I think we all want to figure out how to pray more effectively, but what exactly are we wishing for? We want our prayers to connect us with God, and we want to see positive outcomes when we pray for peace, strength, courage, safety, or healing.
Yet, does praying effectively mean seeing a direct correlation between praying for specific outcomes and then seeing God deliver them?
I spent a lot of time worrying that my prayers weren’t effective. I feared that God wasn’t real or that my faith was flawed because I didn’t see enough outcomes from my prayers.
Looking back, I got swept up in my expectations and desires for control or even for some kind of sign based on my prayers. I wanted to be legitimized or verified.
Curiously, Jesus often rebuked those who asked him for a sign. The people who couldn’t trust in his word or rest in God’s unseen presence were the ones who demanded verification proving Jesus was God.
When I wanted to prove that my prayers are effective, I made a similar mistake. The mystery of God had to be uncovered in order to give myself a sense of security.
Although I still try to “improve” my prayer practices and become more disciplined in my daily prayer routines, I don’t get wrapped up in the outcomes of my prayer. There isn’t really a way to measure the effectiveness of my prayers.
Perhaps the only measure of prayer’s effectiveness is whether I’m trusting in God or not.
Thomas Keating famously said that you can only fail at prayer if you get up and leave the room.
You are praying effectively as long as you are reaching out to a loving and present God.
You are praying effectively as long as you are resting in God and trusting in God.
You are praying effectively if you either lay down your burdens to the Lord or clear your mind so that God’s love is all that remains in your awareness.
It’s easy to turn prayer or Christian living into balance sheets or stock markets where growth and declines happen regularly. We want to be “growing” as Christians, but such progress isn’t easy to nail down.
It’s more helpful to think about whether you’re participating in prayer or not. Even if you don’t see clear outcomes or progress from your prayers, that isn’t a mark of failure or alienation from God.
Consider whether you have unrealistic expectations or whether you need some instruction in prayer, but prayer isn’t a simple matter of input and output with predictable results. We can beat ourselves up if our prayers don’t bring the same results we see attained by others.
I’ve had to balance extremes in my life.
I know I need to keep engaging in prayer, learning more about prayer, and growing in my practices that are always in need of refinement.
I also know that I can’t measure my progress in prayer or label certain prayers as “effective” based on my own criteria. Who can say with certainty what’s effective while praying to a present but mysterious God?
I hope to keep learning more about prayer, stretching my faith as I trust more completely in God, and practicing prayer in ways that help me experience God in new ways.
I will continue to make petitions for myself and for others, and I will wait on God in silent faith.
Yet, I also will avoid beating myself up over the “results” of my prayers. There are moments in the Bible when God responds with yes to a prayer request and times when God responds with no. Both prayers could be described as “effective” in the sense that they were shared intimately with God.
We won’t always know how to measure the effectiveness of prayer according to our own terms. Yet, if you can address God as your Father, a loving parent, then you are certainly well on your way according to the guidelines shared by Jesus.