Where do my prayers go?

Beth Barnett explores how prayer ‘works’ – and how it doesn’t work...

What happens when we pray? Just how does prayer ‘work’? These are good questions!

My dad was the ultimate fix-it man. By trade, he was a motor mechanic – our yard was filled with cars in various states of repair – but his love for all things mechanical and electrical dominated our household inside and out. Our kitchen table was often covered in the many pieces of a disembowelled vacuum cleaner or a deconstructed radio or a half-finished stereo. The toaster shared a power socket with the soldering iron. Machines were fascinating to him, but he was always confident that he could fix something, because machines work on principles that you can work out. He taught me these principles… that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Often, when we try to think about how prayer ‘works’, we ask this question as if prayer were part of a machine. Something physical and limited. But prayer is not a vending machine. Prayer does operate in the real world – the physical world that we are grounded in. Yet prayer is not limited to the physical world. Prayer puts us in touch with God – and God is much deeper and more complex than a simple machine. So when we pray we connect to something that is deeper and more complex than a simple ‘press the button, get an outcome’ process.

Sometimes people pray expecting this kind of ‘automatic’ response. That will always lead to disappointment, and we should be careful not to set our kids up for those misplaced expectations.

Prayer offers us something more adventurous than a predictable ‘place your order’ system.

Prayer makes us partners with God. When we begin to pray, we are saying, ‘Let’s do things God’s way…’, which means we give up the mechanical ‘tit for tat’  processes of the physical world and try something far more risky. Partnership with God is less predictable than we might like, but it opens up new ways that we might not have thought possible.

For example, the principle of ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’ means that, if someone hurts us, we feel justified in hurting them in return. Prayer, however, introduces a whole lot of other possibilities. With God, there can be forgiveness; we can let go of hurt; we can be generous; we can resist the knee-jerk, automatic, hit-back urge, and break the cycle.

When we pray in ways that tell God what to do, we jump into ‘boss mode’ and it gets a bit confusing. Who is God, after all? But when we let God be God we pray open prayers that ask God to act in ways that might surprise us: they might not be what we expected – but, then again, they might be better than we expected.

As well as prayers that ask God for the things you or your children want, encourage prayers that ask God for help, or ideas or ways forward – leave the outcome open.

‘Dear God, we need some of your wise ways.’

‘Loving God, this needs help – bring it on!’

‘Dear God, show us your ways of love and justice.’

‘Dear God, we are looking to you…’

‘Great God, what’s the deal with this?’

Beth is currently undertaking doctoral studies in the area of New Testament examining the constructs of maturity in the letters of Paul. She has held pastoral roles in Baptist and Anglican churches and been a long-term volunteer in the missions of Scripture Union, for whom she is a freelance resource writer and trainer. She teaches units in Children and Families Ministry and Biblical Studies at Stirling College, as well as guest lectures in other Melbourne, Australia, colleges. Internationally, she is a writer and facilitator in the Child Theology Movement.

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