What good does a prayer do?

April 7th, 2020
This article is featured in the Acting Missionally issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

He’s not opposed to prayer. Since contracting COVID-19 a few days ago, many people have told Chris Cuomo they are praying for him. He appreciates their gesture of support, but he had a deeper question.

As he opened his CNN Prime Time show the other night, he bluntly asked his viewers, “What good is a prayer when you aren’t doing anything to give real help to a person? People say they are praying for those who are sick as well as the doctors, nurses, and first responders on the front line. But what good is that when their real need is PPE, ventilators, and drugs to fight this disease? What good does a prayer do?”

Fair question. James, the brother of Jesus, says something very similar to the early Christian community:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?...Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:14-16, NIV)

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Both James and Chris Cuomo are making the same point: Real faith should result in loving actions. No doubt. There is only one difference: For James, prayer is one of those faithful deeds. Here are a few things prayer does.

  • Prayer changes me. When I pray, I come into the Presence of God, and I’m touched by God’s love, truth, peace, holiness, and faithfulness. The longer I stay there, the harder it is to hold onto my false assumptions, limited perspective, and self-centered nature. Creative ideas fall into my head. I stop measuring my possibilities by what I can do, but rather what God can do through me. Suddenly, no giant in front of me is bigger than the God inside of me. I discover I’m not fighting my battles alone. Even if I walk through the valley of death, God is with me. When I pray, despair is transformed into hope, anxiety is melted into peace, and fear is forged into courage. Prayer changes me.
  • Prayer changes others. After years of experimenting, I’ve noticed that when I pray specifically, persistently, and boldly, real changes occur in other people. Sometimes it is the softening of a hard heart. Sometimes it is the comforting of a grieving soul. Sometimes it’s the newfound joy of an aimless life turned to Christ. On occasion, I’ve seen people physically healed. I don’t pretend to understand how this mysterious force works; I’m just a witness that it does.
  • Prayer releases the power of God. Scripture is quite clear on this. “If my people…will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14 NIV). In reality, God can do more in ten minutes than we can do in twenty years. If there was ever a time in the last one hundred years when God’s people needed to humble themselves and pray so our world will be healed, it would be now.

By all means, we need to supply the people fighting this deadly disease with the equipment they need to be safe and effective. My wife works in a hospital blood bank; I understand the need. But equipment and human effort will not be enough.

This moment in history is pleading for God’s people to go beyond saying a prayer to fervently praying. When you pray, you are engaging the most specific and potent help anyone could receive. Now is our time to ask God to do the things we cannot do, in places we cannot go, and in situations we cannot control for people and nations that hang in the balance. When we do, God will use our humble prayers to bring about enormous good.

The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. (James 5:16, CEB)

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