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  • Terry Wigmore

Does prayer work? Giving God Too Much Wiggle Room - The "Yes/No/Maybe So" of Answers to Prayer (are well within the randomness of life).

Updated: Apr 1

One of the things I was taught, both as one who was raised in a church context, and as one who made a personal confession of faith later in life, is that prayer is vital, both as a part of one's spiritual discipline, and as a necessary tool of the intercessory warrior. Prayer is the act of pleading with the divine for something, or on behalf of someone. It is also an act of praise and gratitude for all that one believes that God has done, is doing and will do in the affairs of His people and in the affairs of humanity in general. And this spiritual posture is based on the belief that "the fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16). Prayer is absolutely vital in the life of the believer. But does it work?

I was part of a Sunday School, back in the 80s and early 90s, that ran a "prayer wall" - a visible record of all the prayers kids brought to church each week, written on a piece of paper that was in the shape of a brick in order to build a wall, whose foundations were the answers, fortifying our belief that prayer works! The problem became the way "answers" were labelled - "Yes", "No" and "Maybe/Wait" - in other words, we could get a "yes" and an answer would be declared in the affirmative (someone was feeling sick and is now feeling better), or we could get a "No" (praying for something or someone that did not work out in the affirmative - the person is still sick or has gotten worse, or, in adult class - someone didn't get that job, or didn't get that acceptance in a college), or we could get a "Not Yet", God's going to need more time (which was usually stated in terms of the person who is the object or recipient of the prayer is not ready to receive it, or God's "fullness of time" criteria has not yet arrived). I began to notice that creating these categories for how to measure answers leads to a lot of wiggle room for God. For me, it was always a time of reflection and a moment of cognitive dissonance when, at the end of the year, we would take the paper prayer bricks down and realize that many of the sincerely brought prayers and intercessions were in fact, still waiting for answers or were not answered. I realize this is just anecdotal experience and not real evidence of anything more than a "Huh, I wonder..." moment.

Prayer was supposed to be about the pray-er - the impact on the one who is trying to please God, or to show that the tiny mustard of faith can move mountains, or least help you feel better. I recall my first year at bible college, being introduced to the literal "prayer closet" - the few "confessional style cubicles" set aside so one could literally "pray in secret" because, it was believed, THAT secrecy made your requests more pleasing to God (Matthew 6:5-6) . Somehow that meant there were an awful lot of us who were not doing it right, or who did not have the faith of a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20) ( ) Years of trying to be holier, to be purer, to be be purged of self, attending retreats and conferences, and reading every devotional/prayer book I came across, I reluctantly came to embrace the question that began my journey away from the dogma of the Church. I was beginning to question things I had been taught and came to believe as true: questioning the entire enterprise of faith (of whatever stripe of faith, proclaimed as truth. I wondered about measuring the effectiveness of prayer in a way that a Sunday School class could not. I realized a more scientific method was needed to satisfy the growing questions about my faith and my curiosity about the real and measurable impact of prayer on the physical reality of existence.

Such a methodology has been reported in several medical journals and in major newspapers since my time teaching Sunday School. One of the most significant studies was the study at Harvard regarding prayer for patients facing heart surgery. "The  researchers looked at whether prayer on behalf of a patient could assist recovery from bypass surgery. A third of the patients were prayed for after being told that this might or might not be done; a third did not receive prayer; and a third received prayer after being told this would occur. The researchers concluded that prayer had no effect on complication-free recovery from bypass." (

But surely there are benefits for the one doing the praying? It does seem that just the act of praying may have a calming impact on the one doing the praying, at least if the praying is not a rant or invoking the wrath of the divine to smite one's enemies ( So, maybe the more accurate way of speaking about the impact of prayer is to reflect on how it works on the participant, rather than how it may or may not impact the outcomes for the recipient or alter the laws of the physical world. Wellness seems to go with prayer, especially prayer that is more akin to meditation, with a focus on positive language of self-talk. Something good comes about for the one praying (lowering blood pressure, and an emerging sense of well-being and calm).

As for pleading for the divine to impact the course of human history (the storm that sank the Spanish armada poised to invade England, or the seas remaining calm for the evacuation of Normandy - just two that came to mind), the odds are about 50-50. However, for the believers and people of faith, the randomness of life is often perceived as Divine intervention . It seems that the divine likes to roll the dice in human existence to the tune of a 50-50 roll of the dice. To the pray-er, or non-pray-er, believer or non-believer, even the most skeptical part of me wishes, as President Snow wished each of the participants in the Hunger Games of Life: may the odds be ever in your favour.

  • this is a draft of an idea that will form the main exploration in a chapter tentatively called, "What Happens When The Ship Of Faith Crashes on the Rocks of Unanswered Prayer - The 50-50 Draw of Life, " from my book The Grace of Uncertainty

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