Praying When It Seems Useless

Ronald Rolheiser
July 1, 2024
Reproduced with Permission

Prayer is most needed just when it seems most useless. Michael J. Buckley, one of the major spiritual mentors in my life, wrote those words. What does he mean by them?

In the face of so many problems we can get the feeling that praying about them is useless. For example, in the face of the discouragement and helplessness we feel before some of the mega problems in our world, it is easy to feel that praying about them is useless. What will my prayer do vis-a-vis the wars raging in different parts of the world? What's the value of my prayer in the face of injustice, famine, racism, and sexism? What will my prayer do vis-a-vis the divisions and hatred now dividing our communities? It is easy to feel that praying about these situations is useless.

The same holds true about how we often feel about the value of prayer when serious illnesses beset us. Will prayer bring about a cure for someone with terminal cancer? Do we really expect a miraculous cure? Mostly, we don't, but we continue to pray despite the feeling that our prayer won't in fact change the situation. Why?

Why pray when it seems useless to do so? Theologians and spiritual writers have given us various perspectives on this which are helpful, though not adequate. Prayer, they say, is not meant to change the mind of God, but to change the mind of the person who is praying. We don't pray to put God on our side; we pray to put ourselves on God's side. As well, we have been taught that the reason it might seem that God doesn't answer our prayers is that God, like a loving parent, knows what is good for us and answers our prayers by giving us what we really need rather than what we naively want. C.S. Lewis once said that we will spend a lot of time in eternity thanking God for those prayers that God didn't answer.

All of this is true and important. God's ways are not our ways. Faith asks us to give God the space and time to be God, without having to conform to our very limited expectations and habitual impatience. We can indeed be grateful that God doesn't answer many of our prayers according to our expectations.

But still, still ... when Jesus invited us to pray, he didn't do so with a caveat: but you need to ask for the right things if you expect me to answer your prayer. No, he simply said: Ask and you will receive. He also said that some demons are only cast out by prayer and fasting.

So, how might the demons of violence, division, hatred, war, hunger, global warming, famine, racism, sexism, cancer, heart disease, and the like be cast out by prayer? How is prayer useful in any practical way in the face of these issues?

In brief, prayer doesn't just change the person who is praying, it also changes the situation. When you pray you are in fact part of the situation about which you are praying. Sincere prayer helps you become the change you are praying to bring about. For example, praying for peace helps you to calm your own heart and bring a more peaceful heart into the world.

While this is true, there is also a deeper reality at play. More deeply, when we pray there is something happening that goes beyond how we normally imagine the simple interplay between cause and effect. By changing ourselves we are changing the situation; yes, but in a deeper way than we normally imagine.

As Christians, we believe that we are part of a body, the Body of Christ, and that our union there with each other is more than some idealized corporate community. Rather, we are part of a living organism in which every part affects every other part, just as in a physical body. Because of this, for us, there is no such a thing as a private act - good or bad. I hesitate to suggest that this is analogous to the immune system inside the human body because this is more than an analogy. It's real, organic. Just as in a human body there is an immune system which protects the health of the overall body by killing off cells and viruses that are endangering its health, so too inside the Body of Christ. At all times, we are either healthy cells bringing strength to the immune system inside the Body of Christ or we are a virus or cancerous cell threatening its health. Praying about an issue makes a difference because it helps strengthen the immune system inside the Body of Christ - precisely as it is dealing with the issue about which we are praying. While on the surface prayer can sometimes feel useless, it is doing something vital underneath - something most needed precisely when we feel that our prayer is useless.