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 the 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)

Comments

  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…” and “God wants you to live the abundant life..” and yet so often it doesn’t feel life the reality of our daily experience. I strongly believe it is due to and incredible level of ignorance and or arrogance but it often leads people to question either their faith or their God.

    Again, thank you for your time and care.

  4. says

    In my 56 years of life–I’ve seen that God’s silence has often been a blessing. But at the time my prayers were not answered it was discouraging. God knows what is best for each of us–the silences of God have helped me to continue on to praying for people at all stages in life because I’ve seen all too many times over the course of the years that God’s answers come in His own way and time.

  5. says

    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.

    This paragraph hit me like a ton of bricks. The theological ramifications are deep indeed….

  6. says

    Does the cause/effect relationship imply necessity? I’ve sometimes preferred “Source” but even that fails to suggest intention or purpose.

  7. says

    AR,

    There’s probably a lot of ways to give an account of cause and effect. I’m fairly certain that the character of Personhood is that it includes freedom and love (Elder Sophrony writes about this at length). This removes necessity. I don’t think there will ever be a “science” of Personhood because it’s just not the stuff of science. I think what we can expect when doing theology is to remind ourselves of the ultimate character of reality and hesitate to reduce it to anything less.

  8. Michael Bauman says

    Fr. Stephen, a problematic part of the question of prayer and even miracles is that from a worldly perspective (even if we are trying to be free of the world) it all seems so random. Yet, if God is who the Scripture, the Saints and the Person of Jesus Christ say He is, God cannot be random. However, neither is He two-dimensional going from point A to point B in a linear ’cause and effect relationship, neither are his choices ours.

    The only conclusion I’ve come to is either just simple acceptance of the appearance of randomness or the possibility that God is so completely personal (small as you say) that He acts with each person according to what is good for their soul at that moment. Of course, He can only be so personal if He really is ‘everywhere present, filling all things’ while at the same time being wholly unknowable.

    Miracles then become not some cosmic divergence, but a simple act of personal love that is in accordance with His will not only for us but for everyone else at the same time.

    If I am making myself clear, does that seem right?

  9. says

    Fr. Stephen,

    Don’t forget that magic is the father (or mother) of science. ;-)

    The only reason why we know the the universe is rooted in Personhood is because God revealed the connection to us. Even that Revelation, however, didn’t eradicate all of the uncertainty associated with the connection. The connection isn’t intuitively obvious; we still need faith to apprehend it.

    Physics and other sciences deal with connections that are less obscure and more easily grasped. Contemporary science–correctly–doesn’t deal with miracles, since the mechanism through which miracles occur isn’t well understood. Indeed, the mechanism’s so poorly understood that no one can decisively tell whether a miracle has occurred unless it’s pretty obvious. Even then, there’s doubt.

  10. stephen says

    Prayer is so difficult for me sometimes, especially the ability to pray with attention. I read today in the book “The Arena” that one of the causes is that we forget we are facing death literally. When we forget our physical mortality, we forget our spiritual mortality also. Our prayer life becomes less important,

  11. says

    Prayer, it seems to me, is quite often viewed purely as a magic. I see many, myself included, pray for things to turn out some particular way. For better health, or finances or solutions to a problem.

    Lately though, in contemplating things, I realize that while a prayer for a favorable outcome is fine it must always be tempered with “Father if it be your will grant me …….. and if that is not to be then Father please grant me the strength to face what I must.”

  12. T says

    I think also that taking a “cause-and-effect” approach to interpreting our prayers is a lot like systematizing prayers, which is definitely a fallen and faulty thing to do with anything in the spiritual world.

  13. gerryma says

    I think we should not be specific in asking God for results, cures, miracles or the like. I have cancer and it is not the easiest thing to live with. Yet, when I pray I have never asked that it be taken away. I ask God for help and strength to deal with whatever He wishes for me.

    On a human level of course I would love to go in for the results of my latest scan to be told ‘ it’s cleared!’….and should that ever happen nobody will be more pleased nor grateful than myself.

    But I must always remind myself that it is not for me to specify the particular results I, in my ignorance, would like. I must pray only for help, strength and I must trust. Don’t worry about causation. Trust God, and let Him decide.

  14. says

    Visibilium,

    Well noted. I think that science does the best it can and uses language as well as it can. I strongly suspect that science on its highest level is far more nuanced than is perceived popularly. Theology is similarly hampered by language. What is revealed to us is described in words, but the revelation, which we are invited to participate in, finally brings silence.

  15. Stephen W. says

    Fr. Stephen, gerryma, Lucias, others

    It can get really confusing, especially if one is coming from a more evangelical background where there is more of an “ask and ye shall receive attitude” (referring usually to the material or physical). Half the time it is difficult to know how and what to pray about or for. It seems that certain things are inevitable weather we pray or not, have faith or not. I put these thoughts out because I am really sick and tired of the lack of my capacity to understand. I am not satisfied with my childish comprehension of prayer. With the understanding that I have, which I am vehemently trying to eradicate from my life, there is not much difference between God’s role in my life and pure chance. I know that this can not be true, but when you look at your life in relation purely to the physical world, saying “your will be done” can seem like a cop out. Maybe that is what needs to be done. To realize that nothing is in your control and trust God. I have done this to some degree out of necessity but I am also waiting to move beyond this stage, a place where my whole being co-exists with my words. My search is to go beyond this world ,of only what we see, and to be healed of my spiritual sickness and then be able to relate that to everything I see. In essence, living the one story life that Fr. Stephen talks about. Without that everything appears as madness and nothing in my life, at least, will be satisfied. For those who live in this reality and do not questions these things than forgive me and please pray for me. It also seems to me that this is a place where God can begin to work, where one has nothing to lose and everthing to gain. May the peace of Christ be with everyone.

  16. Hepa3ymeH says

    I was raised to be an orthodox christian. My reasoning has led me to question my own as well as other religions. Read my blog, comment and help me on my quest for answers. Thank you!

  17. says

    Father Stephen,

    Correct me if I am wrong, but this line of thinking (Personhood and love taking the place of causation) seems to lead us to a Two Storey Universe. Causation in the physical, and Personhood in the spiritual universe. We have got a full scale dichotomy building here.

  18. Michael Bauman says

    Robert, I think you are drastically wrong, it is the only way to heal the dichotomy created by the mechanistic/dualistic idea of causation in the sense that we usually think of it.

    While there is limited causation in the physical world, it is just that limited. Life, without which there would be no perception or possibility of causation, is a matter of being. Turn Decartes around, “I am, therefore I think”

    It is part of what I was trying to get at when I said previously that often what we perceive as random in our prayer life or as miracles are simply an act of personal love by God that connects us in ways we are unable to perceive to His order, His will. “….Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven….” The life of the Church allows us to become more susceptable to His love, less separated.

    Ultimately it is sin that creates the impression of two stories.

    I don’t know if you read the track back from Faded Mirror, but it is enlightening.

  19. says

    Not two storeys. I’m not willing to grant causation utter domination of the created order. I think, like Newtonian physics, it’s a useful way to describe some things, but does not ultimately describe the truth of things. The so-called “natural order” doesn’t account for the whole of human experience anyway. I’m not arguing for an alternative science. I’m simply saying that science only knows so much and will never know it all.

  20. Mary says

    Ecclesiastes 3:11

    He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.

  21. says

    So if I drop a weight from my balcony I shouldn’t expect it to fall? We are left then with disorder which is contrary to what we observe in nature. I don’t find this discussion helpful, perhaps I am missing something here.

  22. Lou. says

    Father Stephen —

    Could you please explain and apply the passage about how “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Jas. 5)? (Other translations describe the “assiduous” or”diligent” prayer of a “good man”).

    My question is from one who cannot claim righteousness nor goodness, let alone fervency or assiduousness or diligence in prayer.

    Lord, have mercy.

  23. says

    Robert, I’m by no means denying the regularity in nature, etc. I have suggested, in line with Scripture, that the language we use to describe what is happening “natural law,” “laws of nature,” causation, etc., may be useful but not sufficient to describe the fullness of how things actually are.

    Owen Barfield, one of the Inklings and friend of C.S.Lewis, referred to the kind of knowledge we have in science as “dashboard knowledge.” We know a car based on how it responds to what we do on the dashboard (the average driver) but we have only a vague notion about what’s under the hood.

    Scripture tells us that “in Him we live and move and have our being,” and that “all things hold together in Him.” I’m just suggesting that this is not merely second storey language, but a mysterious part of the world that we do not see nor can we well describe.

    But God has not made the world capricious or disorderly. Interestingly though, the Fathers would have looked to the fact that everything was created through the Logos, rather than seeking secularized language to describe the world.

  24. says

    Lou,

    The example is of Elijah whose prayer was answered with a 3 year drought. St. James means to encourage us to pray and not lose heart. God hears us. Of course, a “righteous” man is likely to pray a “righteous” pray and be truly in communion with the heart of God when he prays.

  25. Robert says

    Father, thank you for that clarification. What threw me off is “… if causation has any place at all.”

  26. says

    Fr. Stephen,

    Just for clarification, you may want to differentiate between causation, which pertains to non-human entities and objects, and teleology, which encompasses humans’ purposeful behavior. The element of purpose is missing from all natural phenomena, except man. Purposeful behavior–action–is the fundamental datum of social sciences, and any social science paradigm that ignores human action in an attempt to unthinkingly ape the natural sciences is completely devoid of meaning.

    This differentiation may assist your further elaboration of your one-storey universe paradigm, of which I’m a fan.

    Have a wholesome fast.