James 5:16 states that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. I believe this is true; i.e., I believe that prayer "works." Here are some preliminaries before I give my reasons to believe that prayer works.
- I define prayer (following USC philosopher Dallas Willard, et. al.) as talking with God about what we are thinking and doing together. Prayer is a relationship with God that I have. (This is important for what follows.) When I claim that prayer "works" I have this definition in mind.
- My reasons for believing in prayer's efficaciousness form an inductive, not deductive, argument. I have reasons to believe, or why I see it as rational to believe, that prayer is powerful and effective. (Logically, I'm using abductive reasoning, or inference to the best explanation.) Can this be doubted? Of course. Any inductive argument is subject to doubt, more or less. In the same way the inductively arrived-at claim Prayer does not work can logically be doubted. (Note: If one begins with the claim God does not exist, then it deductively follows that Prayer does not work.)
- I present why I believe prayer works. I think it is important to state it this way. I lay my omniscient God-substitute Googler down and speak for myself. (Note: This is why I also value meeting face-to-face over coffee with people who don't believe what I believe. Thanks to all of you who have done and do this with me. I have learned from you.)
Why I Believe Prayer Works
- In 1977 I began a practice of getting alone and praying for several hours each week. I have maintained that practice, to this day. I believe the question "Does prayer work?" can only be answered by those who have committed themselves to a life of praying.
- I have kept journals recording my prayer life since 1977. My journals total over 3500 pages. I have had many incidences where the best explanation for an event, as far as I can tell, is that it is an answer to my prayers.
- So, I have much personal experience with praying. This is important to me because of a deep philosophical belief I have, which is: experience, not theory, breeds conviction.
- I'm going to be praying today, and tomorrow. I would not pray if I thought it did not work. (This reason is by via negativa.) It is important to say this. I'm not saying it to convince others. I don't expect my experience to convince others. But this is my experience, just as you have your experiences; therefore, I stand convinced. Call this an existential reason, without which I have no idea why I would pray (To religiously fake it? To impress others?).
- I have taught praying to many people. My estimate is that I have taught at least 3000 pastors and Christian leaders about praying. 1500 of them have engaged in 6-weeks of praying an hour a day, 5 days a week. They have kept journals recording their prayer experiences. They have sent their journals to me. I have read them. These students have been, literally, from all over the world. A few have invited me to their countries to teach prayer to their people and colleagues. I have a broad, deep data base of people who committed themselves to actually praying. These people tell of experiences and events that deepen my already-held conviction that prayer works.
- I have studied, and taught, the history of prayer and praying. I am familiar with the praying lives of many historical figures. The end result of my studies has been to inspire me to continue to pray.
- Scholarly, empirical studies of prayer and praying support my existential belief in the veridicality of praying. Such as, to cite but two, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, by Candy Gunther Brown; and The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach, by Bernard Spilka and Kevin Ladd.
- I have read countless counterexamples to my belief that prayer works. This is important to me. I've read innumerable (over the years) atheistic (and other) arguments that the statement Prayer works is false. I began reading this counter-literature in 1971, as an undergraduate philosophy student. (Beware - philosophy makes you read opposing ideas!) I have little sympathy with atheists who have never had a praying life and out of their non-engagement believe they have falsified the claim that prayer works. Their theoretical arguments, which are logical manifestations of their worldview, do not dissuade me. I have also read many books by, e.g., ex-theists who claim to have prayed like I have but found no reciprocity. I am sympathetic towards these testimonies. But note this: since my personal testimony is to the efficacity of praying, absence-testimonies do not persuade me any more than my testimony persuades an ex-believer.
- Jesus believed praying works. I believe Jesus is God incarnate. Therefore I believe praying works. A major portion of my adult life has been spent immersed in Christological studies. I remain convinced that Jesus is who he claims to be. (Note: my Christological studies are historical and textual studies. Some of my critics mistake me for a religious fundamentalist, which I am not. Ironically these critics are usually themselves hermeneutical fundamentalists.) Again, note the pronoun 'I'. I know why I believe praying works. Obviously I do believe praying works, since I continue doing it. Here personal knowledge is important (see Kierkegaard, and Michael Polanyi).
- I believe prayer works because I believe a personal God exists. If I did not believe this I would not pray, period. My praying life is a function of (is in direct proportion to) my belief in God.
- I have a deep, experiential and philosophical belief that not only does God exist as a personal agent, but God is good, God loves me, and God is working all thing together for good ("good" is defined in relation to God's plans and purposes [no, this does not lead us to the "Euthyphro dilemma"]). Because I am certain and happy that I am not the all-knowing, all-loving God, I know I do not have full epistemic access to what God is doing. I have prayed for things that, from my POV, seem unanswered. At this point my properly basic belief in God helps me trust that my prayers are not going unheard.