The Power and Limitations of Prayer

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I believe in the power of prayer. Thought I should just get that out before I go on to contradict myself or stir up a nest of angry fire ants. Made that mistake once and, believe me, there are someplace you just don’t want ants to bite. Sensitive places. So…So sensitive. But I digress!

Prayer is a big part of my life but I’ve started to wonder if there are limitations to this magical little friend. Like Superman holding kryptonite, can prayer be drained of its strength and turned into a puddle of goo? When do these words become nothing more than silly incantations? Is that even possible or should I just stop asking stupid questions?

I’m sure there are plenty of you that believe prayer is a waste of time. That it’s a childish superstition. It’s the equivalent of staring up at the sky and wishing on a shooting star or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. If you tell me what you wished for it won’t come true. That’s how that goes right? Huh, when you put it like that, um, yeah fair play. Prayer does sound pretty silly.

Kneeling on the floor, clasping folded hands, and bowing the head. Eyes closed and words sent out into the vast unknown. Believing that this great entity is listening to every word, taking notes, and then…What? It’s kinda like therapy only cheaper. Plus, no one asks, “How does that make you feel?” Feel? I don’t know. Itchy?

Does this great entity say anything or are we just putting words out into the ether and hoping for the best? If we don’t hear a response, does that mean that God isn’t real, or does it mean we haven’t learned how to listen? Are we looking for answers in all the wrong places? Or, are we seeing answers that aren’t there because we believe there should be answers?

There I go, asking way too many questions but I have more. A lot more. Way too many and your time is precious. Let’s boil it down to one or two. That’s a little closer to bite-size. Is the power of prayer real or is it a figment of our wishful thinking? If it’s real, is it all-powerful or are there limitations?

Two questions instead of two hundred? Not bad. If you think I’m about to answer them then this is gonna get awkward. I was kinda hoping you knew. No? This is a one-way form of communication. Cool. Cool. Forgot how this thing works for a second. Are you okay if we just sit in this uncomfortable silence for a few minutes? 

Okay, let’s talk this out and maybe I’ll stumble on something that closely resembles an answer.

As I said, I believe in the healing power of prayer. For me, that’s a done deal but I’m not someone who blindly follows beliefs. Even my own beliefs. Just because my heart tells me it’s true, doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts. I ask a lot of questions. I’m dubious when an answer sounds too good to be true or too pretty. I’m a cynic and it’s not one of my finest qualities but I think asking these big questions is important for growth. It’s vital, as someone who has a system of belief, to keep digging because if I don’t, I become complacent. 

A complacent faith, for someone like me, is a dying light in a dark world, and I need all the light I can get. So I ask more questions. I doubt my faith. I question God. I wonder if he’s real or if he’s brunching with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I pray with one eye open just in case the answer falls out of the sky like a cartoon anvil. 

Beep Beep…Ouch.

Oh boy, let’s start with the positive because I think we could all use a little more positivity. After all, these are dark times Harry. Dark times.

NERD! What? Who me? Positively.

It’s easier for me to believe in something I can see, touch, feel. Tangibles are harder to argue with than hypotheticals. If I can experience it first hand then doubt can’t wake me up in the middle of the night with its endless stream of questions.

Ah, but when it comes to my firm belief in prayer? How do I know that something intangible actually manifests itself in a reality-based mindset?

Before my last transplant, I was in the hospital, and I was taken down to the inpatient dialysis unit for my regular run. I was hooked up to hemodialysis. Two tubes ran from my body to the machine. Blood was pulled out through one line, sent through the filters, and pushed back into me through the other. It usually took three, three and a half hours, of sucking (literally and figuratively) to get my blood clean.

Want some science mixed in with your religion? Sure, here we go. Think of dialysis as an external artificial kidney. The kidneys filter out the waste from our blood, convert it into urine, and then we flush it down the pipes. If the kidneys don’t work then that waste builds up in the blood, it’s dispersed throughout the body, and that would be fatal if we didn’t have a machine to clean out the waste.

Dialysis isn’t a perfect system but it did buy me some time. Time to find a donor, go through all of the testing, and have a life-saving kidney transplant. Thank God for science!

Most of my runs were pretty bad. My body didn’t respond well, and I always felt a lot worse when I was unhooked than when I went on. This day, it went from bad to horrible very quickly. I’d just had a big surgery. My already weak body was a lot weaker. Dialysis is incredibly hard on the body and this day my body couldn’t take it.

The pain started about an hour into my run. My muscles started to cramp and it felt like my blood was boiling in my veins. I was freezing cold, my teeth were chattering and I was shaking, but I also felt like I was on fire. Can fire be cold? The staff were working as hard as they could to figure out what was wrong. Cramping is normal on dialysis but feeling like your body is on fire? No, that’s not normal so no one knew how to fix it.

While they were trying to figure it out, my mom was on the phone with my dad. My dad’s a paster, and he was about to give a sermon. Instead of preaching, he asked his congregation to pray and they did. I don’t know what they said, but I knew when they started because I felt it.

I know that this is going to sound crazy. Believe me, I know but the fire in my veins was replaced by a different sort of heat. It started in my chest and slowly spread throughout my body. It was like a warm summer breeze hitting your sweaty face. That moment when you sigh, look up at the sun, and a hard days work just melts away.

That’s what it felt like. I didn’t know they were praying, but I knew they had. I felt it. The pain stopped. I relaxed. I closed my eyes and sighed. I felt their prayers and I felt the response. 

Or, you know, science?

Nah, at that moment my cynical mind was flummoxed because I told the team I was feeling better and they told me they hadn’t figured out what was wrong. Huh, coincidence? Maybe but what I felt was love, not medicine. That’s the word I was looking for! I felt this indescribable love extinguish the fire in my blood. 

Again, I know how it sounds but that’s how it felt.

When I look back I can see other moments when praper saved my life. I can’t even tell you how many times doctors have said, “How the hell are you still alive? You should be dead. You know that right?”

I’m never sure how to respond. Do I apologize? Promise to do better next time? 

I believe that prayer has the power to heal. It has the power to save and change lives. Prayer can be a superpower. I’m absolutely sure of that, but that doesn’t mean it’s without limitations. Nothing is perfect. Even the Garden of Eden had one big red flaw.

Then again, without human error, that flaw wouldn’t be a part of the story.

Is that the key here? User error.

I don’t know about you, but I pray with certain expectations. A list of things I need and I take them to God hoping he provides. Kinda like Santa? Is that what I’m doing? Sitting on his knee, reading off a list, and crossing my fingers. In my defence, isn’t that what were told to do? Take it to God. He’ll provide.

Lay it at his feet. Ask and you’ll receive. We’re taught to go to God, and we’re told he’ll give us what we need. That’s how the system works. Every lesson in prayer that I’ve ever sat through has taught me that, when I ask, God will provide.

Until he doesn’t and then what? Huh…I feel an anvil rushing towards my head.

There’s a chance that these lessons lost something in translation? What if these words we recite, these snippets of scripture, lack context? No idea what that context is but it feels like something is missing. Prayer has become this centre for wish fulfillment. It’s all about what God can do for me, my life, and for the lives of the people I love. I go to God when I need something, and yeah he’s there for that too, but if I take and don’t give? I think that maybe we need to give a little.

Prayer isn’t just about looking for answers. That’s a component but it can be so much more if we stop asking and just start talking. A conversation. Build a relationship. Sit in silence. Go with a willingness to simply be present without an agenda. What happens to our prayers then?

Here’s someone who says it better: “Prayer asks us to break out of our monologue with ourselves and to imitate Jesus by turning our lives into an unceasing conversation with the One we call God.” (Nouwen, Henri J. M. Clowning in Rome: Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer, and Contemplation. New York: Image Books (Doubleday), 1979, pp. 68-70.)

A conversation. Two people, sitting, talking, enjoying each other’s company. Sure, God’s voice is a little hard to hear but do we need to hear the words to build a connection? Yeah, it would help but if we’re so used to talking, or asking for things, then we haven’t learned how to listen. Once we do that, how will our experience with prayer change?

It’s easier, sitting down with our lists or reciting the prayers we were taught as kids. Bang one out, get off our knees, and get on with our day. Listening is hard and learning to recognize God’s voice is harder but what will happen when we finally hear what he’s been trying to tell us? Imagine the possibilities.

I know that opening ourselves up is uncomfortable. Being vulnerable is miserable. Having an open conversation feels awkward. Especially with God which is odd. If there’s ever a time, place, person, that I can bare my soul too it’s now. God is, well, God. All-knowing. All-seeing. I’m not saying anything he doesn’t already know. I can be honest and it’s safe. There’s no agenda. It’s just the two of us being honest for the first time in a long while.

At least I know that God’s going to keep my mess, my fears, and my insecurities safe. I can be my true authentic self without judgment, condemnation, or criticism. I can let it all out. I don’t have to hold it all in. With God, in prayer, I’m safe. That is so liberating and maybe that’s where we’ll find the true power of prayer.


4 thoughts on “The Power and Limitations of Prayer

Add yours

  1. Something I’ve thought a lot about. At the very least, you are not thinking bad thoughts when you pray (hopefully!). Whether it’s delusional or useless (and it isn’t), you are imagining that some great power is listening. Who’s to say, and what’s the harm in trying? Also, when I worked in the dialysis center, I was a “reuse technician” and if the hemodialysis filter has been reused too many times, or improperly cleaned, it can cause the symptoms you describe.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The big corporation that owns the dialysis center saves a ton of money by reusing those expensive filters.


  3. I think many people miss the true purpose & power of prayer because they (me included) don’t take the time to make listening a part of the discipline. If i want to be more like Christ, and reflect the character of God, then i need to become a better listener: to others, to my own thoughts & to the still small voice.

    Liked by 1 person

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