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Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?

Prayer. It’s an integral part of Christian life yet it’s the part that is often neglected. It promises to unleash amazing power from above but is too often left untapped. God invites us to talk with Him in prayer, but we struggle with what words to say or how to say them. In his book Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference, Philip Yancey explores the age-old question of what it means to pray and what role it plays in a Christian’s life.

In Part One of the book, Yancey explains that prayer helps us keep company with God—it helps us to see as God sees. He points out, “Prayer exposes for a nanosecond what I would prefer to ignore: my own true state of fragile dependence” (21). It gives us a perspective from above, reminding us of where we stand in the grand scheme of things. Yancey goes on to say, “Prayer raises my sight beyond the petty—or, as in Job’s case, dire—circumstances of daily life to afford a glimpse of that lofty perspective. I realize my tininess and God’s vastness, and the true relation of the two. In God’s presence, I feel small because I am small” (22).

Despite our smallness—or, because of our smallness—we experience grace when we start from above where God is. “Grace, like water, descends to the lowest part” (23). I love that imagery of grace flowing down. When we start with God—when we start from the top—we can see His mercy and grace flow down to us. Too often, we focus on ourselves rather than on God when we pray. We ask for things rather than for Him who saved us, thereby losing out on the view of grace.

When we focus on things rather than our relationship with God, we lose the true essence of prayer. As Yancey points out, “The main purpose of prayer is not to make life easier, nor to gain magical powers, but to know God” (56). Prayer builds relationship. By helping us to get to know God, prayer develops our relationship with Him. By allowing us to think about others in intercessory prayer, it helps us strengthen our relationship with others.

In Part Two, Yancey explores the question of whether prayer makes any difference. Can we mere human beings change God’s mind? Or is it simply a way for us to advocate for something that God already plans to do? Yancey concludes, “Persistent prayer keeps bringing God and me together…What I learn from spending time with God then better equips me to discern what God wants to do on earth, as well as my role in that plan” (152). Furthermore, “In persistent prayer, my own desires and plans gradually harmonize with God’s…The real value of persistent prayer is not so much that we get what we want as that we become the person we should be” (153). Becoming the person we should be through prayer—what a wonderful thought! I love the quote by Ray Anderson that Yancey includes: “Prayer is not a means of removing the unknown and unpredictable elements in life, but rather a way of including the unknown and the unpredictable in the outworking of the grace of God in our lives” (82). In other words, prayer is not a means of getting rid of things we do not want and getting hold of things we desire. Instead, prayer helps us accept the things the way they are because we trust that God will work things out according to His good and perfect will.

Moving on to Part Three, Yancey touches on the language of prayer. When we hear someone pray fluently, we are impressed—and when we find ourselves at a loss for what to say in prayer, we get frustrated. True prayer, though, does not lie in fluency of words, but in sincerity of heart. Yancey reminds his readers, “True prayer comes from within, from the longing of the heart” (163). He points out, “Apart from the requirement that we be authentic before God, there is no prescribed way to pray” (190). God knows everything about us. Yet why do we find it hard to be authentic before God? Why do we shy away from being genuine? Why do we recite phrases learned in church rather than pour out what’s buried deep in our soul? These are some questions that came to my mind as I read this section of the book.

Also, prayer does not have to be a string of words. Silence can sometime speak louder than words. A moment of silence—a stillness in which we listen to God’s invitation to be still and know that He is God—can be just as powerful a prayer. In that silence, we rest in God. As Yancey points out, “Prayer invites us to rest in the fact that God is in control, and the world’s problems are ultimately God’s, not ours. If I spend enough time with God, I will inevitably begin to look at the world with a point of view that more resembles God’s own. What is faith, after all, but believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse?” (210). In silence, I find God. And in silence, I find my faith.

In Part Four, Yancey struggles with the dilemma of why certain prayers are answered while others are not. Why does one person survive a plane crash while countless others die? Whose prayers does God listen to when two people pray for contrary things? Why do some people pray for something and never get it answered in their lifetime? This section raised more questions than answers. Perhaps because we have more questions than answers, Yancey writes, “I have learned that I have no time in which to live out Christ’s life other than now. This very moment is all I can count on.” Indeed, this moment in which I am typing the words on this page is all I know for sure. Am I living out Christ’s life at this moment in time? Am I exercising my faith, trusting that God knows what He is doing even when I do not know what the next moment in my life holds?

In the final section of the book, Yancey focuses on the practice of prayer as it relates to self, others, and God. On the opening page of Part Five, Yancey quotes F. B. Meyer: “The greatest tragedy in life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer.” How profound. Am I praying enough? Or do I leave some prayers unoffered? I have always been a huge fan of intercessory prayer, and Yancey reinforces why it’s so important: “Prayer allows me to see others as God sees them (and me): as uniquely flawed and uniquely gifted bearers of God’s image” (303). As I pray, I learn to love others the way God loves them. As David Hubbard said, “The purest form of love is given with no expectation of return. Measured by this standard, earnest prayer for others is a magnificent act of love” (301). As I kneel today—and tomorrow and the day after— I hope to engage in this magnificent act of love, lifting my mind’s eyes up to heaven to see as God sees, conforming my will to His in perfect harmony, and offering up earnest prayers for others. Yes, prayer does make a difference.

Wonha (Iris) Kim, MD, MPH recently completed her medical training at Johns Hopkins and currently works as faculty at Loma Linda University School of Medicine (pediatrics and preventive medicine) and LLU School of Public Health. She serves as an active member of the Eldasom Ministry at Loma Linda Korean SDA Church.

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