The Paradox of Prayer

Writing about his experiences in praying for the sick, the Elder Sophrony writes:

It is still not clear to me why less intense prayer on my part might occasionally cause the illness to take a favorable turn, whereas at other times more profound supplication brought no visible improvement.

From On Prayer

He says later that he never sought the gift of healing but committed everything to the will of God, “Who knows what each man needs for his salvation.”

This is part of the paradox of prayer. We are especially accustomed in our world to think in terms of “cause and effect,” and this is easily transferred to the phenomenon of prayer. Of course, this has led to much misunderstanding and more than a little abuse. The direct connection between the fervency of prayer and the efficacy of prayer is, indeed, magic, not Christianity. And magic is a temptation even in the modern world.

The Elder Sophrony’s experience could be repeated from the lives of many priests – at least based on conversations I’ve had over the years. Most priests that I know can share stories of miraculous recoveries or astounding responses to prayer. And yet, most would also admit that these occasions remain paradoxical and not rooted within themselves or the fervency of their prayer.

This, of course, is no reason not to pray, nor to pray fervently. But it is reason to shift our understanding away from theĀ magical and towards the personal. I have written before that all prayer has as its ultimate goal communion with God. Even when we pray for the sick, we are uniting ourselves to God and His will, and extending that union towards the one for whom we pray. With this in mind, we can understand that uniting all things in Christ brings everything towards its ultimate goal (Ephesians 1:10). Our prayer is not the cause – God is the Cause. It is in uniting ourselves and all things to God that the world comes back to its true Cause and, in that, we may rejoice.

I oftentimes suspect that the language of causation, rooted as it is in physics and the like, is probably a misleading term when applied to a universe whose true existence is rooted in Personhood. In such a universe, love is a far more important category than causation, if causation has any place at all.

Prayer frequently confronts us with paradox – but it is the paradox of God:

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7)


  1. Stephen W. says

    Fr. Stephen, Sometimes it is more than difficult to trust and believe in God when our prayers do not seem to be answered and we have baptized these prayers in tears. It is easy to be tempted into believing everything is only chance in the end and that is therefore why certain prayers seem to be answered and others do not. It does seem that there are those that have been given the gift of healing others physically and through personal faith some have been healed. Should we be seeking out these individuals or should we trust that whatever is happening is the Lords will? Should we feel as if our faith is too small? It would be hard to deny that certain men and women of great faith in history, have accomplished many miricles through Christ radiating in their lives. I know that ultimatley God wants us to be healed spiritually but sometimes certain things feel like to much. There is to much to say here which is personal, so I am wondering if it would be alright to E-mail you some details of my situation? It may take me a few days to collect my thoughts.

  2. says

    It’s fine to email me.

    It is indeed clear that some have been blessed with particular gifts. It is also clear that some of us suffer more than others for various reasons or for things that seem to have no reason at all.

    My life has some of both. I have found it most helpful to simply “lean” into God. I have sometimes prayed, “Even if you slay me, I will not leave you.” Fr. Sophrony writes probably as much or more about the experience of the absence of God as anyone I’ve seen. I don’t reproduce it often here on the net, because it is not easily understood or rather too easily misunderstood.

  3. Dale says

    Stephen W , Your questions are shared by many I would presume, myself included. I would like to add on to one statement you made, “I know that ultimatley God wants us to be healed spiritually but sometimes certain things feel like to much.” and ask Father Stephen to clarify my understanding. Because of the incarnation, Is it not true that God has entered both the spiritual and physical of this world and is the source of healing both. At what point is expectation of physical healing in this present world acceptable or appropriate? Maybe this is again a question beyond a simple answer but maybe there is another good reference you could direct me to.

    So often when discussing prayer we hear, “knock and the door shall be opened…” “if you have the faith of a mustard seed