As I write this a young woman we know, only nineteen years old, lies in the hospital fighting for her life against a serious infection. We learned today that she will need to begin kidney dialysis 24/7. Her life hangs by a tenuous thread. Her situation is complicated by the bone marrow transplant she received this summer which has left her immune system severely weakened. She needed the transplant to give her a chance against a rare blood disorder. All of this affects a young woman with a loving, generous and warm personality, someone who cares about others and who, out of her love for Jesus, wants to make a positive difference in the world. In the face of this latest threat to her life her family has again called for prayer.
And naturally we respond. We respond because we care about this young woman. We answer the call to prayer because we recognize how much she means to her family and so many others. We pray because we want to see her live and thrive and take part in bringing God's kingdom into reality in this world. We cry out because the thought of a nineteen year old girl dying strikes us as fundamentally wrong.
But even as I pray, I struggle with questions about this whole enterprise called prayer. Why do we pray? What effect do our prayers have? We cry out to God on behalf of this young woman, as we do in so many other situations, because we want God to intervene and restore her health. We want God to act so that she will live a long life and bring glory to her name. We pray because we believe that prayer is powerful and effective. But what if we didn't pray? Would that mean that God would not act? Would God allow a young woman to die simply because people did not raise their voices and ask for intervention? Surely that would make God quite cruel and heartless; not at all the compassionate and merciful God we proclaim. Does God act only if and when we pray?
What if we pray for healing, but in the end she dies? Some will remind us that “no” is also an answer to prayer, and that is true in so far as it goes. But it certainly leaves us wondering about the power and efficacy of prayer when we pray for something like the healing of a sick young woman and receive “no” as an answer.
In addition, Christian theology, or at least certain lines of it, asserts that God has our lives fully planned. God knows the number of our days, say the Scriptures. God has already directed the course of our lives before a single day comes to pass. If we affirm that, what is the purpose of praying for anything, because everything has already been determined? By asserting the sovereignty of God in this way do we render prayer an exercise purely for our own benefit? Or perhaps somehow God delights in our prayers, but those prayers don't actually change anything because God has already determined how to act. If God already knows the outcome of this young woman's illness, why do we need to pray at all?
On the other hand, if we affirm that pray can change the outcome of events, how can we then say that God already knows the events of our lives before they ever happen? If our actions and prayers alter the outcome of events, then those events cannot be already known. I have a book on my shelf entitled The Openness of God, which I remember created quite a storm when it appeared by promoting the idea that God's oversight of our lives doesn't mean that everything is already planned and determined. If our prayers and actions really do have any significance, then somehow there must be some flexibility in the pre-ordained plans of God.
I realize that I am raising arguments which have been raised before by others more skilled with words than I. These are not new thoughts or doubts. But that does not render them insignificant. I do not know how to reconcile these apparent contradictions in the nature of God and the world. I do not know how to understand the purpose of prayer. My human logic struggles to understand these things. Can God both know the course of our lives and yet allow for our prayers and actions to influence that course? It seems logically contradictory, but Scripture does say that God's ways are higher than ours. That seems like an easy way to avoid a tough question, but it may be the only way open to us.
Despite my questions I will continue to pray. I will pray because, as I said before, I want to see this young woman live a long life bringing glory to God through her loving, joyful, caring spirit. I will pray because I don't believe that nineteen-year-old women should die. I will pray because in my prayers I protest the injustice of sin and death and cry out to God to continue to crush them by restoring this young woman to fullness of life. I pray because I cling to the hope that God's kingdom can come and God's will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. I trust that God doesn't require my prayers in order to act, but somehow I recognize that my voice needs to be raised in chorus with others on behalf of this young woman, as well as on behalf of so many others.
I just wish I understood better the purpose of prayer...