My guest blogger today is not only a favorite friend, but is also a respected and beloved minister and theologian who writes books, is a sought after speaker nationally and internationally and leads travel groups to some of the most sacred places on earth.

Meet Dr. James Howell, Senior Minister of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina as well as an author, speaker and teacher at Duke Divinity School.

While he is a devoted Duke fan and I’m a true blue Tarheel, when it comes to our faith and friendship, we are undoubtedly on the same team. His answers to such important questions are not only more profound and thought-provoking than mine, but also more articulate and accurate. 

So, does prayer work? Here’s what Dr. Howell has to say…..

People ask if prayer “works,” or complain if it doesn’t.  Some people think my prayers, since I’m a pastor, are more likely to “work” than regular folks’ prayers.  But would we hang a percentage on prayer successes? 

   We speak of “answered prayer,” and Garth Brooks thanked God for “unanswered prayer” (since he didn’t get the girl he’d wanted but wound up with a terrific wife later on).  Is prayer about getting God to “answer,” to do us favors?  What if I told you Lisa is a terrific wife because most of the time she does stuff I ask her to do?  You’d think I was a cad.

   Prayer is more than asking.  I’d never thought of this until, late in my senior year in college, I read C.S. Lewis’s wonderful essay, “The Efficacy of Prayer.”  His best thought: “The very question ‘Does prayer work?’ puts us in the wrong frame of mind.  ‘Work’: as if it were magic or a machine.  Prayer is either sheer illusion, or a personal contact between incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person.  Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.  In it God shows Himself to us.” 

   Prayer is a relationship.  We love God, God loves us, and so we share, we just sit together, we weep, we laugh; as in my marriage, conversation, and togetherness, are everything.

   I’ve read studies where people pray for patients in one hospital but not the other, and results are measured.  I think if I were in the un-prayed-for group, I might want to sue!  Some studies indicate the prayed-for people do a little better.  That’s fine by me.  I do believe God hears, cares, and helps.  But we have to be honest: we pray for people with Alzheimer’s, or rapidly advancing cancer, and a multitude of prayer chains and fervent pleas can only yield to the march of suffering.  Doesn’t mean God isn’t there, or doesn’t assist us.

   I laughed out loud after reading one study that called the un-prayed-for people the “control group.”  That’s the issue!  We love control.  We even believe prayer might help us gain a bit more control over a situation spinning out of control.  But prayer isn’t control – either controlling God or the situation.  Prayer is a yielding of control.  Prayer is putting our lives and dreams in God’s hands.  Prayer is sharing with God.  Prayer is union with God.  And that never fails to ‘work.’

Lord, be with me.  Let’s just be together.  I’ll share, and I’ll try to listen.  Maybe our minds and hearts might merge and become one.  I have a few things to ask as well, but for now, let’s just be together in the quiet.

– James

Click here to enjoy more of Dr. James Howell’s writings and find out more about his next group travel at his blog.