How does prayer work?

No one knows how prayer works or why. Some wonder if it works at all, and if it does, what “works” means.

Jesus talked about prayer in simple teachings and parables and analogies. For instance, he emphasized the need to keep at it. “Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you,” he said. 

Each of the verbs should be translated as continuous action — keep on asking, seeking and knocking. He teased us with a parable about a man who disturbs the sleep of his neighbor and family in the middle of the night and a woman who nags an unjust judge until he gives in to get her off his back. He compared our heavenly Father’s desire to give us good things to an earthly father’s desire to do the same, only more so.

Here’s another image, this time from the world of grandparenting.

My 16-month-old grandson, Whit, is never without an implement in hand: spoon, stick, wooden backscratcher, plastic golf club or his personal favorite — the TV remote control. It’s more than just having the remote in his hand, though; he has caught on to the power of the remote to make things happen.

Children are copycats. They watch what we do and emulate it. They grow up by practicing being grownups. So, Whit not only holds the remote and waves it around, he points it at the TV and presses buttons, expecting something to happen the way it does when the adults in his life do the same.

Since he doesn’t know what buttons to push, I get tired of having to reset the TV after all his attempts to turn on Paw Patrol or The Golf Channel (really!) have thrown the TV menu into chaos. So, we took the batteries out of a remote and labeled it “Whit.” He now can wave and point and click without consequence.

He is old enough to see that some power has left him. Amid his disappointment, he tried harder until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I got the working remote in hand and stood behind him as he clicked, operating the TV according to what I think he would have wanted, and certainly according to what I wanted for him. He was delighted to feel his powers return.

Prayer is a team effort. Each of us — often many of us — joins God in focusing on the changes we desire. We have limited power to achieve these things on our own. God seems to honor our efforts by coming behind us with greater power to achieve outcomes God was not likely to initiate without our prompting, but always according to God’s greater knowledge of the greater good.

No analogy is perfect. This still doesn’t account for why some fervent prayers seem to go unanswered. But if a grandfather can’t stand to disappoint a grandson’s efforts for change, how much more so a good God for God’s children?