more popular as an ex-President than he was while in the Oval Office.

This raises some interesting questions about prayer, however. Would God not have taken Carter’s cancer away if fewer people had prayed? If so, how many fewer? Was there a tipping point? Why? Does God decide whether to heal any given individual based on the number of prayers received?

Four years ago on August 15 my blog article (see here) was about intercessory prayer, and I raised some of these same questions. Because the situation hasn’t changed in these four years, allow me to repeat two paragraphs from that article.
The theological question, you see, is this: why would the all-loving God change things or do things differently, or better, because of prayer—and even be more likely to do so if there were a lot of prayers or a lot of people praying.
Jesus spoke disparagingly about those who think that they will be heard because of their many words (Matthew 6:7). Didn’t he likely think the same thing about those who believe that God will give special consideration to the words of many people?

Or, is prayer just sending of “good vibes” out into the world that, literally, change things if there are enough of such vibes for a specific purpose? Possibly, I guess—but I seriously doubt it.

I have long contended that prayer primarily changes the one who prays, not the One prayed to. Prayer has often changed me—but has it ever changed God? Probably not. 

So, was there any benefit for so many people praying for President Carter? Probably so—but not because those prayers changed God.

If praying for Carter caused some people to think about the yeoman’s work he has done through the years with Habitat for Humanity and to recognize the ongoing need for providing more and better housing for poor people across the country, those prayers were beneficial.

If praying for Carter caused others to recall his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006) and to become more concerned about the plight of the Palestinians, those prayers were beneficial.

If praying for Carter caused still other people to reflect upon the problem of racism in the country and that in Atlanta next month he will be the convener and one of the keynote speakers of the New Baptist Covenant meeting using the slogan “Baptists Working Together for Racial Justice and Reconciliation, those prayers were beneficial.

But I can’t imagine God saying to the angels (or whomever) at some point earlier this year, You know, if enough people pray for Jimmy, I will just take the old guy’s cancer away.


  1. I can't find the source of the quote from Kierkegaard, and the words cited may be a paraphrase, but he is widely credited with writing words to that effect.

  2. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago has once again sent comments I appreciate him allowing me to share here:

    "Ambrose Bierce wrote that to pray is 'to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.'

    "I am not as cynical as Bierce since I think prayer can be helpful psychologically for those who pray, and the psychological lift provided by prayer may have a positive effect on medical outcomes.

    "There have been a number of scientific studies on the efficacy of prayer, none of which are really convincing since it is almost impossible to set up a flawless scientific test of this.

    "I too have a great respect for Jimmy Carter. He made some mistakes as president, but he is clearly a very good and very decent man."

  3. Thanks for your comments, Eric.

    I was unfamiliar with Bierce (1842-1914), but found that he was an American satirist (among other things) who once defined logic as "The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding."

  4. This is my response:


    We have prayed to you, O God:
    Calling out to you when in distress,
    Perhaps praising you when enjoying success.

    We have prayed about you, O God:
    Speaking of your presence, calling your people to prayer,
    Making notice of your greatness and loving care.

    But have we learned to pray with you:
    To walk in the way of your spirit,
    To take in your being and pour out our own?

    Have we made of our life a prayer through and through:
    A breathing in love from your spirit,
    A breathing out hate from our own?

    Might this thus be the desire of our heart:
    To live and love in full, not in part.
    That the hope of the poet might be made flesh:
    “The praying of prayer is not in the words but the breath.”

    RGW 02-28-1988

    The “poet” is James Dickey

    1. Thanks, Dick, for sharing this pertinent poem about prayer. I don't remember hearing/reading it before and was not familiar with James Dickey (1923-97), whom I learned was the 18th U.S. Poet Laureate.

  5. A local Thinking Friend, responding by email, wrote (in part):

    "I have seen my prayers answered in pretty amazing ways. Frequently things happen about a month after I spend extended time in focused prayer and fasting. Some results could be chalked up to coincidence."

    This reminded me of the words attributed to William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to 1944: "When I pray coincidences happen; when I don’t they don’t."

    1. The same TF also wrote: "I guess God isn’t through with Jimmy Carter yet."

      Good observation! If there was divine healing of President Carter, which there certainly may have been, I believe that it was because of God's grace and purpose (God's not being through with him) and not as a result of the number of prayers offered up on Carter's behalf.

  6. Local Thinking Friend Don Wideman, who is a retired Baptist minister and executive, shares the following comments:

    "Your blogs are always helpful and reveal that you have given much thought to the subject. I share my thought as I was reading your blog on prayer. It came to my mind the record that God listened to the Israelites as they cried out to him when in slavery in Egypt. Just one example."

    1. Thanks, Don, for reading and responding to my blog article this morning.

      Yes, you are certainly correct that there are examples from the Old Testament reporting how God changed and acted differently because of the cries of the Israelites or because of the pleas of their leaders like Moses.

      I am sure people of the past, as well as of the present, would like to think that they have the power to change God's mind or to cause God to do something for their benefit. But just because people, even the writers of the Bible, thought that their prayers changed God or caused him to act, that doesn't mean that they thought correctly.

      Since I do not believe the Bible is inerrant, I do not believe, for example, that the Israelite leaders were correct in thinking God commanded that their enemies be completely slaughtered when they entered the "Promised Land." I say this because of what I think we know about God through Jesus Christ.

      Thus, just because people once thought that their prayers moved God to action or that God's command moved them to violent action, I don't think that is adequate basis for deciding that our prayers can do the same--or that we should do the same to our enemies.

  7. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson shares the following comments:

    "You may be right, Leroy, but I have a little different take on this question. Could love energies we generate and direct toward another person whom we love (my view of intercessory prayer) add something to the love energies God may exert toward that person to effect healing or transformation of life?

    "I say this only in faith, and intercessory prayer is our greatest act of faith, but I think it may happen. What we add to God’s love energies may be infinitesimal, but if we love another person, we can’t help but do what our heart tells us to do. Sometimes our love energies may tilt the balance of things.

    "I’d hate to live in this world not believing that this might be true."

    1. Dr. Hinson is my my esteemed seminary professor and has been a friend for some 55 years now, so it is difficult for me to disagree with what he says.

      I don't see any difference, though, between what he calls "love energies" and what I referred to in my article as "good vibes." Both refer to what, it seems to me, could be called "psychic energy," and in spite of have given some thought and study to that subject years ago, I have not been able to conclude that there is such a thing in the physical world or in the "spiritual" world.

      There is, I believe, reason to engage in intercessory prayer, and expressing such prayers for people we love is surely a good thing to do. But I don't see it is a negative thing to admit that those prayers are not some sort of "force" that will change God or the needy condition of others.

      Positively, I do think people of faith can rest assured that regardless of the situation faced God will do what is best for our loved ones, and for us, and that they, and we, can rest peacefully in the loving "arms" of God.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I am sorry this comment was removed, for it was quite significant.

  9. Let me try this again:

    In 1995 I was hospitalized for nine days. As the doctors informed my wife that there was nothing else that could be done to assist me medically and that only time would tell if I would survive.

    My wife called my best friend with the news and by the end of the day I was being prayed for by people from around the world (I had no knowledge of what was going on). The next day I was making progress toward recovery which has never been complete (I have wondered why God did not heal me completely).
    I suggest that prayer becomes a resource that God uses. It seems that God is somehow self-limiting and with the id of prayer God’s resources are released to make adjustments in personal and community history.

    Patrick Miller in “They Cried to the Lord” points out that prayer is not unique too Jewish or Christ history. In fact, both traditions have learned from other ancient peoples. However, prayer is affirmed and witnessed to within both Old and New Testaments.
    I would also suggest that God is not un-changeable. He makes considerations behalf of humanity and alters the future based on the resources at his disposal which not includes prayer but creation and the created.

    Prayer seems to be centered at the heart of the Mystery for which I am thankful.


    1. I have just recently had contact again with Frank, who was a student of mine at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1991-92. His name is now on my Thinking Friends mailing list.

      He send a couple of small corrections to the above comments. The third paragraph should say, "I suggest that prayer becomes a resource that God uses. It seems that God is somehow self-limiting and with prayer God’s resources are released to make adjustments in personal and community history."

      And the next to last paragraph should read, "I would also suggest that God is not unchangeable. He makes considerations on behalf of humanity and alters the future based on the resources a

    2. In email correspondence with Frank, I cited the saying that "a man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with only an argument."

      I am thankful that Frank was (mostly) cured of a serious illness, and if the prayers of his friends were partly responsible for that, I am thankful for them.

      But I still don't understand why God's healing might have been the result of the friends' prayers or why God might not have healed him if his friends had not prayed for him.

    3. Like you I do not understand why I may not have been healed without prayer. Additionally, why was I only partly healed. If God was going to heal why not do it totally?

      In my journey I am suggesting that God gains from the community. As I mentioned prayer is a resource and if God is centered in community then the community is at its best when it participates as community. Community becomes co-creative with God. It affirms blessings, it ministers in the time of suffering, it comes together as two or three to live in the community of Christ.

      So God waits for community to act in behalf of one another and the world. Is it possible that the lacking in complete healing is reflective of the human community and not God? Did God allow human methods of healing to work and yet display the weakness of humanity?

      An Example: While serving as pastor I and the deacons were called to the hospital to pray and anoint a lady who had cancer. Her doctors had given up on any additional treatment and gave just a few short days to live.

      To everyone’s surprise she was released from the hospital and seemed to be given a new lease on life and the few “days” turned into months. During my last visit I asked about her healing and she said “I ‘am just a tough old bird.”
      During our conversation she never affirmed the work of the community or the difference prayer may have made. The follow week she was dead!

      So did her lack of affirmation of community and prayer lead to the sudden reversal of life?

      If God is community and allows humanity to participate in community, then prayer becomes part of the communal resources, affecting and effecting both God and community.

    4. When it comes to talking about personal experiences I am most curious about the narrative of the experience by those persons who ‘have been healed without prayer’ and those who ‘have not been healed with prayer’.

    5. The number of people who have not been healed with prayer are many and we can name them. In a number of religious traditions the excuse is that the individual did not want to be healed or prayer was not effectual because of the person praying or prayer community.

      Your point also brings up the issue of prayer being answered by those who would not fit into the Jewish or christian communities. During the destruction of peoples during genocide and war healing never shows up. So what is the use of prayer for the non-religious? when tragedy comes and they call to request prayer and healing occurs?

  10. Thinking Friend Ed Chasteen is one of my most esteemed local friends, and I appreciate him regularly reading and responding (even though most responses are quite brief) to my blog articles.

    Here was the response I received from Ed yesterday--and posted here with his permission: "Leroy, I always have to read what you write. I never know how it will make me think. But it always does. I REALLY like this one."

  11. Here are some very thoughtful comments sent by a Thinking Friend in Texas.

    "Does prayer change God’s mind? Probably not! But what about praying for the sick. A Sunday or two ago our congregation gathered around a middle aged woman with some troubling symptoms who was scheduled for a biopsy.

    "As many of us as could laid a hand directly on her. Others laid hands on those who were touching her. So there was a chain of touch while the pastor led an intercessory prayer for her.

    "Did our prayers change the outcome of that biopsy. I don’t know, but I do know that our prayers changed her, and perhaps even changed those of us who were praying.

    "The subject of our prayers will die sometime, of cancer—likely in her case—or of something else. But our prayers can help us commit ourselves to the God who will ultimately receive us into God’s goodness.

    "A number of years ago I was hospitalized with a life threatening condition. Afterwards I said that while I was very well aware that I might die, still I was not afraid. A fundamentalist relative--one of those convinced that our goodness does not count with God--asked 'Where you not afraid because you think you are good?' I knew he felt that way but still was surprised that he would respond to me so arrogantly. I answered, 'No.'

    "I wished and still wish a decade later that I had had the presence of mind to answer, 'No. I was not afraid because I believe that God is good.'"

    1. I really like the way these comments conclude!

  12. I live with the belief that because God is good he is always working in my and humanities behalf. Thanks for the reminder

  13. I live with the belief that because God is good he is always working in my and humanities behalf. Thanks for the reminder