Today, millions of Americans across the nation will bow their heads in prayer for their country in honor of the National Day of Prayer. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1775, and every President since Harry S. Truman has signed an annual proclamation, calling citizens to “turn to God in prayer and meditation.”
But does prayer work?
Is anyone listening?
What, exactly, is prayer?
These were the questions I wanted to answer. There are over 7 billion people on this planet, and almost every single one of us has prayed at some point in our life—yet prayer remains this huge mystery.
So I traveled 37,000 miles around the globe on a modern-day pilgrimage. I danced with rabbis, visited monks, walked on coals, toured North Korea, gained an audience with the Pope, ate lunch at the Vatican and learned a world of prayer lessons across the Judeo-Christian faith tradition.
I wanted to see how the rest of my faith family prays, including some of the weird uncles and crazy cousins. My journey certainly took me to some interesting places—including a prayer mountain at the world’s largest church, a fire-walking guru convention and even a visit to Westboro Baptist Church.
Though a constitutional challenge against the National Day of Prayer was thrown out in 2011, many Americans now wonder if prayer has simply lost its relevance in an age of science and reason. It’s understandable—people in my generation are skeptical about prayer. We see a world in desperate need, but don’t see how many religious activities are helping. We’d rather work hard at solving the world’s problems, rather than sit around and ask God to do it.
Many people think that God is like Santa Claus. We treat God like a spiritual slot machine that gives us what we want, when we want it. I think we’ve missed the point of prayer.
Prayer changes us.
If you have breakfast with Bill Gates every morning, you’re going to get better at managing your money. If you have lunch every day with Steven Spielberg, you’re going to watch more movies. I wanted to become an author, so I flew across the country and interned with one of my favorite writers. If you spend time with God in prayer, you’re going to become more like Jesus. Prayer changes the world because prayer changes us.
Prayer is active.
On my travels, I visited Monte Cassino in Italy, the last of 12 monasteries built by Benedict of Nursia. The father of western monasticism was famous for his phrase “Ora et labora.” Pray and work. Every action becomes an offering when it’s indwelt with a spirit of service and thanksgiving. And somewhere, somehow, at some unknown intersection between prayer and work, God indwells our humble offering—God indwells us—and turns human actions into spiritual awakenings.
Prayer is a buffet.
I had breakfast in England with Pete Greig, a church planter, founder of 24/7 Prayer, and the Director of Prayer for Holy Trinity Brompton (of Alpha Course fame.) He explained it this way: “The Bible says to pray at all times with all kinds of prayers, but a lot of people think that prayer is just one thing. That’s like going to a buffet and only ever-eating one item. You’ll get sick. You need a huge variety in order to stay healthy. Prayer is a menu, not a dish.”
Prayer is about relationship.
The Bible uses dozens of different metaphors to describe our relationship with God: sheep and shepherd, vine and branches, king and servant, father and son. It also says that we are the Bride of Christ. If I only said that same few sentences to my wife every day, our marriage would quickly fall apart. It takes all sorts of communication—and listening—to make my marriage healthy. So it is with prayer. While we definitely have a few phrases we always return to—for example, “I love you”—we need lots of ways to pray to keep it rich.
Prayer is compelling.
As we spend time with God in prayer for others, we’re compelled to do something on their behalf. Sometimes we’ll become the answer to our own prayers, and sometimes we’ll become the answer to the prayers of others. If we’re listening for the still, small voice of God, we’ll begin to answer with our lives.
Jared Brock is the co-author of Bearded Gospel Men and the director of Over 18: A Documentary About Pornography.