Effective prayer

My friend Kevin died of cancer on Saturday, but he wasn’t just my friend. He had a lot of friends—praying friends—who are godly, righteous people. Certainly hundreds, if not several thousand, souls were imploring God to heal Kevin. James writes, “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (5:16 b), which begs the question: Did Kevin not have any righteous people—or the requisite number of righteous people—praying for his healing?

A friend from another state called on Sunday to report that during their church service the pastor reported that “Sally’s” struggle against cancer was progressing toward victory. The cancer in her brain was gone and other, cancer indicators had declined by 50% over the last week. “Keep praying,” the pastor said. “Your prayers are working.”

Why are the righteous people praying for Sally experiencing success and the righteous people who prayed for Kevin suffering defeat?

Part of the answer lies in this: the definition of “accomplishes much,” from the James quotation. Someone we love, like Kevin, is diagnosed with a dread ill and we presume God wishes him healed. We pray, and we assemble teams of pray-ers, and we pray hard, fervent supplications for what we deem in Kevin’s best interest and our preference. At best, God will agree with us. More troubling, God is not paying attention to Kevin’s plight, but our prayers get His attention and healing occurs. Or…we conclude we are stuck with a God who doesn’t care, plays favorites, or is capricious. All are bad options.

What if accomplishing Kevin’s healing is not on God’s agenda? In other words, in His sovereignty, He knows healing Kevin is a bad plan.

We presume God agrees with our assessment, that healing is the right and best thing, and we effectively pray to that end. Then, when Kevin dies—and Sally lives—we question our fervor, our righteousness, and God’s fairness. When we are disappointed, we lapse easily into assuming we didn’t try hard enough, pray long enough, or assemble a formidable enough team to storm the gates of heaven and secure Kevin’s healing. Or, we are left with a God we would rather avoid.

And the devil has a field day in our disillusioned souls.

So why pray at all? If God is going to do what He’s going to do regardless of our prayers, no matter how effective, what’s the point?

At first glance, it would appear we should carefully define “accomplish much,” and once done, then pray successfully in agreement with God’s will and enjoy the control we derive by discerning the mind of God. I’m not buying that. When I pray like that it feels like I’m negotiating a real estate deal.

When confronted with Kevin’s cancer nine months ago, I went to my place of prayer: the streets in my neighborhood. I prayed, and said, “Father, what are you thinking?” I didn’t wait for His answer, but quickly got sidetracked by my shock and dismay and reverted to telling Father the outcome I desired with this bleak diagnosis. On this went: “Father, what are you thinking?”—but no break to let God answer, before—“Let me tell you what I’m thinking.”

I was persuasive. I asked for favors, pleaded for mercy, and bargained for healing. I hammered on the gates of heaven. I cried. I wailed. When I saw Kevin’s pain, I prayed more fervently.

You know what? This is typical, normal behavior for a friend who has gotten shocking, unpalatable news. It’s the rough equivalent of running around in a panic when the skillet on the stove catches fire.

Not long after Kevin’s diagnosis, my initial shock calmed, and I went to the streets and said, “Father, what are you thinking?” And then, I was quiet. I waited for His reply. Then, back and forth we went in dialogue about the concern at hand: Kevin’s health and the extenuating issues. This is the rough equivalent of realizing the skillet is on fire, gaining my wits, and managing the situation.

Here is my conviction regarding complex issues like cancer: Father wants us to tell Him what is on our mind. He wants to hear from us without edit. I believe He longs for an honest, forthright conversation with us. But take note: Conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. If I do all the talking when God and I get together, we don’t get nearly as much accomplished as when we communicate.

I just hung up the phone from talking to my friend, WO. Man-to-man, friend-to-friend, adult-to-adult, WO and I discussed our loss with Kevin’s passing. Back and forth our conversation went: talk, listen; talk, listen. That’s how dialogue works. One way communication is called a sermon, or a lecture. For the most part, sermons and lectures are not very effective forms of communication. Interaction, on the other hand, is much more effective, meaningful, and powerful. This is what God desires. It is what we are equipped to do. It is what bonds us together.

Prayer is a dialogue. God, in Christ, made us righteous people so He could interface with us. The seizing of that reality affords us the effective ability to communicate with God. And make no mistake, that communication is a two-way street—a dialogue. This “accomplishes much.”

Our prayers regarding Kevin’s cancer were not in vain. How can visiting with God about a subject that is important, like Kevin, be considered pointless? Were you not inspired as you considered Kevin’s life? Were you not challenged to walk more closely with God as a result of discussing Kevin’s life with God and others? Are you not a better person after discussing Kevin with God?

I am, and in this way, my prayer did “accomplish much.” Effective prayer is not about Kevin or Sally or cancer or healing. The accomplishment is defined by God, and the only way to discover the definition, is to discuss it with God.

Do I miss Kevin? Terribly. Would I bring him back if I could? Not in a million years. Am I still discussing Kevin’s life and death with God in prayer? You better believe it.