Last week, the President of the Adventist Church sent a message to all members around the world, asking them to pray for the people who are suffering as a result of the forest fires in Australia. He called on the church to ask God to stop the fires that have now reduced large parts of Australia to ashes. A few days ago the President sent a similar call for collective prayer, this time on behalf of those in the Philippines who are threatened by the Taal Volcano in the Bantangas province, which is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Asia. He added that the church’s regional office in Southeast Asia and a university that is operated by the church, at a short distance from the volcano, are also under threat.
It raised a question that I have asked myself many times: Do such prayer initiatives really help? And is there a greater chance of ‘success’ if large numbers participate? This is a complicated issue. Believers usually assume that God is omnipotent, and is therefore able to answer such prayers. They also usually agree that God is the personification of loving goodness. On that basis it is, they feel, to be expected that God will be happy to respond positively to prayers that beg Him to stop terrible situations such as in Australia and in the Philippines.
Moreover, if we are dealing with a loving God who can do anything, shouldn’t we expect him to simply prevent all these kinds of disasters from happening in the first place?
Prayer plays an important role in my faith experience, but not in the way I sometimes see with many fellow believers. I regularly pray to God for protection, but I do not have the habit of always saying a short prayer before I start the car to run an errand. And I don’t expect God to find a parking space for me when I arrive in the center of Amsterdam.
I trust in the words of the apostle James that it is important to pray for seriously ill people, but I do wonder if the apostle could not have been a bit more reluctant with his assurance that: “Prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:15). After all, we all know that many prayers for healing remain without the desired result. There is, of course, the escape clause that we must always end our prayers with the statement that not our will, but God’s will must prevail. And yes, very often the divine will turns out to be rather unfathomable (or some might say: capricious).
For many people, this is a reason to abandon their faith. They cannot believe in a God who apparently may help somebody get rid of his cold or to find her keychain, but looks the other way when the holocaust takes place or an atomic bomb falls on Hiroshima. When people talk to me about this and ask me why God allows all sorts of terrible things to happen, and why he apparently answers some prayers but ignores others, I must admit I have no real answer.
Still, the problems surrounding prayer are no reason for me not to pray anymore. One of the books that have helped me to continue praying, despite the many questions, is that of the well-known American writer Philip Yancey: Prayer: Does it Make any Difference? (2006). Yancey emphasizes that God is there for us, whether or not we experience him and feel his presence. In our prayers we acknowledge God’s presence and respond to it. Praying means that we know our place in the grand scheme of things; that we realize our limitations and smallness, and are willing to do what we can but ultimately leave everything to God. Prayer is a time for expressing our gratitude for all the good things that we experience every new day. It also includes thinking about what we did wrong and asking for forgiveness. Whatever else it may do, praying for others helps us to take our responsibility for others more seriously. Prayer is being silent before the God who–even though it often doesn’t seem to be that way–somehow knows what is happening and why it is happening. The apostle Paul wrote to the members of the church in Rome that we often don’t actually know what to say to God in our prayers, but that somehow even our wordless sighs are of value to God (Romans 8:26). That in itself is reason enough to keep praying.